At first, it could be mistaken for a pornographic studio. The walls are sculpted with assorted portraits of nudity, sensuous imageries, certain to trigger the testosterone, if not stoke the loins.
With illumination made dim by a syncopation of delicately angled recess lights and the antique windows shaded by sparse curtains, the air around the four-floor convent hewn from ancient cave literally reeks of erotica this sunny afternoon.
But this is no America’s Heff Hefna’s sybaritic lair; it is the lofty shrine, the museum sheltering not only the remains of Gibran Khalil Gibran (arguably one of Lebanon’s greatest philosophers ever), but also the cream of his paintings and literary oeuvres that redefined universal thought in the 20th century.
Predictably, camera is forbidden.
Unquestionably a commercial success long before death, Gibran is today regarded the next bestseller of all times after China’s Lao Tzu and Europe’s William Shakespeare, with his writings already translated into 108 languages and his prodigious paintings also displayed in museum in the United States and Mexico.
If he spoke to the depth of the human condition, it was probably because of the crushing experiences he suffered at a tender age. Son of a father described as an alcoholic, he was led away at tender age of 12 from Lebanon by his strong-willed mother, Kamleh, in pursuit of a better life in Boston, United States. Only for him to lose his mother, sister and half-brother within fifteen months, seven years later.
He would begin his artistic odyssey as a painter before becoming a writer and poet. What a million words could not describe he captured graphically with a few strokes of the brush. He died at age 48 in 1931 and had willed his body be flown from Boston and buried in the monastery he bought in his native Bsharri in the north of Lebanon.
Inside the basement, a hidden projector telegraphs on the wall a rather haunting quotation from Gibran’s verses: “I am alive like you and I am beside you.”
Further down is his simple bed and austere writing table. In another corner is a fireplace-like enclosure through which the iron casket bearing his embalmed body can be glimpsed.
The curator, Joseph Geagea, would simplistically reply an inquisitive member of the mission from Nigeria (Fejiro Adesida) that the perceived obsession with nudity was only Gibran’s expression of a preference for intimacy with nature, if not a yearning to, in fact, break loose from sartorial captivity. Those naked may not be self-aware, Geagea added, but those in the nude are aware of their nakedness.
Well, a broader appreciation of Gibran’s stated naturalism would be a cry to man to walk the straight path: keep life simple, relationships true, promises real and the environment clean.
Today, with his native Lebanon, West Asia region and the world at large roiling in a turmoil that is both ethical and political in texture, the words of the sage from Bsharri could indeed not be more prophetic. In combating the political establishment, he denounces “the nation that places wealth above values”. As for worship, he emphasizes spirituality above religiosity. No wonder a tension often simmered between him and the religious entrepreneurs of the era.
Today, such values and virtues are, sadly, in greater deficit not only in Lebanon but the world over and the human condition increasingly gets desperate despite supposedly phenomenal leaps in knowledge and advance in technology.
For instance, as we gathered for barbecue and drinks in the icily cold night on the Ceedar height on the fourth day of our arrival in Lebanon on a cultural exchange programme facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Foundation and hosted by the CEDAR Institute of the Norte Dame University, Beirut, one of the faculty members of the retreat, Professor Edward Alam, had to excuse himself abruptly from the gathering, following a distress call from home in Beirut.
Israeli fighter jets were reported to be flying menacingly low above Alam’s penthouse apartment, apparently on yet another bombing mission to neighbouring Syria now reduced to utter rubble by the seven-year civil war sparked by the Arab Spring, inflicting one of the worst human tolls and refugee crises in human history.
It is a frightening spectacle the children of a lesser military god trapped in West Asia have learnt to endure daily as “almighty” Israel strives to impose her supremacy in the region since her unilateral declaration of statehood in 1948.
Worse still, in Lebanon, local politics remains poisoned today by ethnic suspicion. Oil and gas have for long been discovered in commercial quantity offshore of the country’s shelf of the Mediterranean Sea. But that resource cannot be explored yet for the benefit of the people because the politicians are unable to agree on the sharing formula of the expected fortune!
Leaders of various religious faiths, in turn, prosper from spreading the message of hate and division. Religion is exploited to advance narrow political agenda.
So, Professor Joseph Rahme is sure Gibran would today be turning in great pains in his tomb at the sorry turn of events.
Interestingly, Rahme, an expert in World history and one of the key drivers of the yearly cultural conversation between Lebanon and Nigeria, is a relation of the legendary Gibran maternally. (The philosopher’s mother, Kamleh, belonged to the Rahme clan.)
We see the ethical atrophy Gibran laments about the new world also finding expression in small bad social habits here. While criss-crossing Lebanon in a caravan bus, we saw that in the road rage. We saw that in the recklessness of drivers unwilling to use seat belts or some texting furiously in slow-moving traffic, without fear of reprisal. In Nigeria, the roving FRSC operatives would almost certainly pounce on you.
In many public spaces toured, we also saw selfishness in smokers freely puffing cigarette smoke, without regards for non-smokers.
Lebanon is hardly immune to the corrosive influence of the social media culture and the attendant obsession with the ostentation and addiction to its enablers, either. It is an emerging universal malaise, by the way. For instance, at accident scene nowadays, we are now more inclined to approach those in distress with the cameras of our smart phones instead of helping hands, to feed the mostly callous curiosity of the waiting blogosphere. At home, precious family time is stolen as members are distracted by their i-Phones.
So, slowly, the river of shared humanity is drying up.
But so acute has the situation become in Lebanon that it formed the basis for a presentation at the Founder’s Day celebration at the prestigious Notre Dame University on the eleventh day of our visit with octogenarian President Michel Aoun seated.
Targeted at the youth population, the new message is an urgent call for moderation to curb the danger increasingly posed to family values and social health. Since it has been identified as a youth affliction, it is felt that only the youth themselves can help the nation champion the crusade for caution.
Needless to mention that even as the youths were being challenged with stirring words to rise to a new national call against social media abuse while the ceremony lasted in the university’s commodious auditorium, a military helicopter hovered overhead throughout, perhaps underscoring a greater sense of anxiety – if not insecurity – gripping the nation itself at large.
In the midst of all this, there are a few who appear to find fulfillment in fidelity to the Gibran way, however. To Rahme, maintaining a strictly organic lifestyle is keeping faith with the memory of his great grand uncle. A scholar who has traversed the United States, Brussels, Paris, Instanbu, Cairo and London in his career, the balding scholar now prefers to live in the pristine Cedar height where he was born, a great distance from the Notre Dame University where he works.
He prides himself on eating home-made meals prepared from fresh produce harvested from the garden behind his bungalow home. To force family members into a situation they cannot but communicate, he banishes television from his Cedar redoubt.
However, there is one virtue generations of Lebanese forever share with Gibran regardless of where they reside – never forgetting their cradle. It perhaps explains huge remittance of estimated $8b annually from those in Diaspora and a certain inclination to maintain a presence at home even while being physically absent. The big men would erect wonderous villas, even when they probably visit home only once in a blue moon.
We saw the universalism Gibran preaches in the naming space after the Nigerian nation and figures in Mizyara, a relatively more swanky community with even more stunning castles, built with fortune made largely in Nigeria.
This is the ancestral home of the Chagourys, the Chidiacs in Nigeria. Driving past Gilbert Chagoury Boulevard, you see Nigeria Avenue, then Abuja street, then Lagos street, then Herbert Wigwe street. (Well, we never might be able to tell what new usuring trick the Access Bank czar taught the Lebanese businessmen.)
It is the country of Habib Jafar, the promoter of the Nigeria-Lebanon conversation.
Stunning Nisreen Kaj of half Lebanese, half Nigerian parentage regaled us with the tales behind the mammoth castles. Hostess Honoree Claris Eid was excellent. Not forgetting our devoted company, the hyperactive Rachid Rahme.
Regardless of the scare by the flying Israeli bomber jets four days earlier, Alams would open the doors of his high-rise home in Beirut to us on the ninth night for a sumptuous dinner. As his beautiful wife walked in regally soon afterwards, it became easy to understand why the man with Kenny Rogers-beard had to abandon the seminary midway and surrender to wife’s insistence that the family relocated from the United States to their native Lebanon.
While seated in the terrace, you savoured a stunning aerial view of the city at night. The affable scholar, with a romantic voice and more than passable command of the guitar, later treated us to rendition of classics by the likes of Carol King on his hand-made Spanish guitar.
Of course, our own sweet-voiced “Mr. Shakomended” (Lanre Fakeye) swiftly “retaliated” with a newly composed potential chart-buster entitled “Cedars”, inspired by our four-day immersion in the fabled ancient community hosting the biblical grove of prized trees. Guitar sound flowed from gifted Osamudiamen Ivbanikaro-Isaac and back-up voices by the troika of multi-lingual Norbert Olisakwe, Yinka Olatunbosun and Aseobong Larry-Ettah. While journalists Tayo Abodunrin and Kazeem Ugbodaga kept reportorial silence. Of course, novelist Razinatu Mohammed was the cheer-leader.
Truly, Gibran is not dead; the echo of his deep words still surely haunts his beleaguered homeland today.