Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Garden of Literary History: Visiting the Khalil Gibran Museum

 Last week we visited the Khalil Gibran Museum in Bsharri, Lebanon, 120 kilometers  from Beirut in the Mt. Lebanon range, a site dedicated to the Lebanese artist, writer and author of a classic work of popular wisdom literature, "The Prophet." The book offers quotable perspectives on big subjects such as his oft-cited pronouncement on children:

"Your children are not your children.
        They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself…"

The museum is situated with a view of the Qadisha Valley, regarded by many as the most beautiful natural area in Lebanon. To get there we took part in a small bus tour with three Lebanese sisters and an Egyptian woman.
            We don’t usually go places on paid public tours, but this one proved a great way to get someplace we wouldn’t have managed to get to on our own. We had an excellent Lebanese driver (no mean accomplishment; no tourist is eager to take on driving in Lebanon) and a superb guide as well. Since our fellow passengers were native Arabic speakers, our guide (let’s call him George) devoted himself about 80 percent of the time to that tongue, but was scrupulous in giving us all the tour information in English. It was important to me that we had somebody in charge who both knew what he was doing and was comfortable telling us what we needed to know in the only language I function in. The Lebanese tend to be both personable and polite, so it was no surprise George did very well by us. The other tourists were competent in English as well and good company.
            We went to see the Qadisha Valley region, regarded as perhaps the most beautiful spot in a country with lots of attractive mountain scenery. It’s a deeply cut valley winding around what appears – from the top – to be a very narrow stream, a mere glint of light in the viewfinder of my camera. One dirt road in to the valley bottom; many spots reached only by footpaths. Our tour (as we knew beforehand) stayed on top, taking us through the hills to the good places to look down on the scenery. We stopped in tiny picturesque Bcharre, where our driver picked ripe cherries (photo) from roadside trees; later he found us all fat, red roses.
            The valley was a hiding place for the locals, predominantly Maronite Christians, to get away from invaders or local enemies, George told us. He cited the example of the local Christians hiding here from the Mameluke enemies, rulers of this part of the Islamic empire during the period of Crusades. My suspicion is that the invasion by European Christian Crusaders (still called ‘the Franks’ in the Arab world) might have emboldened the Maronites to revolt against their Muslim rulers, provoking the wrath of the Mamelukes.  
The valley is a natural fortress; it’s hard to get an army down there. To escape from smaller parties the Lebanese climbed up hillsides to caves, then cut their rope ladders. No one was likely to pursue them any further.
            Our tour had three major stops: the Khalil Gibran Museum, the Cedars Reserve, and the St. Anthony Monastery. Gibran, taken to America by his mother as a child, studied art in the US and Europe. His work centered on the human figure in symbolic poses representing his own personal-mystical philosophy of human life – observers have noted the resemblance between his work and that of the prophetic art of William Blake – and he did not exhibit it publicly. After his death those looking after his legacy bought the property as a museum for his artwork and a resting place for his tomb. We took photos of the museum's exterior and views from one of the beautiful natural situations imaginable; no photos were permitted inside.     
            We also visited the Cedars Preserver where the oldest Cedars of Lebanon are protected, studied, numbered and otherwise glorified, a site where the country is seeking to restore the cedar forests that once blanketed hillsides in this region. We saw the oldest of these trees, once reported to be 1,800 years old.
            The last stop was an even more dramatic site, the recently restored monastery of St. Anthony of Quzhaya, consisting of stone buildings built into the mountain side, with caves turned into places of worship. Today visitors can tour these places, including a library, hermitage cave, and a cave-like museum that houses a 16th century printing press that printed a Bible in the Syriac language to escape the notice of Ottoman authorities.   
         I’ll post some images of this site and the Cedar Reserve in a later posting.