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Finding the 'American' Kahlil Gibran: Renée Moorad and the ADC Commemorative Stamp Campaign

12/05/2012 03:19 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2013

Despite having lived most of his life in the United States, the worldwide memory of writer Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) is quite disconnected from grounding in place. And given the purposefully eternal and spiritual qualities of his work that transcend petty expressions of nationalism, we might say this is fully appropriate! Yet, there are significant politics of place in the local expressions of his reputation. In Lebanon, he is considered a core national symbol connected to his mountain birthplace, and, among Arab-Americans, he is forwarded as a foundational, accomplished figure among even fully assimilated descendants of the early immigrants. Gibran migrated with his mother to Boston at age 12, and, except for brief interludes in Paris and Lebanon, remained in the United States until his death at age 48.

However, for his millions of admirers around the world, Gibran's actual life-story is a bit hazy. His reputation is so disconnected from his biography that I have met admirers of his writings in the Arab world who apparently had no idea that he lived in Boston and New York! And, given the beauty of his hometown of Bsharri and its still evident hold on him while living in the urban monstrosity of New York, perhaps it is natural that his life in America (from which Gibran consciously rejected full assimilation) would not dominate his writings, and hence his contemporary global reputation.

However, with increasing interest in the historical connections between the United States and the Arab world as a result of the politics of our time, there seemingly is a new push to expand knowledge about Gibran and possibly ground him in an American setting.

Two new Hollywood productions intend to bring Gibran's life and his work to a mainstream American audience. Famous Mexican-Lebanese-American actress Salma Hayek is producing an animated version of The Prophet with Lion King Director Roger Allers and with accomplished animators Marjane Satrapi, Chris Landreth, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Michal Socha, Francesco Testa, Joan Gratz, and Bill Plympton. And, in cooperation with the Gibran National Committee, Producer William Nix is making a biopic with Lebanese-American screenwriters Grace Shalhoub Yazbek and Rob Shalhoub.

And, from Washington, D.C., the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is coordinating the reassertion of a long-standing appeal for a Gibran stamp with the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee of the U.S. Postal Service. Given that honorary stamps play a significant and historically-established role in constructing shared national symbols, I wanted to interview the project's coordinator, Renée Moorad, about the progress and the thinking behind the effort.

1. As the ADC Kahlil Gibran Legal Fellow, you have coordinated a major push to achieve an objective that others have attempted for decades. How have you approached this task, and what do you think is the key element to make the appeal succeed?

ADC has picked up a work in progress, which has been going on for over 20 years with the Gibran Stamp Campaign. Those who began the endeavor did a wonderful job and we have built off of what they started. As an organization that is non-sectarian, non-partisan, and all-encompassing, we are uniquely poised to take up this endeavor for all Arabs and Arab Americans. Our approach has been to appeal to those who know Gibran, touching on what makes him special to them, while at the same time, bringing his works to those in the community who are unfamiliar by demonstrating the profound effect his works have had on literature and the arts. The key element for the appeal's success is widespread support: if we cannot demonstrate Gibran's importance and prove that a stamp is widely desired and would be well received, we cannot expect our appeal to succeed.

2. What do you think are the strongest arguments for why Kahlil Gibran deserves a commemorative stamp?

There are several arguments for Gibran's worthiness as a stamp subject. The primary one is that his works have influenced people all over the world for decades. His words have been quoted in speeches by artists, celebrities, and even American presidents. The Prophet has sold over 100 million editions and has been translated into over 40 languages, proving the worth of his work and his merit as a commemorative stamp recipient. By some accounts, due to the extreme success of The Prophet, Gibran is the third best-selling poet in history behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. Gibran's works are appealing to all people as they cover a wide range of topics and connect tradition and history to modernity. Also, by containing spiritual and secular components, he invokes intense emotion that captures the reader and connects them to the writing in an unparalleled way.

3. Kahlil Gibran spent most of his life in the United States, but yet he has become a global symbol and literary star that sometimes seems beyond nation. Do you believe that admirers would benefit or learn from seeing "the America" in Gibran?

Admirers would surely benefit from seeing "the America" in Gibran. A little known fact is that many of Gibran's works were written in English and later translated into Arabic. In some ways, Gibran was just as American as any citizen born here, despite his failure to ever be technically naturalized. He fell in love with America early on in his life and took inspiration from that love. Gibran is truly an example of what the "American dream" was for so many immigrants long ago. His works ("I Believe In You," in particular) indicate an understanding of what it meant to be an American, to be a part of the great "melting-pot" of cultures and dreams that was and is America.

4. What can people best do to support the stamp appeal?

The first step is to sign our petition and then send a letter of support for the stamp campaign (directions available here). Equally as important, however, is to spread the word about the initiative to one's family, friends, and colleagues. The key to gaining enough widespread support is to have word about the initiative spread as far and as wide as possible and to have people encourage their contacts to support and spread the word.