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Khalil Hawi: A Graceful Poet from the Vineyards of Lebanon
Written by Fuad Said Haddad   
Wednesday, 15 June 2005 15:53

(Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 7, 1995)

Khalil was born in I919 in Shwayr', Lebanon. The files at the American University of Beirut indicate 1925 as his birth date. In the 'Arab Studies' magazine, No. 4, Year 21, May 1985, Dr. Michel Jeha relates that Iliya, Khalil's brother, affirms the date as 1919 while Khalil's mother mentioned 1920. The same correction is also due concerning his birth place; official documents indicate 'Shwayr'; but Khalil's brother and mother confirm that he was born in 'Huwaya', Syria, as his father was working there.

Son of a stonecutter and builder, Khalil had his share of the hard knock. But his rocky determination moved him from the elementary school in his village to Chweifat National College where he completed his high school program. In October 1947, he joined the Arabic Department at the American University of Beirut and earned a Bachelor's degree in 1951. Right after his graduation he joined the Arabic Department as instructor and proceeded with his graduate work. He earned his Master's Degree in Arabic in June 1955. His thesis title was Faith and Reason Between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd. After teaching for some years he was given a scholarship from an Arab Studies fund at the American University of Beirut, and joined Pembroke College at Cambridge University where he got his Ph.D. in 1959. The title of his dissertation was Khalil Gibran. Right after graduation Khalil returned to the Arabic Department at the American University of Beirut (AUB) as Professor of Arabic. Though his major area of study was Arabic, Khalil's heart was in philosophy. At the University his association was mainly with professors and students of philosophy: He attended regularly the weekly meetings of the 'Philosophy Circle' and participated in its other activities like trips and occasional social evenings in Beirut night clubs. In his youth, Khalil joined the Syrian National Social Party, known as PPS, founded by his native villager Antoun Saadeh. After the execution of Antoun Saadeh in 1949 Khalil did not get along well with the emerging leadership. He felt they were going astray from Saadeh's teachings. So he withdrew from the party but maintained all through his life good and friendly relations with some party leaders, like Abdallah Kubursi (Lawyer), the late Abdallah Saadeh (M.D.) and Munir Khoury (Ph.D.); they appreciated his stand and respected it. From time to time, though, they slipped wishes that he remained a comrade. In the fifties Khalil developed affection for Arab nationalism, but he did not join any political party. He remained concerned throughout with political and social issues all over the Arab World. But his views on Arabism, when he discussed them, were set in a rather PPS ideological framework. On the whole, he never expressed clear views on Arabism or Arab nationalism. It would be fair to attribute his attraction to Arabism mainly to practical language considerations. He had no regard for Arab governments; the way these governments handled their national affairs, primarily the Palestinian question, was constantly a source of irritation and revolt in his life. But in spite of his PPS and later Arab inclination, he was attached to Lebanon. To him Lebanon stands unique; it is an oasis in the midst of an Arab desert. He loved its geography, physical features, plants and flowers; he loved village life and its traditions. Of all countries in the world he loved Lebanon and in Lebanon he loved Shwayr. Were it not for Lebanese village rivalries, which he poetically enjoyed, he would have professed love for Sannin. But Baskinta, a rival village to Shwayr, lies on the bosom of this great giant. Nonetheless, Khalil could not keep away from this mountain; he made it a point to spend few weeks of his summer vacation in a rest house at the foot of Sannin. As to his personality, Khalil was a sensitive and good-hearted man. He lived in a constant state of tension. Tragedy was ever present to his consciousness. The least event in Lebanon or in the Arab World and the least event not to his taste at the University would set him instantly at rage and in revolt. But with the same swiftness with which he revolted, he calmed down. His heart was clean; there was no room for rancor or hatred in his life. At the level of personal relations, his friends were aware of his moods; they loved him, for after all, this is Khalil. At social occasions he was a charming company; he chats, cracks jokes and makes fun of some. Once we had him for dinner. He played with the children as a child; he was boyant and cheerful, laughing with all his being. He had a unique way of laughing. When he left, my then six year old son, Said, asked: "Dad, why does uncle Khalil laugh in reverse?" While sipping a drink with Lebanese 'mezza', he enjoyed nibbling vegetables and plants. "Get us more grass," he used to say to the waiter. Khalil was very much concerned about his image not only as a poet, but as the leading poet in the Arab World. So much was he obsessed by this dream, that his evaluation and assessment of critics and writers were a function of the image they portrayed of him. Many a time he would refer to someone as the best critic saying: "He understands me; he wrote good things about me." At times, half-jokingly, he would remark to someone: "You established your record in history; it will be said he sat with Khalil." Other aspects of his concern expressed themselves in a rather shy and hesitant wish that he be referred to as prophetic. Quite frequently he used to relate that in the early sixties he prophesied the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Khalil had many social occasions to visit and attend various kinds of parties. But he did not avail himself of all of them; he was lonely with an extreme sense of independence. He never wanted to have a telephone at home. He did not want to be within reach through a telephone; he would call others when he wished. His sense of independence might have been one of the factors in keeping single. He had a number of love affairs. But when the relations developed to approach marriage, he broke. Yet, he missed women and enjoyed their company. While strolling along streets, beauty captured his attention and though from a distance, he would shower poetic compliments. Once a blond was passing by. He cried: "Oh for those cataracts of light falling over her shoulders." But no sooner does he get back to himself than darkness creeps back to his life. Once he got engaged to a Lebanese girl, the only formal engagement he announced. The engagement was tormenting to Khalil. One evening, after a fight with his fiancee, he called on me and insisted that we walk along Rue Bliss. As we were pacing the street, he opened his heart to me. I learnt that he was conveying his decision of pulling himself out of this relationship. After about an hour of walking up and down the street we bade each other good night. As I left, a strange feeling dawned upon me. I returned to his apartment and rang the bell. He opened with his palm full of some kind of pills. "I knew it was you," he said. "Take these pills and throw them away." That was his first attempt at suicide. He tried to withdraw from life a second time. He was discovered and hospitalized at the American University Hospital. All throughout his love affairs, one lady really captured his heart. Through her he measured other girls. She was attached to him and at first gave him all her devotion. She spent with him the years of study at Cambridge where she was of great help. But somehow, she could not carry to the end the ups and downs of his moods. She broke away. Though he appreciated her devofion and love, for some reason he failed to nurture their relationship to a happy life companionship. There may be a reason, though, which ethically prevented Khalil from getting married and begetting children. One early morning Khalil surprised me with a visit. He looked exhausted. As I was about to enquire about his situation, he opened his mouth and stretched out his tongue. In more than one place I saw traces of bites and bruises. He was mad at having bitten his tongue. I suspected an epileptic fit but hesitated to comment awaiting him to confide to me his physical condition, especially that all through our long friendship he was silent about this state of his physique. Nor, as I recall did anyone of our closed circle ever knew anything about it. I insisted that we go to the University Hospital and consult one of our physician friends. But he preferred to consult one from outside. Together we went to a clinic in downtown Beirut where at the hand of a neurologist, whom he apparently knew, he underwent an electro-encephalogram. After that visit Khalil never brought up the subject again and I could never tell whether it was a passing fit or a chronic one. As professor, Khalil was loved by his students. He loved them too. For them he opened his house where they held occasional conferences. He loved youth; the future is theirs. As he lectured he gave of himself far beyond the call of duty. He was well read and his courses were rich and deep. He had a penetrating insight that enabled him fathom the deepest of thoughts. His originality and eloquence in lecturing compelled his students' respect and admiration. The best expression of his love to and hope in the young generation was his poem 'The Bridge'. Says Khalil:

From the caves of the East From the swamps of the East To the new East, I stretch to them my ribs A solid bridge. On the evening of June 6th, 1982, my wife and I were strolling along the Campus of the University. The Israeli army was invading Lebanon. We met our friend and colleague, Dr. Naim Atiyeh, and decided to relax on a bench in an area known as the 'The Oval'. Khalil was passing by and joined us. He was depressed and in rage. "How can we wipe out this historic shame," he said, referring to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. That Lebanon be occupied by a foreign army was far beyond his capacity to bear. As it got dark, we rose to go home. I asked my friends to join us for a drink. Both, Naim and Khalil, apologized. Naim went home and Khalil walked us half way to our place. My wife, Maha, insisted and pressed on Khalil to join us at home. He confirmed his apology. As he left us I told Maha in a blaming tone that this is not the way to invite a friend; Khalil, after all, is a member of the family. She said, "tonight, Khalil is different." The second day, I learnt that after he left us, Khalil met a friend, Chafic Ataya, with whom he visited for some time. As he got home, on the terrace of his house, he shot himself on the temples with a double barrel gun. The neighbours saw the body the next morning. At night, as they testified, they heard a shot; but in Beirut at that time, shooting was a common practice. No sooner did the idea glimpse through my mind that if only Maha insisted more vehemently on Khalil to join us, than I realized that ifs have no function in history. Khalil now lies in the bosom of Shwayr, where he always wanted to be, in a place facing Sannin.

The Mariner and the Dervish

In my introduction to 'The Mariner and the Dervish' in 1967, I considered this poem a landmark in the history of contemporary Arabic poetry. This poem takes the form of an internal dialogue within the poet between two basic orientations, philosophical and mystic. The opening part constitutes a build up to the dialogue. The philosophical one is represented by a mariner, an adventurous wakeful mind bursting with vitality and hope. The mystic is represented by a dervish who transcended time and rested with the peace and tranquillity of grasping eternal truth. Basically, the poem reflects the meaninglessness of our complicated and complex age. It reveals the anguish that the poet feels in his search for meaning and values, traditional values no longer satisfying his spiritual thirst. The state of being lost and the wide gaping caves of void and absurdity into which he is thrown, however, fail to paralyze the dynamism of his life. In his earnest search for a new dawn of meaning attracted by lights that turned out to be faltering, suffering the hardships of darkness, he sought the Western culture, the culture he was educated in, and found it temporary bubbles in clay and ashes of the wastes of time.

Behold the pregnant earth in labor Writhing and twisting In agonizing eruptions Spawning bubbles in time, Now Athens, now Rome. Glow of rattling, perishing fever Leaving tiny scars and ashes Of the wastes of time.

He was tossed to the East, but disappointment overtakes him. Life's creative impulse is stifled and, through contemplation, the dervish yields himself to death-s quietude. In himself, as by tradition, the dervish finds the solution to the riddles of existence.

Keeping to my place since thousand thousand Adhering to the bank Of the inveterate Ganges Heedless of the infinite stretch of roads For at my door all roads end And in my hut the twins rest, God and timeless past.

But the mariner, the young Lebanese intellectual, who identifies himself with neither culture but who, somehow, feels he belongs to both, revolts against Eastern mysticism and lets himself to sail anew. His attempt to lean on either or both cultures turns out, finally, to be absurd. Yet, in spite of the absurdity of the attempt, and in spite of the absence of any means of salvation, his adventurous spirit keeps on the move, a state he prefers to stagnation.

Leave me to open seas, to salt laden winds, To death that spreads blue shrouds for the drowned. A lonely mariner The lighthouses of the way Are quenched in his eyes; That light is lost; It died in his eyes, Neither heroism will save him Nor the lowliness of prayer.

Lazarus 1962

Lazarus carries the same tone of absurdity and despair, but with the acute bitterness of a rebel who, over the debris of life, realizes the futility of any attempt at salvation. Whereas in 'The Mariner and the Dervish' the journey is sort of relaxed and the denial of saving havens is intellectually and physically rather passive, the experience is lived through on a conceptual level. But in Lazarus, meanings and concepts are squeezed out of the particular dirt and mud of actual life. The imagery as well as the tonality of both poems stand in contrast; in the former, we find 'treacherous faltering lights', 'Mariner', 'Dervish', 'tepid shadow palm trees', while in the latter there is 'dragon', 'bleeding sulphur', 'flames chewing masses' and the like. The mariner in 'The Mariner and the Dervish' though not a rebel, but yet is not a nihilist either; he kept on his search; in 'Lazarus', he is a rebel in decline; rather he is a confirmed nihilist. In the introduction to Lazarus Khalil says: "You were the echo of decline in the early stages of struggle but as its successive stages stretched you became the clamour of decline. Then your features started forming themselves in myself, and extract from every falling fighter his most peculiar and universal characteristics. Likewise, the clamour started to settle on a pure rhythmed image that unveils his muddy depths. The day your genesis was completed, the day you came out from the vapor of the womb and the smoke of the foundry, you were pain and horror to my eyes. I attempted to destroy and then rebuild you. Thence, the bitternesses I suffered for long before I gave up my desire that you be of a more radiant look, more steadfast in faith and of a more stately destiny. Then what? If you were the image of a rebel who fell before, now you are the image dominating the actuality of a generation, rather, the actuality of generations in which the strong and good is afflicted with absurdity and transformed, thereby, to his opposites. Thus, St. George reincarnates the natures of the dragon, the executioner and that of the debauchee, and humiliation becomes the source of his ostentation.

A giant, I viewed him Crawling out Of an ambassador's pocket.

And so, in something like intuition, the present merged in every time, actuality in myth, and so you earned a name, and the name was the essence of your being: Lazarus, life and death in life; as values vanish in the rebel save his vitality, the tyrant is born.

Why should it be of my concern if the care of the Nazarene refused that you die while you are a tragic hero with wounds glittering with the magnificence and ecstasy of sacrifice?

A drunken sailor Wrapped with the glow of purple.

And how does Providence resurrect you and you are a dead petrified by the lust for death while the nature of resurrection is such that it is explosion from the depth of the self? And this is your wife as she meets you returning from the ditch, horror possesses her:

Oh! Why did he return from his hole A sad dead Save a vein Bleeding black-flamed sulphur ?

She is the symbol of life. You returned to avenge her for a good dissipated past, form her after your image and tie her to your destiny. She kept on falling until she got to the bottom of your hell and pit. You bleeded sulphur in her blood and she rebutted with a fang and claw.

She longed for an existential perfection that satiates the soul and body, but you failed her, you her rancorus dead husband. The Nazarene, with his angelic perfection that disdains sense temptations, assisted you. She abstained from praying to a God who knew not hunger nor the snakes born of bursting and congested lust.

Of what use are my tears and prayers To a lunar God, To a moony ghost Hiding in blue clouds, In soft light, Where sighs laden hunger Does not thunder.

It is evident that the evolution of life becomes obstructed when it splits to a transcending idealism and a bemeaning materialism; when vitality sinks low and illusion sheds its intoxicating shadow over the tragedies of the actual. After all, you do not belong to one group rather than another. I was a witness. I saw you in the ranks of all." The major 'theme of Lazarus 1962' is taken from St. John's Gospel; it is resurrection. Except for the poet himself, who interferes through bells and echoes, the characters are chosen from a religious legacy. St. George, 'al-Khudr', in the Middle Eastern tradition, is a knight who slayed a dragon that preyed on maiden daughters a community agreed to offer him in exchange of stopping further tragic encroachments; he is a symbol of heroism and salvation. Subtly, the setting is the Arab World. The opening part of the poem, which in fact is the conclusion, spells an air of despondency and draws the absurd periphery within which resurrection is effected. Very much like Camus' Sisiphus, resurrection is as hopeless and absurd as rolling the rock up the hill, and yet, the poem unfolds itself of themes and scenes treated in captivating poetic variations. The refusal of resurrection is indicated in an order to deepen the hole. Lest he might be brought back to life he emphasized his refusal using images of fertility: "do not lay over my body red and soft earth;" roots may grow and their tips might transform to fangs that gnaw his flesh. To end any possibility of recurring resurrections, he insists that his body be embalmed and covered with lime, sulphur and coal. The certainty of this determination is further confirmed by the loss of hope in the revival, not only of an individual Lazarus, but of all the Arab generations. As the scenes unfold in the second part, (An Accursed Mercy), they draw the character of the whole poem. Lazarus is petrified by the lust for death. The prayers of love and Easter chants in the tears of the Nazarene, symbolizing love and joy, are incapable of imparting the dynamism of life into Lazarus despite the fact that the corpse is resurrected. Coming back to life requires not only the will to live but also creating the proper conditions for living neither of which is provided. In a defying attitude towards the Nazarene he sets the requirements for resurrection. One important aspect is bringing back to earth its fertility and stopping the wheel of time.

Make the rock sprout... Nail the moment an eternal age... The lord of seasons If you are.

But in spite of the attempt to provide a justification for enter taining a hope of living, the voice of the poet rises axain to stifle any ray of hope and affirm the absurdity of the attempt:

In vain you draw a purple curtain Over that accursed vision This absurdity of life is further strengthened with movements of contrasts between life, death, the joy of resurrecting an Arab World, the dream of a saving hero (a 'Khudr') and the aridity of Arab society. In (Decoration) the poet chants the joy of life:

The stones of the house rejoice... The wines sing in the jars The veils of sorrow turn green As to the savior, he says:

His balm tree arm Wrings soft round my waist. His arm plants The pulse of the red rose In a life that ashed In mourning nights.

But no sooner does Lazarus' wife awakens from her ecstasy than she realizes the actuality of her situation and regrets her husband's return.

Oh! why did he return from his hole A sad dead, Save a vein Bleeding black-flamed sulphur.?

The tragedy reaches its apex not only when St. George gets defeated but especially when he, the savior, reincarnates the nature of the dragon and returns to an executioner who takes delight in tender flesh. This shoots the 'coup de grace' at any hope of renaissance; the hero is a slave and so are the comrades at whose hands the dawn of a great future was to emerge.

The comrades of life, Crows of conscience And ambassador's spies.

The loss of hope and the absurdity in Lazarus run very much in line with the attitude Khalil so dramatically expressed in 'The Mariner and the Dervish'.

Neither heroism will save him Nor the lowliness of prayer.

The theme of the poems seems to be developed within a philosophical view propagated by Antoun Saadeh, 'matter-soul', for which he coined the Arabic term 'Madrahiyyat'. The detachment of idealism from actual life, as exemplified by a moony god, not necessarily the Nazarene alone, and the immersion in pure materialism as exemplified by a sensual society, account for the decadence of the present Arab generation. The dominance of either view, idealistic or materialistic, is not consonant with the actuality of man, individually as well as in society. Lazarus' wife has a body with five senses. If satiated without a sublime lofty sense of values for which the senses are enlivened, turn out to be bemeaning. A sense of values that does not touch base with the 'five senses' is transcending and ineffective. In content and structure the poems constitute one unit, an organic whole, in contrast to the classical poetry whose basic unit is the line. Structurally, Khalil maintained the basic meter but combined it freely into various arrangements in such a way that his poems reveal a complete harmony among all its artistic elements. The words are warm, chosen from one's ordinary, but refined vocabulary. The originality of its images are evidence of poetic ingenuity. 'The treacherous faltering lights', or 'gasping dagger', for example, are to my knowledge, original images. Light has always been associated with hope, clarity and knowledge. In 'The Mariner and the Dervish' light sheds, rather, a special atmosphere of doubt and melancholy. The recurrence of images follows the swiftness and slowness of thought. Together with other aspects of linguistic structure, they give the poems a melody resonant with the psycho logical mood which they create. The tone is high, noisy, prolon gated, snatched in accordance with the mood of the mariner, Lazarus or his wife; lazy, clear, relaxed, dull to fit the state of the dervish or Lazarus' wife in some of her relaxed situations.

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 September 2011 11:58
 

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