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The Man Behind The Phrase, ‘Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…’

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Kahlil Gibran

November 22 marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th president of the USA. On this date, 1963, ‘Jack’, as he was affectionately referred to, was shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.

Kennedy is best known for the phrase, And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country, which he first voiced in his 1961 inauguration address.

Which is why many of you are probably wondering why instead of JFK, there is a picture of a strange man in this article.

Fact of the matter is, JFK did not come up with this phrase. He borrowed it from someone else.

Kahlil Gibran

Kahlil Gibran was an artist, writer and poet from Lebanon. He was born in 1883 to a Maronite family, in a part of then-Ottoman Syria, and emigrated to the USA with his mother and sisters in 1895. He grew up in Boston, where he studied art.

Having had no prior exposure to art during his childhood other than geometric designs and landscapes, since the use of images and idols was strictly forbidden by Islam across all Ottoman territories, he embarked on an artistic style of his own, etching the faces and figures of famous Arab philosophers as he imagined them, crafting a collection of work that he later exhibited in a Boston gallery.

It was a landmark piece of work. For the first time in history these renowned personages of the Arab world acquired a face, albeit construed.

When a building fire destroyed much of his artwork, Gibran focused on his writing. He eventually published a number of books consisting of both prose and poetry, in both English and Arabic.

His themes were of a spiritual nature. Gibran was a man of faith, praising religion and the ethos it promoted. But he held a deep antipathy for the process of religion, which, in his mind, made tyrants and slaves out of men.

His opinion was outspoken and controversial, but he voiced it all the same, addressing both his people in Lebanon (then referred to as Syria – see the Levant and Ottoman Syria) and his new countrymen, the Americans. He urged both peoples, and all others, by proxy, to look deep inside themselves and get in touch with a divinity greater than that of any doctrine. His message was one of mysticism and love.

Gibran was also interested in politics, never shy to address his homeland’s plight. He exposed Syrian suffering under the Ottoman yolk; identified his region’s disconnection with its ancient traditions; lambasted the West’s exploitation of the region; and excoriated his countrymen’s talent for obedience and their lack of spirituality.

In one of his more political pieces, written circa 1905, titled, The New Frontier, he wrote:

There are in the Middle East today two challenging ideas: old and new. The old ideas will vanish because they are weak and exhausted. There is in the Middle East an awakening that defies slumber. This awakening will conquer because the sun is its leader and the dawn is its army.

He then went on to say, later in the passage:

Come and tell me who and what are you.

Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; is the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.

JFK seems to have done his homework. He borrowed a phrase from a very astute, wise, inspiring man.

A Sacred, Blue Burning Flame

Kahlil Gibran is not just an obscure poet JFK unearthed randomly. He is one of the best selling poets of history. He shares ranks with Shakespeare and Laozi. His most popular book, The Prophet, has been translated in more than forty languages, a staple in Amazon’s best-selling categories.

His love for the spiritual was deep and the pain it caused him to see it unfulfilled excruciating.

In a piece titled My Countrymen, Gibran wrote:

What are your demands from me, My Countrymen?
Rather what are your demands from Life,
Although no longer do I consider you children of Life.
Your souls cringe in the palms of soothsayers and sorcerers, while your bodies tremble in the paws of the bloody tyrants, and your country lies prostrate under the heels of the conquerors; what may you expect as you stand before the face of the sun? Your swords are rusty; the points of your spears are broken; your shields are laden with gaps. Why, then, do you stand upon the battlefield?

Hypocrisy is your religion; Pretension, your life; dust, your end;
Why do you live? Death is the only rest for the wretched.

He closed the poem with this:

The soul is a sacred, blue-burning flame, burning and devouring the dry plants, growing with the storm and illuminating the faces of the gods. But your souls, My Countrymen, are ashes for the wind to scatter over the snow, and for the tempest to dispel into the deep abysses…

I hate you, My Countrymen, because you despise glory and greatness.

I vilify you because you vilify yourselves.

I am your enemy, because you are the enemies of the gods and you do not know it.

An Oasis In The Desert Of Unexamined Life

Gibran was not always so harsh. He was usually more embracing of his people, despite their faults. He felt guilty for having left them, watching them die of famine and war and torture and persecution from the Ottomans during the Great War, while he enjoyed the privileges of America. He lamented their catastrophe in his poem Dead Are My People.

In another poem titled You Have Your Lebanon And I Have My Lebanon, he praised his people while lambasting France:

You have your Lebanon and its dilemma.  I have my Lebanon and its beauty.

Your Lebanon is an arena for men from the West and men from the East.

My Lebanon is a flock of birds fluttering in the early morning as shepherds lead their sheep into the meadow and rising in the evening as farmers return from their fields and vineyards.

In another poem titled I Believe In You, he addressed his compatriots who had emigrated to America:

I believe that even as your fathers came to this land to produce riches, you were born here to produce riches by intelligence, by labor.

And I believe that it is in you to be good citizens.

And what is it to be a good citizen?

It is to acknowledge the other person’s rights before asserting your own, but always to be conscious of your own.

It is to be free in thought and deed, but it is to know that your freedom is subject to the other person’s freedom.

And in another poem titled O Soul, he wrote:

O soul! life is a darkness which ends as in the sunburst of day.

The yearning of my heart tells me there is peace in the grave.

O soul! if some fool tells you the soul perishes like the body and that which dies never returns, tell him the flower perishes but the seed remains and lies before us as the secret of life everlasting.

Words to go by. In a few lines Gibran managed to encapsulate what others labored over in tomes.

One hundred years on, these words ring indelibly true, perhaps now more than ever. As America and the Middle East struggle to come to terms with themselves, to each their own, fighting both external influence and internal shortcomings, it would be wise to heed these words, no matter who voices them.