Review: The Prophet - Heart and Soul

An on-location documentary delights Antonia Quirke.

New Statesman
Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran and his 1923 masterwork "The Prophet" are examined in this BBC World Service documentary.

The Prophet: Heart and Soul

BBC World Service

A documentary about Khalil Gibran informed us, startlingly, that The Prophet remains the best-selling book in America next to the Bible (The New York Sun’s peerless headline on Gibran’s death in 1930: “A Prophet is Dead”). Published in 1923 and translated into more than 40 languages, the book sold all its 1,300 copies in its first week of publication and is presumed in Lebanon, where it is revered, to have been written by a Muslim. And yet Gibran was born into a Maronite Christian family (but did not practise any religion particularly, something surely vital to the universal success of the text?)

Aged 11, Gibran moved from Bsharri to down-at-heel Boston, where most of his family immediately died of TB, but he was “unusually handsome and charismatic and people could see he was absolutely remarkable and needed much support”. (Almost precisely the same – spookily so – was said by a neighbour of the actor Richard Burton as an impoverished child. Others felt compelled, driven to persist even when rejected, to put him forward.) The Prophet’s 26 prose poems, delivered by a fictional poet in a mythical way, are best described as Wise Bollocks – but this doc was firmly pro. “And the wailing of the flute remains, even after the end of existence,” writes Gibran. “Have you, like me, ever taken the forest rather than the palace as your home? Bring me the flute and sing.”

Oh, I guess it’s no worse than listening to George Harrison. Someone pointed out, thrillingly, that JFK stole a significant sentiment from a letter Gibran wrote to students during the First World War. “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; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.” But the most memorable thing about the programme was that it was recorded on location in the Kadisha Valley. Since it went all cheap, the BBC rarely does this kind of thing. You could hear ambiently appropriate noises, like snow melting, as people spoke. Certainly “Find if you are a slave of yesterday or free for the morrow” sounds much better when accompanied by zebdeen bells. It was the radio equivalent of weight-giving French subtitles under an average monologue about love in an Éric Rohmer.