For so many years, the Kahlil Gibran International Conferences were frequently held in the United States, but now for the first time it will be held in Lebanon, later this year. Why? Does the world feel Gibran belongs to Lebanon more than to America? Now, the works of Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) have become favorites in Indonesia since the 1920s.
They appeared in Dutch translations as a fresh voice from the east, together with the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Imam Gazali, Djalaludin Rumi and many others. They were translated into Indonesian in 1949 by Bahrum Rangkuti (1919-1977) who also introduced Indonesia to the thoughts of Jawaharlal Nehru and M. Iqbal.
Literary lovers over the centuries have never classified, let alone discriminated against, writers on the basis of their religion. We may be happy to learn that the Karl May Society is strong here in Indonesia, and Friends of Pramoedya Ananta Toer are well known in the Netherlands. Over the past few years, however, nationality and religious backgrounds have gradually become important.
Gibran, the Lebanese American writer, is now widely known in Indonesia based on five considerations: an Arab who was Christian; a Christian who was admired by Muslims; an eastern poet who was influential to western literature; a Christian writer inspired by the Koran; and a Christian who preaches Islamic teachings.
Those are popular assumptions to describe Gibran's influence in Indonesia, as stated by Mahardhika Zifana a young scholar from Bandung, West Java, who earned an undergraduate degree studying Gibran.
Zifana is one of many admirers of Gibran in a country with some 9,000 universities and 225 million people. In a recent article Zifana said that with that five strengths (that he called abnormalities) Gibran won much more attention from the younger generation of a predominantly Muslim country, Indonesia.
"I strongly belief that Gibran's works are actually Islamic teachings presented in popular *formats*," he said.
Nonetheless, most of Gibran's great fans are students of Islamic schools - the religious boarding schools (known locally as pesantren and madrasa).
The fact that we can find many Gibrans in Indonesia today indicates that Gibran has become a popular Islamic name. Hence, speaking on the nationalism of Kahlil Gibran in connection with Indonesia should be related closely with the contribution of famous poet the late W.S. Rendra in developing a nation through literary activities.
The "literary" activities, however, should not be limited in the forms of poetry writing, printing and reading, but also include theater performances and intellectual speeches in academic as well as social and cultural gatherings.
As a matter of fact, Rendra also joined and lead social and political demonstrations, protest rallies that brought him to detentions and imprisonment without trial.
There are similarities and differences between Rendra and Gibran. Both were born and raised Christian. Rendra wrote his own psalms and songs that were widely used as parts of prayers in some Catholic churches.
In the early 1970s, however, Rendra decided to become a Muslim for the second half of his life. Gibran, on the other hand, never changed his religion until his death in 1931, when he was 48 years of age.
Having a longer period of life in a concrete daily and less imaginative world, with a poor and an underdeveloped country to think of, Rendra experienced more practical activities socially and politically.
Gibran, on the other hand, enjoyed a larger world, utilizing a classical language and working on much more imaginative cultural opportunities.
It is clear that Rendra and Gibran worked hard to establish countries based on humanism through their influential poems.
The difference is that Lebanon and the Arabic language that Gibran dealt with opened to a much older civilization, while Rendra worked with a relatively new and a very young nation that was learning to create a history.
The writer is a poet.