NEW YORK—An ordinary bookstore sells books. A quality bookstore gives out a warm welcome and makes experts available to ensure a good read. The largest bookstore in the United States that specializes in Arabic literature and philosophy offers both to an overflowing degree.
Customers visiting the Dahesh Heritage Bookstore in Midtown Manhattan experience a taste of true Middle Eastern hospitality. The bookstore's knowledgeable manager, Mike Masri, exhibits a modesty that belies his education and experience.
The bookstore carries a wide array of books in English and Arabic by and about Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-American who gave us The Prophet. Many events in the U.S. and in his birthplace are being held to commemorate the 125th anniversary of his birth.
Many Americans growing up in the sixties became acquainted with the poetic writings of Kahlil Gibran during their high school years. His spiritual approach to human activities spoke to their youthful idealism.
Most are not aware that Gibran became an American soon after emigrating as a young child from Lebanon and wrote some of his best work in English, including his most famous collection of essays, The Prophet. The Prophet has never been out of print and continues to be in demand.
Resident Gibran expert, or Gibranist as he calls himself, Tony Shasha showed copies of source documents including a 1931 New York Times story of Gibran's passing. Shasha pointed out inaccuracies including the place of his birth as Palestine.
In his scholarly endeavor, Shasha wrote his master's thesis on Gibran and later corresponded directly with Gibran's nephew and sister.
Shasha received permission from the playwright's nephew, also Kahlil Gibran, to translate two plays by Gibran, "Lazarus and His Beloved" and "The Blind" from English into Arabic. Gibran's sister personally gave him the manuscripts.
Most people are not aware that Gibran wrote much of his work first in English where it was later translated to Arabic.
Shasha said that there are many forums, lectures and literary events both here and in Lebanon to commemorate the writer's birth, including a forum at Columbia University and discussions at the Gibran museum in Bsharri, Lebanon.
Masri says the bookstore specializes in Arabic literature, poetry, philosophy and—amazingly—carries dictionaries in 85 languages. He said interest in learning Arabic increased after 9/11 and his store receives orders from all government levels as well as schools.
The bookstore's publishing arm produces a quarterly literary journal, Dahesh Voice. Arabic literature reads like Chinese printed material—right to left. Each edition runs articles in Arabic from right to left and the articles in English from left to right. Articles discuss literary topics from both cultures. The most recent edition covered Hemingway's heroes and heroines and medicinal compounds. The cover was taken by a painting by Georges Washington (French 1827-1910) of a proud Arab horseman stopping for cool drink in an oasis.
Gibran remains popular even today because his philosophy touches a common chord. According to Shasha, Gibran speaks of "the unity of all beings," and "all the world is just one entity." Shasha used the example,"If a leaf comes out in a tree, the whole tree must agree." In other words, everything is inter-related. Shasha also says that people like Gibran because "he is very optimistic."
Gibran's birthplace in Bsharri, Lebanon, has a museum with the writer's artwork and original manuscripts. Shasha noted that his home was near the legendary Cedars of Lebanon and the writer would often ride a mule there. Although the writer lived and worked in New York, his remains are buried in Lebanon.
Shasha says Gibran created a unique style in Arabic literature and was inspired by the Psalms and the Old Testament's Song of Songs. "Modern Arabic poetry is now influenced by Gibran," Shasha says.
The Dahesh Heritage bookstore is located at 1775 Broadway, Suite 533, New York 212-265-0600 and is open Mon-Fri 9am-6pm and Sat 10am-5pm. Visit their website daheshheritage.org. The text of The Prophet can be found online at http://leb.net/gibran/works/prophet/prophet.html.