The Financial Times APRIL 19, 2008 - by Peter Aspden


"Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you, or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?" The words have a familiar ring, but they don't seem quite right. When the young president John F. Kennedy refined the phrase to impose more directly on the American people's sense of duty in his inaugural address of 1961, few would have realised that he was adapting the words of the Lebanese poet and essayist Kahlil Gibran.

Those were the days when American leaders could happily make reference to the great thinkers of middle eastern culture. (Kennedy's brother Bobby preferred to quote from his "favourite" writer, Aeschylus, pulling his centre of intellectual inspiration a few miles west. I'm not sure which seems more distant in time: the golden age of Pericles, or a time when US political rhetoric did not resemble a script from Sesame Street.)

Kennedy's use of Gibran's words was oddly, and brilliantly, prescient. Gibran became the darling of an unkempt counter-culture that the smooth, well-groomed president could never have envisaged, but which he helped to create. The writer's most famous work, The Prophet, "a treasury of counsel on human life" as described in my English translation, became one of the essential texts of the era, with its aphoristic blend of mysticism and what we would now call life-coaching.

In Britain, curiously, it is still widely bought, studied and read out loud at ceremonial occasions such as weddings and christenings, particularly its widely quoted couplet: "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself." It is a subtle sentiment, so much the greater for its apparent popularity. Twenty-first century Britain is not famous for its thirst for spiritual nourishment, so frankly any aspiration that hits higher than a new iPod accessory is fine by me.

Gibran is being celebrated this year, the one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary of his birth. I went to a poetry reading and concert this week held by the Lebanese ministry of culture in west London, and splendid it was too. The evening was hosted by Brian Eno, a man who became the first cultural figure to combine an egg-head with a feather-cut, as he twiddled the electronic knobs on Roxy Music's first, great albums.

Eno has since carved an impressive niche for himself, having produced some of the most important records of his time - the Bowie Berlin trilogy, U2's best works and, arriving next month, Coldplay's new offering - and becoming that rare English phenomenon, an engaged intellectual.

He has spoken out decisively against the Iraq war, but is also known for his espousal of more abstract and experimental thinking, as exemplified by his "Oblique Strategies" set of cards from the 1970s, which encouraged creative thinking from unexpected directions. Let's face it, if he had been French, he would have been long declared a hero of the Republic.

But he is English, brought up in sombre Suffolk, and here is the interesting thing. He gave a short speech at the Gibran evening that told of his excitement at first coming to London and discovering a civilised, and civilising, environment that mixed cultural influences in ways he had scarcely thought possible. He discovered a bookshop that specialised in Arab affairs, Saqi, in his neighbourhood. (His neighbourhood is Notting Hill. Weirdly, there is a film about a bookshop in Notting Hill, which is about as multicultural as Wagner. Put it to the back of your minds.)

He browsed in it, bought from it, was inspired by it. He came to Gibran, and many other writers and artists from the Arab world, through his frequent visits. And here he was, celebrating, in addition to the poet, the twenty-fifth anniversary of a shop that, judging from the warmth and respect of the audience, continues to stand as a beacon for intellectual inquiry and open-mindedness. Many expatriate Arabs manage to find texts here that are banned in their own countries. It is an unequivocal force for good.

Yet it is the type of thing that we don't hear much about. Multicultural London is discussed and celebrated in a much more instrumental way. Charismatic schoolchildren from diverse backgrounds are cossetted by photo-op hungry politicians; council directives appear in a myriad languages.

All well and good. Yet the other type of multiculturalism - the quiet, discreet kind - is arguably the most important type of all. What could serve a more essential service, in today's climate, than a neighbourhood bookshop providing samizdat texts from the Arab-speaking world?

Look for the word "multiculturalism" in a politician's speech, and it is usually accompanied by the word "vibrant". Yet this is fast becoming a tedious cliché. There are multicultural exchanges taking place all over this wondrous city that are reflective, serious, demanding. The young Brian Eno arriving from Woodbridge, switching on to Lebanese music and literature at the local corner shop, going on to become a pop culture pioneer. These should be celebrated too.

Along, of course, with Kahlil Gibran and his resonant aphorisms. Here is another one, from Sand And Foam: "Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you." John Lennon nicked (and adapted) that one, for his lovely song to his mother, Julia, on The Beatles' double white album. For culture to move forward, to steal is more than acceptable. It is imperative.