The Victim Of Beauty: Reviving the Literary Legacy of Mai Ziadeh

Ghada Samman
Mai Ziadeh by John Sayre for Al Jadid

There is something tragic about the life of Mai Ziadeh, a writer who was falsely accused of insanity in her 50s. This accusation stripped her of her freedom, money, and civil rights. It ruined her reputation, and she was forcibly thrown into a mental institution, thanks to her cousin, her “best friend.”

However, I believe that her tragedy and pain began long before that, during the “Golden Years” of the Literary Salon that Mai organized. These years were filled with a different kind of agony, as spiritually isolating as the enforced time spent in the mental institution. 

A flattering crowd hardly alleviated her loneliness. An intelligent and extremely sensitive woman, Mai was conscious of the bitter indifference towards her writing. She was surrounded by people who admired her beauty but not her achievements, and their praise in conversation could not mask the underestimation of her work in print. 

Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqaad is a typical example. He wrote of her elegance and beauty, yet he overlooked her significance in the literary movement. Al-Aqaad wrote: “She turned the whole world into a reception hall where beauty is not disturbed by anything, or maybe it is her looks that resemble a beautiful museum packed with good taste.” He praised Mai’s ability to design and arrange her soirees “as if she were an interior designer.” Yet he mustered feeble “praise” for her literary skills: “Read Miss Mai’s writings and you find nothing that offends you.” Is this praise or condemnation? He added, “People can have different opinions regarding writing style or ways of thinking or forms of expression; every writer is subject to different critical reviews. However, the differing opinions must agree that Mai, the sensitive person behind the writer and the thinker, deserves respect.” Al-Aqaad’s refusal to consider her works critically may be read as not only a renunciation of Mai, but of all women writers capable of rising to the standard of men.

Mai Ziadeh suffered from misunderstanding and under-appreciation in the good days of her Literary Salon, even at the hands of some of her fans. She was considered an “intellectual ornament” during an era when writers were not distinguished from eloquent, charming servants. Mai, as the lady of the Salon, gradually and painfully understood that fake affection and superficial praise are much worse than enmity. The sensitive Mai struggled as women’s looks were confused with the excellence of their (intellectual) work. However, her creative talents – and her feminine presence – transcended gender barriers to reach humanity.

The underestimation of Mai persisted in critical works even after her death; few critics defended her. Ilene Abboud, in a 1964 article in the periodical “Duniyya al-Mar`a” (“Woman’s World”) wrote, “Had our literary community switched from analyzing Mai’s love life to analyzing her literary works within the context of the time she lived in, it would have contributed to making her works popular among the majority of young men and women who remain unaware of such a great Arab writer and thinker.” 

Mai’s emotional isolation drove her to flee the suffocating atmosphere of her admirers into the world of literature. She became attached to Gibran Kahlil Gibran through reading his literary works, falling in love with a man she never met. She longed to move away from those who were ambivalent about her intellectual ability and creativity, from those who treated her as a delicate female, and from those who forgot that she was not a doll. Mai sought a relationship where she would be recognized as an “artist at par,” and as a human being seeking inspiration and true friendship.

Modern works excel in explaining the kind of painful and secretive emotions which consciously or subconsciously scarred Mai and led to her early death. We now recognize the emotional death expressed when a person discovers the gap between herself and those whom she loves and hates at the same time. Mai’s situation was particularly desperate, as she failed to bridge this gap through love, motherhood, or art while the death of her loved ones and the betrayal of friends conspired against her. 

Some critics and readers now appreciate the pain Mai experienced, and are dismayed to read critiques that speculated about her life and mental state but disregarded her art and her literary contribution. Some of these accounts made their way into articles written even after her death. Jihan Ghazawi Awni condemned these accounts in a letter she sent to the late novelist Samira Azzam, published later in Emily Faris’s book “Lebanese Women Writers.” She writes: “They accused her of being a lesbian, and claimed that she never loved anyone, not even Gibran. Others accused her of coldness and lack of emotions, as well as sexual perversion. Others claimed that she was extremely weak and pessimistic, to the extent that she lost control when her letters to Gibran were stolen. Not even one of her critics attempted to study Mai through what she wrote.” In this letter, Awni emphasizes that all the rumors about Mai “do not reflect the truth about her.”

One senses the contempt for Mai’s work between the lines of the fake praise that judged her as a social rather than literary phenomenon. Were not most of those critics less creative and less talented than she? Were they not males, the “roosters” of the literary chicken coop of their era? Was not Mai, an agonized writer, more talented, more educated, and more knowledgeable of foreign languages and international literary trends than most of those who “lectured” on her writings and described them as consumerist material and mere feminine literature? This book, “The Unknown Works of Mai Ziadeh,” renews a debate that concerns not only Mai, but also urges contemporary critics of Arabic literature to examine far more carefully literary works that happen to be by women. The publication of “The Unknown Works of Mai Ziadeh” is an opportunity to rethink Mai’s contributions and rescue them from the question of whether they are merely “feminine,” or the proof of genuine literary talent, as well as to transform Mai from being a legend of life to being a legendary writer.

Doing justice to Mai is essentially doing justice to all women novelists, a step that would constitute a point of departure in Arab “masculine” criticism. This task has already begun with some contemporary critics, who have broken away from evaluating books as midwives used to describe newborns: male or female. 

Mai’s works have been obscured with “dust,” and were neglected or subjected to ambivalence and hypocrisy. Now, critics are brushing aside the dust, uncovering her writings, raising them from the realm of neglect for study and analysis. Researchers like Salma al-Haffar al-Kuzbari have rescued Mai’s true biography from the damage suffered through the years. Al-Kuzbari brought Mai into the light in a work that took her many long years to complete, but ultimately lead the Al Majmaa al-Thaqafi (Cultural Assembly–Abu Dhabi) to offer her a prestigious literary award. 

I have hope that contemporary literary criticism will follow the footsteps of the Al Majmaa al-Thaqafi in re-evaluating Mai’s work. Professor Joseph Zeidan has begun this work by editing “The Unknown Works of Mai Ziadeh,” and recently, a few critics have started re-examining Mai’s works, reaching conclusions very different from al-Aqaad’s. Unlike those who overemphasized her looks and downplayed her literary skills, recent critics have concluded that Mai possessed great literary and intellectual creativity. Professor Zeidan strove to save her works from the “dust.” While editing her unknown works, he displays a critical intonation with a contemporary “novel sensitivity.”

Mai’s true and exceptional art was indisputably overshadowed by the myths that circulated about her life. When we read her works, we are reminded that it is possible for those who died before we were born to influence our lives and create sympathy in our hearts. There are among the dead those who deserve to be forgotten. However, we benefit from remembering Mai Ziadeh. Her contributions should be revived, and her long-neglected works should be brought into the light.

The scene that hurts me the most in Mai Ziadeh’s life is her last speech at the American University of Beirut where she was taking her “post-insanity” test, shortly after being released from the sanitarium. She stood on the podium, with completely white hair, a solitary figure in anguish. It was as if she were demanding her rights, demanding respect like all men in old age, but she lacked the traditional traits that brought old women respect, neither wife nor widow, mother nor grandmother. Mai did not dye her hair that day, and it turned even whiter in her solitude. She might have wanted to challenge everyone, to show them her real self, and to display the pain that destroyed her heart. 

“The Unknown Works of Mai Ziadeh” features writings previously unpublished. These unknown works represent a literary treasure, revealing an exceptional historical record that will shed new light on the legacy of a unique woman who died heartbroken. Professor Zeidan would surely insist that she is not to be dismissed as the “Bride of Feminine Literature,” as she was described in her own times. Rather, she was a thinker unparalleled among men. She was full of enthusiasm for enlightenment, development, and knowledge at a time when “literary virility” and masculine dominance prevailed. She was an artist armed with a treasure of knowledge reflecting both our own and world literature. (The nickname the “Bride of Feminine Literature” summarizes her suffering at the hands of critics of her time. Novelist Yousuf Idriss, for instance, though very handsome, was not given the nickname the “Groom of Masculine Literature!” )

Why did Mai’s femininity often stand between her and her text? Why did Mai’s looks and the charm of her presence preclude an objective study of her works until many years after her death? Why does the poet of her Literary Salon Ismail Sabri praise only her physical beauty in one of his poems? He says: “If I do not delight my eyes by Mai, I will deny your morning, O Tuesday.” This poet does not write about her intellect, but writes as if she were only the lady of a Literary Salon rather than a literary lady.

Joseph Zeidan did not enjoy “looking” at a feminine phenomenon in a salon; rather, he was aware of her as a creative female, one who suffered pain and whose unknown works deserved to be collected and reexamined. Therefore, this book is not only a testimonial for Mai Ziadeh, for Zeidan, the person who discovered this remarkable literature, or the Al Majmaa al-Thaqafi that published this book; it is also a testimonial to a time that is more capable of studying women’s literature in an unbiased and objective manner. 

Mai said: “I hope that after my death someone will do me justice.” Today we can see a new generation of researchers render her work the justice it truly deserves, even looking at the philosophical dimension. They will give Mai her rights and take note of her knowledge of great intellectual figures like Bergson, Spencer, Abikouros, Nietzsche, Emerson, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Hobbes, and many more, in addition to the various political philosophical schools that were unfamiliar to most of those who visited her Literary Salon.

I salute the Al Majmaa al-Thaqafi that honorably responded to my request to publish Mai Ziadeh’s “Unknown Works.” It is proof of its conscious avant-gardism that does not discriminate against women writers.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, No. 28 (Summer 1999)

Translated from the Arabic by Fatme Sharafeddine Hassan

Translation Copyright © by Al Jadid (1999)

This article is adapted and edited from Ghada Samman’s introduction to “The Unpublished Works of Mai Ziadeh” edited by Joseph Zeidan (Abu Dhabi: Al Maajmaah al-Thaqafi, 1997). Samman has granted Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate, edit and publish this article.

© Copyright 2015  AL JADID MAGAZINE

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