Eighty years after her death, a new book revives the thinking of the Lebanese essayist and poet May Ziade (1886-1941) on women’s education and other social questions.
The daughter of a Lebanese Maronite father and a Palestinian mother, Ziade moved with her family from Nazareth to Cairo to become one of the most important Arab women writers in the first half of the 20th century.
The 858-page book, “May Ziade: Al-Ahram Articles,” is published in Arabic by the Al-Ahram Center for Translation and Publishing, in cooperation with the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of Cairo, and edited by the Egyptian poet and journalist Azmi Abdel-Wahab.
Ziade studied Islamic philosophy and languages at the Egyptian University, which was founded in 1908, the year she arrived in Cairo.
Before turning to Arabic, she wrote in French, under the pen name Isis Copia. Her real name first appeared in February 1911 in Al-Mahroussah newspaper, founded by her father and one of several publications to which she contributed.
That year too, she began her literary relationship with the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran. They exchanged well-known letters until his death in 1931 but never met.
The Maronite Legacy in Egypt
George Dergham, secretary-general of the Lebanese Maronite Cultural Center in Cairo, said the new book was part of a project “to highlight and disseminate the legacy left by Maronite intellectuals as major contributors to Arab culture.”
“The new book was part of a project to highlight and disseminate the legacy left by Maronite intellectuals as major contributors to Arab culture.”George Dergham
Secretary-General of the Lebanese Maronite Cultural Center in Cairo
In a phone call with Al-Fanar Media, he noted that the Maronites were the first to introduce a printing press to the Middle East in the monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in northern Lebanon in 1585.
Ziade’s articles highlight her interest in education and urbanization, not only in Cairo but in other Arab capitals, especially Damascus and Beirut.
Dergham said the book also presented some unknown facts, allowing scholars and readers to correct errors about her life.
Ziade’s articles contain comparisons between Arab societies and the West, and make clear her defense of press freedom and of a liberated role for women in society. They also show her religious tolerance and deep spiritual belief in divine messages.
A series of feature articles looks at Egypt’s historical mosques, with commentaries on the country’s heritage and ancient monuments.
Part of an Arab Renaissance
Ziade lived at a time when Christians of the Levant, especially in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, were leading the so-called “Arab Renaissance.” (See a related article, “A Nuanced Account of the Arab Nahda.”)
Dergham noted that Ziade’s talent emerged alongside reformist ideas in Egypt, both liberal and revivalist, and said that in such a climate, her advocacy of women’s right to education was a shining example.
“Do not believe what some of you say that education pushes girls away from family life and makes them despise it,” she wrote in one article.
“What does so is incomplete and distorted education,” she continued. “Do not believe that culture destroys woman’s femininity. On the contrary, it multiplies that dozens of times and pushes women to realize themselves.”
She declared that “a people that does not dignify women is a doomed people” and that “there is no true renaissance for peoples except by reviving the dignity of women.”
New Interest in Ziade’s Writings
The last ten years have seen renewed interest in Ziade’s life and creative journey. The Algerian novelist Waciny Laredj hailed her in his novel “Isis Copia,” while Nawal Mustafa, an Egyptian journalist, published a biography of Ziade and Ahmed Esfahani, a Lebanese journalist, collected much of her journalism.
Ziade herself published 15 books and was famous for her literary salon. In addition to Gibran, she maintained literary correspondences with famed writers of her time, including Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, Abbas El-Akkad, Taha Hussein, and the poet Wali Al-Din Yakan.
Grief-stricken by the deaths of her parents and of Gibran, she was lured back to Lebanon in the 1930s by family members, who placed her in a psychiatric hospital so as to seize her wealth.
She managed to return to Egypt but died in Maadi Hospital in Cairo on October 17, 1941, at the age of 55.
“May was not a mere beautiful girl, around whom senior writers and politicians of Egypt and the Arab world gathered in her weekly salon. She was a great writer and educator involved in real issuesAzmi Abdel-Wahab
The book’s editor
According to Dergham, the new book corrects a rumor that her funeral was not attended by leading writers and thinkers. A document published by Al-Ahram includes a description of the funeral, which was attended by Maronite school students and some intellectuals. An obituary published in the newspaper showed her family ties. The newspaper also called her one of its most prominent contributors.
Her Literary Salon
The book includes an article by Taha Hussein, “The Impact of May on Arabic Literature,” which says her main contribution was to create “the first literary salon … attended by both men and women.”
The book’s editor, Azmi Abdel-Wahab, told Al-Fanar Media in an interview, however, that “May was not a mere beautiful girl, around whom senior writers and politicians of Egypt and the Arab world gathered in her weekly salon. She was a great writer and educator involved in real issues.”
She believed that all problems stemmed from a lack of education, he said. “She presented her own vision for treatment, as she did not see the solution in increasing the number of schools, and expanding classrooms.”
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In a column in Al-Ahram on February 8, 1935, titled “Scattered Thoughts,” Ziade said the Ministry of Education had a primary role in tackling unemployment.
“These people have to come to an understanding to guide students’ readiness, and teach them the knowledge and information that nature has prepared them for, instead of accumulating students in any school they find empty places in,” she wrote. “This is the reality now and in it lies the basic mistake.”