She Wanted a Place in the Male-Dominated World of Literature, So She Opened a Literary Salon

A writer, poet, essayist and a pioneer of Oriental feminism. During the late 19th and the early 20th century, a Lebanese-Palestinian intellectual woman lived while changing the, until today, male-dominated world of literature in the Middle East. Her name was May Ziade.

May Ziade was born as Marie Elias Ziade in 1886 to a Lebanese father and a Palestinian mother. May grew up attending a school in Lebanon where she learned French. At a very young age she discovered her love and interest for literature and the study of languages and more specific Western literature and languages. When she was 22 years old, she emigrated to Cairo with her parents where she attended the Egyptian University to continue her studies in literature and philosophy. After she graduated, she was fluent in French and had knowledge of the German, Italian, Spanish and Latin language.

May’s Revolutionary Literary Salon

In Cairo, she opened a literary salon in her parents’ house. This salon would become very popular for intellectuals, authors and poets from across the country. They gathered there every week to discuss their own works as well as topics related to society and philosophy.

Ziade is said to have published her very first articles in different journals at the age of 16. After her father established the Al Mahrusa (The Protected One) journal in Egypt, she published articles in this journal as well. When she first started writing poetry, she did it in French and later on in Arabic. The very first poetry volume she wrote was Fleurs de Rêve. She published it under her pseudonym “Isis Copia”. “Isis” was the name of an Egyptian goddess and “copia” is Latin and stands for “abundance”. It is not clear why she decided to publish her first work under a pseudonym instead her real name. After that she also wrote more than ten books about culture and history. On top of that she translated different European novels into Arabic.

Furthermore, May was a pioneer of Oriental feminism. She was specifically concerned about the education and enlightenment of women in the Arab world. While she lived in Egypt she tried to discuss these topics as much as possible.

Her relationship with Khalil Gibran

Her love life was interesting as well. May never got married, even though it is said that many men visiting her salon admired her. May on the other hand was only interested in one man, Khalil Gibran. The Lebanese writer and poet lived in America at that time. She and Khalil never met each other during their lifetime. The only communication between them were the letters they send to one another.

After the death of her parents and her beloved Khalil Gibran, May fell into a deep depression. Her family in Lebanon suggested her to come back to Beirut, after many failed attempts to overcome her sadness. Once she arrived in Beirut, she was admitted to the Lebanon Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders against her own will. Only after nine months spending in hospital, she was free again. But what she did not know was, that during these nine months many people left her and forgot about her. There was a rumor that she had schizophrenia, causing everyone around her to leave. Another reason was that everyone was too busy with the second World War, so they had no time for her.

In 1941 May Ziade left this world and sadly only three people attended her funeral.

Marie Elias Ziade became one of the few female key figures of the Arab literature of the early 20th century. She was very popular at one time and became forgotten the very next moment. It is time to remember her again and appreciate the works she left behind.

Sources: Al Jazeera: Farashat al Adab –  Encyclopedia.com