Safia Khan

Safia Kahn resurrects Mai Ziadeh

for Dead [Women] Poets Society

Mai Ziadeh was a Palestinian-Lebanese poet who advanced the Arab renaissance through her poetry, translation, journalism and academic writing. She emerged at a time when female writers were unheard of and became a beacon of the Arab literary world.  

She was a writer and translator in English, German, and French, who published her first collection of poems in French (Fleurs de Rêve) as well as twelve further books. She had command over nine languages and was a pioneer through her exploration of new forms, including prose poems and short stories.

Ziadeh was born in 1886 in Palestine to a Lebanese Maronite father and Palestinian Christian mother. At fourteen, she was sent to Lebanon to complete her education, where she was exposed to French literature and became heavily influenced by the Romantic literary movement. Her work continued to bridge Eastern subjects with Western literary sensibilities.

In 1907, Ziadeh moved to Egypt and began contributing articles to the weekly magazine al-Mahrusa, while studying at newly founded Egyptian University. She had been educated beyond any other woman in Egypt and, along with poetry inspired by the Romantics, her literary focus soon homed in on the emancipation of women through education. She is credited as the first writer in Arabic to use the term “women’s cause”; additionally, she was the first professional writer to critically analyse the short stories and novels of Arab female writers, when others were just commenting on how beautiful these writers were. However, she never joined a women’s movement formally and wasn’t considered an activist in the traditional sense. Instead, she started her own kind of revolution, through her pioneering literary achievements.

Like Dead [Women] Poets Society, in her own way Ziadeh ‘resurrected’ female writers and poets, bringing them back to life through a number of carefully documented biographies (she wrote on Warda al-Yaziji, A’isha Taymur, and Bahithat al-Badiya). She is perhaps most notable for her ‘Tuesday salons’, modelled on the French literary salon where writers, artists and thinkers met to exchange ideas and collaborate. Ziadeh started the first Arabic-speaking salon in 1912, and it became a vital source of critical exchange among the most prominent Arabic writers in the twentieth century. Her Tuesday salon is argued to be a significant driver of the literary Arab Renaissance (al-Nahda). Unfortunately, Ziadeh’s work was never given the critical reception it deserved, on account of her youth and beauty eclipsing the importance of her brilliance in the eyes of her male peers. A fixation on her beauty at these salons meant her work never received the critical attention (and subsequent acclaim) it warranted.

Despite her vast contributions to Arabic literature, not just through her own poetry, but her salons which inspired many iconic works of al-Nahda, Ziadeh is often solely thought of as the unrequited epistolary lover of Khalil Gibran. Despite never meeting in person, they engaged in a 20-year relationship through letters, though it is said Gibran never reciprocated Ziadeh’s commitment to him. She had many suitors, but only loved Gibran – perhaps because the only way he saw her was through her writing, the manifestation of her truest self. When Gibran, her mother and her father passed away in the space of three years, Ziadeh fell into a deep depression. She returned to Lebanon to be with family, who exploited her condition for financial gain. She was falsely admitted to an asylum, and it took a sustained political campaign for her to be medically evaluated as sane prior to her release. Her psychiatric admission is well documented and is far from the defining period of her life and literary career. However, not even in death could she escape the stigma of financial hardship and the label of mental illness. Despite being such a prominent literary figure in her younger years, when she passed away in her early fifties, only three people attended her funeral.

It was her dying wish, documented in her journal just days before her passing, that she would receive justice through proper consideration of her work. Through Dead [Women] Poets Society, we hope to be a small part of creating that justice for her.

Literary Journal Interview

For my séance, Dead [Women] Poets Society asked me to create something in response to Ziadeh. Instead of writing a poem, I felt I wanted to ‘interview’ Ziadeh. So the following is an imagined interview with Mai Ziadeh for a literary journal– the questions are mine and the responses have been composed using solely her words (translated from the original Arabic and/or French, courtesy of Al-Jazeera and Rose DeMaris). 

Mai, thank you for joining us today, it is an honour. I want to start out by asking what inspired you to start writing poetry, and who were some of your earliest influences?

I have been alone in the woods, alone with Byron, poet of violence and sweetness…. Did Byron ever dream that a Lebanese girl would spend long, lonely hours with him or with some of his works in the woods of Lebanon?

You have talked before about how you studied various European writers, particularly the Romantics, during your education in Lebanon, and we know you speak multiple languages. How do you reconcile being a pioneer of al-Nadha with your Western approach to literature and language? Do you feel any tension in this dichotomy?

Where is my homeland?

I was born in a country. My father is from one country. My mother is from another country. Spirits of mine travel from country to country. To which of these countries do I belong? And which of these countries am I defending?

I love the East – my soul is there. Leaving Lebanon, my soul is all wound.

I love the West as well.

I love humanity and its true meaning – I have compassion for its mistakes and pain. In the wide dancing hall of life, I mixed with the dancers, but kept my own identity and refused to be carried off by the tide.

You have been a pioneer when it comes to critically reading the works of female writers and bringing them to the forefront of the Arabic renaissance. You have also been credited as the first writer in Arabic to use the term “women’s cause”. What motivates you to champion women’s writing, and how does this play a role in the growing Egyptian feminist movement, if at all? Which female writer has had the biggest impact on your writing?

Some thinkers, especially those who believed themselves to be thinkers, have exaggerated in separating women from mankind, which they almost made exclusive for man. If men are the material, the women are the soul, if men are the fiction, the women are the prose.

But no society can enjoy good health when its members are ill… and no nation can enjoy independence if its citizens are enslaved. We can write beautiful words in vain, words of freedom and liberty. If you, men of the east keep the core of slavery in your homes, represented by your wives and daughters, will the children of slaves be free?

Taymour’s ideas grow in my mind. Nothing else comes close to her. Hefni Nasseh, I chanted your name before I knew you.  

In your work, you address various themes encompassing feminism, politics, nature, belonging and love. What do you see as the primary aim of your writing?

What’s the meaning of what I’m writing? I am a lonely human, suffering in silence. No hand reaches me from the forest of hands that used to stay up under the moonlight. I write my love letters on (flowers petals), or I compose poems and articles. My only comfort is in this ordeal is my library and my lonely poetry.

Finally, do you have any advice for emerging women poets?

Bathe your rocky ornaments in mists, let roselight bleed into your cracks. Sift gold dust over your skin as a hand strokes a sleeping lover’s hair. Your soul is sometimes wild, and sometimes you will curl up like an anemone when touched, damp with delicate seafoam tears. But be the breeze that holds her breath— then ripples through heaven’s hidden depths. Please whisper your lullabies.

You’re an ivory insomniac moon – so shine for me, pearl satellite. Tell me the tireless story that gleams from your luminous late-at-night face. Be careless, wild, and bold.

Mental State Examination

As well as being a poet, I’m also a doctor and I’ve had experience of delivering Mental State Examinations to people who are mentally unwell. MSEs are a structured tool for doctors to assess a patient’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours at a particular moment. With that in the back of my mind, I wanted to write an imagined Mental State Examination between a psychiatrist and Mai Ziadeh, inspired by her admission to a psychiatric asylum based on false testimony of her relatives, who successfully conspired to seize her estate and assets. Again, the responses have been composed using solely her words (translations courtesy of Al-Jazeera and Rose DeMaris). The following therefore references mental ill health and suicide.

Mai, I want to start off by talking about your mood. How are you feeling at the moment?

I’m suffering too much without knowing the reason. I should create a new expression to describe the feeling inside me and around me. My soul, unwoven, is trapped in a chasm, and only cries come from my heart. 

What’s been on your mind recently?

Repeated tragedies in recent years have added to my terrible solitude and made me wonder how my mind can resist such torment.

Are you worried about anything?

I expect a lot from love but I’m worried I won’t get what I expect … A little love does not satisfy me.

Do you sometimes have thoughts that others tell you are false?

A woman is a woman before she is a beauty.

Do you have any beliefs that aren’t shared by others you know?

A woman is a woman before she is a beauty. Gentlemen are afraid of women’s culture and freedom. Nevertheless, like men, we aim to reach their ideals. We follow one path then go astray, and then find our way again, to reach our noble objective.

Do you feel that people are out to harm you?

In the name of life, my relatives put me in a madhouse to fade away gradually and die slowly… a death of which no one could bear hearing the description. Nevertheless, on their rare visits, my relatives listened to me with pleasure as I described my sufferings and misery, begging them in vain to pity me and get me out of the mental asylum.

Why do you believe your family are out to hurt you?

I am a woman who has spent her life between her pens, stationary, books, and research. All my thoughts have been centred around ideals. This idealistic life has made me oblivious to how malicious people can be. I have ignored the malice and certain people’s deadly poison disguised as gentleness.

Are there any thoughts you have a hard time getting out of your head?

Why do we toil and suffer? What is the meaning of life?

Do you ever think about ending your life?

The far-off edge of the sea, tentative, smiles through her vapours of brine, but I believe in God. I do not want to die outside my home or my bed.

What would you do if you could smell smoke in your house?

Turn to steam with the word.

Sometimes when people are going through difficult time, people might have thoughts of harming themselves or others – is this something you’ve experienced?

I believe in God, I love humanity and thank those who have been kind to me in my life and who will be kind to me after my death – God bless them.

Do you think people can put ideas in your head without your control?

Egypt called in a serious voice, and already my boat’s rocking.

Have you ever felt like people have removed memories or thoughts from your mind?

Soft waves of home don’t go away so quickly, my love.

Do you ever feel like others can hear your thoughts?

My soul is a bird that sings, waits, sings in rhythm with her wishes. My lonely poetry hears her song.

Do you ever hear, smell, feel or taste things that are not really there? Did you think this was real at the time?

Pink rose garlands, bright red satin strawberries, jasmine vine, and lute serenades – lullabies of my homeland. 

Do you ever feel as though you’re not real?

I am a dream that ends. But grief goes on.

Do you ever feel like you’ve changed or that you don’t recognise the person you currently are?

My chest is all wound, wholly tender. I hurt so much. Once, I sang for love. Now my voice grows weak, having hurt too much.

Mai, why do you think you are here? Do you believe you have a problem at the moment?

Illness, indolence, and enslavement flood my eyes.

How do you feel we can help with your problem?

After my death, I hope that someone will do me justice and find the sincerity and honesty contained in my small writings.

Safia Khan is a newly qualified doctor and poet. Her debut pamphlet (Too Much Mirch, Smith | Doorstop) won the 2021 New Poets Prize. Her work has been published in various journals and anthologies including The North, bath magg, Poetry Wales, Introduction X: The Poetry Business Book of New Poets (Poetry Business), We’re All in It Together: Poems for a disUnited Kingdom (Grist), Dear Life (Hive) and Surfing the Twilight (Hive). She has been commissioned to write poetry for the University of Huddersfield and the British Library. Safia has performed her work widely, including as a headliner for Off The Shelf Festival. She has delivered poetry workshops for Poetry Business, and seminars for the University of Oxford on the role of poetry as patient advocacy. Safia has been invited to deliver a creative writing teaching series with Nottingham Trent University’s WRAP Program, as their featured writer for 2023.