Art in the press

May Ziadeh

Suggested Curriculum Developments to Communicate Women's Rights Through Literature: Poetry by Women in U.S.A., Turkey and Egypt. By Dr. Emine Sonal (A paper presented at the International Conference host at the American University in Cairo)

May Ziyadeh:portrait_2

A poet and great scholar, May Ziyadeh, was born in Palestine in 1886. Her father Elias Zakhour Ziyadeh was Lebanese and her mother Nuzha Muamar was Palestinian. She received her early schooling in Nazareth- Palestine from 1892 to 1899. In 1908, she moved with her parents to Cairo, Egypt because of her father's job opportunity in Al-Mahrousa newspaper.

May Ziyadeh's first French poetry collection titled "Fleurs de Rêve" was published in 1910. It was well accepted by the authors and journalists who were originally Lebanese and lived in Egypt in that time. She also translated a French novel by Prada into Arabic and it was published in

May Ziyadeh wrote about her thoughts on various matters ranging from her political ideas to education of women in the newspapers and in the journals. She participated in different aspects of the women's movement and she was very well-known for her Tuesday Salon. The Tuesday Salon, based on the French model, was the most important meeting place of all intellectuals, well-known writers, poets and artists of the region between the years of 1920 and 1930. That was the only opportunity for all literary people to come together and discuss the various issues.

After publishing her first poems, May Ziyadeh continued working in this literary genre and became the leading voice of Egyptian society in 1919. She studied history, philosophy and modern sciences at a newly opened Egyptian University. May Ziyadeh introduced a new prose form of poetry into Arabic literature. In some of her poetic prose works "Ayna Watani? (Where is My Homeland?)" and "Al-Musawat (Equality)", she reflected her feelings as a woman being an outsider in the society dominated by men. According to -el Akkad, special attributes of May Ziyadeh that made her poetess were her ability to transfer her feminine feelings and the sensitivity in her writings. The letters she had written to her close friends are also very significant in terms of their literary value. Trying hard to locate all documents, letters and manuscripts of May Ziyadeh, Salma al-Haffar al-Kuzbari, the Syrian author, edited her works under the title of Al-Mu'allafat al-Kamila (Complete Works) in 1982.

Professor Ziyadeh greatly contributed to the modernization of Arabic language and thought in every aspect since she had an extraordinary talent for translating novels from English, German and French into Arabic. She published many short stories, which was considered a new genre in Arabic literature, focusing on the theme of women's rights. She was an activist for the emancipation of women and wrote 15 books of poetry and biographical studies of three pioneer female writers and poets. She presented a series of conferences discussing the issues on the advancement of the Egyptian woman and the family at various Universities in the Middle East. Her last conference that was held at American University in Cairo, titled "The Mission of the Writer to Arab Life", was very witty and influential in many aspects in Literature and in the Social Sciences, which helped her to prove that it was a 'dirty game' of her relatives to put her into a mental hospital.

She longed for a democratic and egalitarian society for her country. Her political views are reflected in her articles in her book titled el-Müsavat. In an opening speech of one of her lectures, May Ziyadeh described poverty as 'illness, indolence and enslavement' and she continued as follows:No society can enjoy good health when its members are ill... and no nation can enjoy independence if its citizens are enslaved. An attribute of the rich is a virtue but for the poor it is a flaw. ... Women can be a cause for poverty but can also be a cause for prosperity... from 50 to 60 per cent of public income is spent by women

In her poem titled "Elle Poéte", she exemplifies her situation, by stating that she was considered inferior to male poets, and that she must have stolen the stanzas from someone and that "a person who is Syrian, not French, is not gifted to write in French". May believes that it is not
meaningful for a woman who reaches up passionately to the peak of intellectial thought, unless the woman maintains her natural female identity. She labels these features as feelings and love. For her, a woman spends all her life among the waves of the sea by wandering around but never
reaching shore. These seas are known as woman's feelings. In her speech at one of her conferences, May Ziyadeh emphasized the role of women in a civilized society to stand in opposition to the traditional culture in the following statement:

We should free the woman, so that her children won't grow up to become slaves. And we should remove the veil of illusions from her eyes, so that by looking into them, her husband, brother and son will discover that there is a great meaning to life.

In another of her poems, "Une Petite Historie", Ziyadeh focuses on the importance of education of women. For her, the illiterate woman is like the vessels that haven't been to the sea. In the line, "By reading it, you nearly get a delight" she implies that through education the women will have their liberty and independence.

In the following quotation, May Ziyadeh criticizes male-dominated society and addresses men that "if you are the material, the women are the soul, if you are the fiction, the women are the prose".

...Men, may God forgive them for their many sins, hold that civilization is that edifice constructed of governing systems, laws, agriculture, industry, tools and machinery, sciences, art and literature. Where is the hand of woman in all this? they ask. It is men who invent and produce and continue to invent and produce. And it is women who use and consume what they invent
and produce. Why should the user and consumer get any credit?

She asks similar question imitating the men's rhetoric, in order to refute the idea that women are not in the secondary position. To sum up, it can be said that not only May Ziyadeh's poetry but also her stories, plays and articles reflect the wrong attitudes of people in her society by revealing the actual history of her time. Her fictional works allow the reader to conceptualize the "woman question" in Arabic history and culture, and the poet's sufferings as a well-educated, westernized person who is trying to change the cultural norms and establish an egalitarian society without gender discrimination. Like, Þüküfe Nihal, the Turkish poetess, May Zeyadeh, the renowned poetess of Lebanese origin, because of her progressive ideas in women's rights and education and freedom, has been misunderstood by her contemporaries and nearest circle.

In memory of May Zeyadeh

A torch in the darkest of ages
By Lubna Khader
Star Staff Writer

"We should free the woman, so that her children won't grow up to become slaves. And we should remove the veil of illusions from her eyes, so that by looking into them, her husband, brother and son will discover that there is a great meaning to life."

These spellbinding words are the saying of a renowned feminist, who was among the first Arab literary figures to embellish feminine intellectuality.

Born in Nazareth in 1886, to a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother, May (Marry) Zeyadeh lived in a world where women were hammered by patriarchy and male chauvinism.

May studied elementary education in Al Yousifiat Nuns school, and later in Ein Tora in Lebanon before she moved to Beirut where she finished her secondary studies there.

In 1907, she left Nazareth to Cairo with her parents to study Italian and German.

During her stay in Egypt, May's father, Elias Zakhour Zeyadeh-who advocated women education-became the chief editor of Al Mahrousa newspaper. It was a golden opportunity for the young intellectual to publish articles, which she chose to write under a nick name.

In 1911, May wrote her first poetry collection in French titled, "Fleurs de Reve", and later translated several poems from the same collection to Arabic and published them in the Egyptian magazine Al Hilal, under the name Eziz Cobia.

In the same year May published her second poetry collection, "Aidah Dairy", which was written in French under the name Aidah.

She remained to write under different pen names until her mother proposed the name "May", using the first and last letter from her "Marry", her original name.

Later, May was elected as a member of the Pen League in New York. In 1912 she launched the Literature Salon, where she held weekly gatherings and intellectual debates with more than 30 famous Arab writers, poets and journalists.

Among those were Lebanese poet Khalil Motran, Egyptian prodigy Abbas Mahmoud Al Aqad, Antwan Al Jmayel, owner of Al Zouhour magazine, famous Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, Nile poet Hafez Ibrahim and Prince of Arab poets Ahmed Shawqi. These gatherings went on for 20 years.

In 1914, she joined the Egyptian University where she studied history, philosophy and modern sciences, graduating in 1917.

During her study, she continued to publish her literary works in famous Arabic magazines and newspapers like the Lebanese Magazine Azohour, Egypt's Al Hilal and Al Ahram newspaper, which she continued to write for till 1935. Zeyadeh, a coy girl, had a great infatuation with nature, music and books. A true romantic, Zeyadah's literary style is characterized by fusing emotion with fantasy and romanticism with objectivity.

But all this artistry and innovation were meshed with solitude and misery. A lifetime bachelor, the famous poet fell in love with famous Lebanese poet Jubran Khalil Jubran, whom she never saw, but exchanged letters with.

A women activist, May wrote two books about women at a time when feminine identity was slandered by social modes. "Aisha Al Taymoreih", published in 1924, was one of the famous Egyptian female poets (1840-1902) who belonged to an aristocratic family in Egypt. Al Taymoreih was a torch of vigor at a time of much illiteracy and oppression among women. May was an admirer of the Egyptian poet whose character was of true determination and liberalism.

May's second book, "Bahethet Al Badiah", published in 1920, depicted the character of a charismatic Egyptian feminist called Malak Nasef (1886-1918), nicknamed as Bahthet Al Badieh. In her book, "Al Nesa'eyat", Nasef called for the emancipation of women in a society governed by stereotypes and male solidarity.

After her return to Lebanon, May suffered from several nervous attacks and entered a mental hospital. May lead lonely years, following the loss of her parents and friends, including her far distant lover, Jubran. Her relatives, on the other hand, tried to get a grip on her estate saying that she has lost her mind and is unable of managing her own properties.

She left the hospital to spend her remaining days writing in Cairo, where she died on 19 October, 1941. Zeydah left more than 15 books of poetry, literature and translations. More than anything else, she left behind a legacy of women liberators who believed that with knowledge and art, women can finally inhale the ions of emancipation.