NAYA| Woman of the Month: May Ziade, a feminist pioneer

Marie Elias Ziade, also known as May, established herself as a vibrant female voice in what was clearly a man’s world at the time.
by Chrystine Mhanna and Rana Tabbara

25 November 2018 | 17:00

Source: by Annahar

Archival photo of May Ziade. (Photo courtesy of BAFF)

BEIRUT: “Oh May, it is too much to hear, too much. Pray for us beloved May: Help us with your thoughts,” wrote Gibran Khalil Gibran to May Ziade in one of their exchanged letters.

Ziade’s thoughts were of value not only to Gibran but, to many other literary elites and intellects. Ziade was a key figure of the Nahda period during the early 20th-century Arab literary scene.

Marie Elias Ziade, also known as May, established herself as a vibrant female voice in what was clearly a man’s world at the time. She was a journalist and a fiction writer. She wrote about strong female characters, poetry, politics, and culture.

Ziade earned herself the title of “pioneer of oriental feminism” by questioning the cultural values and social norms of society and trying to tackle Arab patriarchy.

The Lebanese-Palestinian pioneer still lives on by the work she produced yet, little has been told about her life and its adventures.

As part of the Beirut Art Film Festival 2018, an Al-Jazeera documentary about Ziade’s life was screened in Dar El-Nemir on Saturday night. Directed by Egyptian filmmaker Mohsen Abdelghany, the film documented Ziade’s life through anecdotes taken from several Arab literature scholars.

The Documentary

Tackling different aspects of Ziade’s life, the documentary drew the pioneer in diverse colors. Different scholars were interviewed for the film, each of them drew upon a specific feature of Ziade’s being. The documentary narrated her as a feminist, activist, lover, and intellect.

Writer and critic Hossam Aql discussed Ziade’s feministic approach to writing and praised her role of "introducing feminism into Arab culture."

“She was the first professional writer to take a critical approach to women's stories or novels written by Arab women," said Aql in the documentary.

Henry Zugheib, Lebanese poet and one of the interviewees in the documentary tackled the intellectual and cultural part of Ziade.

"Women's education was rare, if not existent," explained Zugheib. "When May joined this literary circle, she was highly cultured, not just from what she learned at school but also from the books she read.” Adding that this led to her obsession with educating women.

Zugheib also discussed Ziade’s multi-lingual capability as she was fluent in nine languages.

The film also portrayed the history of Ziade and highlighted the turning points in her life.

Ziade migrated to Egypt with her family around 1907. There, she started holding popular weekly salons for the predominantly male Egyptian literary elites and intellectuals, like Mahmoud Abbas al-Aqad, Taha Hussein, Antoine Gemayel, Mustapha Sadeq al-Rifae, Hafid Ibrahim, and Khalil Moutran.

"The salons were famous for bringing opposites together, people from contradictory intellectual trends," explained Mahmoud al-Dabaa, an academic and critic. "It was the first salon to gather different intellectual trends and discuss profound intellectual issues relating to Arab culture and literature. May had the ability to host all those contrasting viewpoints."

Being the idealist she was, Ziade with her charm and intellect won many admirers, both professional and amorous.

"She fit the perception of the ideal woman for those writers and thinkers," said art critic Essam Zakaria. "It was normal they all fell in love with her or admired her a great deal."

Ziade didn’t exchange affection with her many admirers as she was only in love with one man, the Lebanese poet and one of the Arab literary greats, Gibran Khalil Gibran. The two always wrote to each other but never met. Their relationship enriched Arabic epistolary literature with the most beautiful correspondence.

The relationship between May and Gibran lasted for 20 years until his sudden death in 1931.

"There's a profound Sufi sense in both Gibran's and May's experience,” stated Hussein Hammouda, a literature instructor at Cairo University.

The documentary concluded with a description of the pioneer’s few last years.

From 1930 till 1932, Ziade faced a series of personal losses. The death of her parents and her beloved Gibran caused her deep depression yet, instead of seeking psychiatric care her relatives placed her in a mental asylum to gain control over her estate.

"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,” wrote Ziade. “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."

A press campaign was initiated by the Lebanese writer Amin al-Rihani to get Ziade out of the mental institution. Eventually, the campaign won and Ziade was able to leave after a medical report proved her mental stability. She returned to Cairo where she died in 1941.

The Audience

The audience left the screening hall enthralled by the facts they learned about May Ziade and surprised that her story had been obscured in the shadows for most of the time.

According to Giwa Sabea, one of the audience members, the documentary opened her eyes to details she didn’t know about Ziade.

“During one of my high school years, one of the Arabic language teachers I had introduced me to May through a letter she wrote to Gibran,” Sabea told Annahar. “Ever since I’ve been extensively reading their exchange of letters and I’ve been wanting to know more about May besides what we know about her from her stories with Gibran.”

Christina Micalusi, Italian in origin with a pronounced interest in Arabic literature, left the hall pleased with what she came to know.

“In the Italian society, we are unfamiliar with Arab writers and poets especially when it comes to those who preach feminism, we rarely hear about them,” said Micalusi. “Getting to know May was eye-opening. I came here to know more about a Middle Eastern writer but, apparently, she is much more than that.”

According to Manal Makkieh, a Lebanese local who has Palestinian origins, Ziade is an inspiration to women all around the globe.

“May competed with men in a field that they claimed as theirs,” said Makkieh. “Women gain inspiration from her enthusiasm and thus follow their own aspirations; with the thought that if May was able to shine in a men-dominating field then so can we.”


The fourth edition of the Beirut Art Film Festival carries the theme of “Tomorrow.” Through this theme, organizers aim to change the future by learning about the past. On that note, documenting May Ziade’s life provides the audience with an intake on journalism, poetry, feminism, and education for a brighter future.


Welcome to “Naya”, the newest addition to Annahar’s coverage. This section aims at fortifying Lebanese women’s voices by highlighting their talents, challenges, innovations, and women’s empowerment.

We will also be reporting on the world of work, family, style, health, and culture. Naya is devoted to women of all generations-Naya editor, Sally Farhat: [email protected]

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