May Ziade: Arab Romantic Poet and Feminist Pioneer

May Ziade was a prolific female poet, translator, orator, essayist, and critic of Palestinian origin.

May Ziade was a prolific female poet, translator, orator, essayist, and critic of Palestinian origin.

Founder of one of the most famous literary salons in the Arab world during the twenties and thirties of the last century, she was one of the leading female figures of al-Nahda and one of the forerunners in revolutionizing Arabic poetry and prose.

May Ziade was born in 1886 in Palestine as the only child of a Lebanese Maronite father and a Palestinian Christian mother. She attended primary school in Nazareth. At the age of 14, Ziade was sent to Aintoura in Lebanon to complete her secondary school education where she was exposed to French literature and influenced by the Romantic literary movement.

In 1907, her family moved to Egypt. Her father, a former Lebanese teacher, became a journalist and took over the Cairo-based weekly al-Mahrusa.. She contributed a number of articles to the newspaper run by her father, while studying at the newly founded Egyptian University.

Ziade demonstrated a brilliant talent for learning languages. She was perfectly bilingual. She had native fluency in both Arabic and French. She also had practical knowledge of English, Italian, German, Spanish, Latin, and Modern Greek.

During her time, the literary scene in the Arab world was an arena dominated by men. Women’s education was almost non-existent. Indeed it was hard enough for women to become literate let alone establish a reputation as a writer.

In the face of such a male dominated arena, Ziade sought integration and equality for women by questioning the norms and values on which the traditional society was built. In one of her expressive passages that later became widely quoted, she wrote: “We chant 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?”

Ziade was a prominent advocate of the emancipation of women, playing a key role in introducing feminism into Arab culture. The writer and critic Hassan Aql credits her as being the first to use the term “women’s cause” in the Arab world.

Unlike some of her contemporary feminist figures, she was more of an intellectual feminist who brought study and critical thought into the debate over women’s inequality in a male dominated society than she was a feminist activist advancing demands and taking action for women’s rights.

“An immigrant Christian among Muslims and a woman of exceptional education in a society traditionally dominated by men, she felt herself to be a permanent outsider,” Wrote Antje Ziegler in his Ziade’s concise biography.

With her predominantly-French education in Lebanon she published her first collection of poems, Fleurs de Rêve, in French. However, she later turned to Arabic as the main language in which she wrote most of her prose.

May Ziade took part in the Arab Renaissance (or al-Nada) of the 20th century and the efforts of Arab intellectuals to advance knowledge as the engine for development and emancipation. She contributed to translating novels from English, German, and French. She also wrote the biographies of three pioneering women writers and poets, Warda al-Yaziji, A’isha Taymur, and Bahithat al-Badiya.

Ziade established her own literary salon in her home in 1912, receiving then key male and female Arab literary figures and intellectuals. The salon attracted adherents of a variety of cultural, literary, and philosophical movements. Among those who frequented Ziade’s salon were the prominent Egyptian writer and critic Taha Hussein, the Lebanese poet and journalist Khalil Moutrane,  the Egyptian journalist and lawyer Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, the Lebanese writer Antoun Gemayel, the Egyptian poet Walieddine Yakan, the Egyptian writer and literary critic Abbas el-Akkad, and the Lebanese writer Yacoub Sarrouf.

May Ziade was influenced by Romanticism, especially during her study in Lebanon where she was introduced to pioneering French and English Romantic poets such as Lamartine, Byron, and Shelley. In a school diary that goes back to the time of her secondary education in Aintoura, Ziade wrote:

“I have been alone in the woods for two hours. Alone with Byron, poet of violence and sweetness . . . While I write, his Childe Harold lies at my feet. 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?”

May Ziade was a prominent representative of Arabic Romanticism. Her literary style is sentimental and melancholic, expressed in highly emotional and metaphorical language, typical of a Romantic poet who seeks solace and refuge in love and contemplations of nature.

“I am a woman who has spent her life between her pens, stationary, books, and research. All my thoughts have been centered 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,” as May Ziade described herself in her own words.

Though she never married, she had a close relationship with the prominent Lebanese-American poet and writer Khalil Gibran. Gibran and Ziade never met, but they corresponded for many years until Gibran’s death in 1931.

After the death of her parents and the loss of her love Gibran, Ziade entered into a deep depression. She could no longer carry on with her salon because of the traditional customs that frown upon single women welcoming men into their homes.

Her relatives put her in a madhouse in an attempt to appropriate her properties. But, thanks to a campaign spearheaded by the Lebanese-American writer Amin al-Rihani she was released from the psychiatric hospital.

Despite the harsh treatment of her relatives, and abandonment of most of her friends and colleagues, Ziade succeeded in inspiring following generations of writers, claiming her place among the greatest writers of modern Arab literature.