May Ziadeh, a Biography by Jade Nicole Beals

July 21, 2022

featuring a photo of May

A biography I wrote about the author, May Ziadeh you may have seen written of often with biographical facts and more immersive with my own experiences on the blog, beginning in May 2021.

At the end, an overview reflection of the book My Life With May by Ameen Rihani translated by George Nicolas El-Hage.

Author, poet, speaker, literary salon host was b. Feb 11, 1886 as Mary (Ma-ree) Elias Ziadeh in Nazareth. She later shortened her name to “May” (Mayy Zee-yeh-deh) as suggested by her mother when May was looking for a penname to publish her writings.

May had her own column she wrote in the Cairo, Egypt newspaper her father ran, and she studied Arabic Literature, Philosophy, and Social Sciences at Cairo University, earning a degree in Literature and Philosophy. She had attended high school at a Maronite Catholic boarding school in the Lebanon countryside. She was a tutor and speaker, and took care of children, wrote many books, mostly in Arabic, poetry, and biographies. In the 1900s through 1930, May hosted a literary salon, the first in her part of the world at the time, Egypt and Lebanon, which was for both male and female writers and scholars to meet at her home and discuss literature (often inc. 1600s-1800s books), their own writing, and the current times, forming a romantic era-inspired Arab Renaissance in the early 20th century. May spoke and wrote 9 languages—French, Arabic, English, Italian, German, Greek, Spanish, Latin, and Syriac, but was said to find her voice in Arabic and was noted for her prose poetry, a new genre in Arabic literature at the time.

Her first book she wrote was a poetry book in French, Fleurs de Reve (Flowers in a Dream) pub. 1911 at age 25, under pen-name I. Copia. She wrote a second poetry book, Aidah’s Diary (her next penname) but it doesn’t seem to be printed anymore, and she continued with non-fiction and book review articles to support other authors she knew and published these books under her name May Ziadeh; she was most famously known as “Miss May.”

May Ziadeh wrote letters in love for several years with famous artist and writer Kahlil Gibran, whom she wished to marry, and they never met. After the death of her parents and beloved Kahlil Gibran, May was overcome with grief, depression, and hysteria, and also had to stop hosting her literary salons as an unmarried woman in the Middle East at the time.

She traveled to Italy late 1920s around the time (when Kahlil’s love and art patron, Mary Haskell, whom declined to marry Kahlil years ago, married a man whose wife just died, and a different woman he’d known from earlier in life too moved in with him in his apartment in NYC. Kahlil left all of his art and studio contents to Boston school principal and patron, Mary Haskell when he died in 1931 and his book royalties to the country of Lebanon, his birthplace, and some of his artwork are at the Georgia, USA museum where Haskell was from and had donated them to the museum in 1951 about 10 years before she herself died.)

And so May had traveled to Italy on her own late 1920s but had to come back home in mental fatigue, great stress overwhelm, and fear. While many of her colleagues and friends would not honor May as they had before with her mental struggles, she was deeply anguished and lonely, and was placed in the Mental Asylum in Beirut by her doctor cousin who encouraged her to get help from him. She was consensually wanting to get help, but she wanted help from home, and the doctor just put her in the Asylum with the money she gave him.

She was kept there against her will while family and people she trusted published sensational news articles about her that were untrue and misunderstood her at the core, and being misunderstood and seen as an unkind person this way was traumatic to her, as despite her illness, she was deeply loving and accepting of others by nature.

May was finally released in January 1939, with the help of a political campaign petitioning to the country of Lebanon for her release by author colleague, Ameen Rihani, and she died in her home in Cairo, Egypt on Oct. 17, 1941.

Awhile before, she penciled the lines that she loved God and the East and the West too, and all that is beautiful because it is so and not for a desire to benefit from it, that she was grateful for those who showed mercy towards her in her life and would do so after her death, and that she hoped someone after she died would do her justice and extract from her humble writings the sincerity and honesty that they contain. She valued attentive, loving friendship, beauty, art, and kindness, freedom and wellness for women which she tried to reform in her home place through her books, articles, and public speeches; the freedom of one’s individual thinking, and personal freedom and happiness for people overall.

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While there were very upsetting tabloids and fake news written about May in her time that were of great sadness and distress to her, I am glad that on Blush of Dawn plenty of beauty and translations of Miss May Ziadeh’s creative work are shared, with close attention and appreciation, and written from my own viewpoint of admiration, thrill, delight, and simply great feeling, for a factual and personal, heartfelt literary press.

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Would you like to read more? Here is my summary/reflection of My Story With May by Ameen Rihani, translated by George Nicolas El-Hage, PH.D:

In the book, I was able to glimpse into the real life of May Ziadeh, and I found how I’d imagined her to be so nicely confirmed in this book!

What stood out to me was the need to share by Rihani to write how he suddenly understood later why May was so upset with him when he and others stood away, hearing her family’s rumors of “what Mary did this time” and “what Mary’s doing in the Asylum” put into tabloid news articles, based on speaking to her or hearsay, and also hearing these things and not helping her.

It gives a first-hand account from a loving friend’s perspective, and also notes that Ameen and May were not romantically involved, but he recounts an image of meeting May in Lebanon, she was wearing a white dress and round hat, she was about younger than 20, Rihani writes. The book is considered an autobiography of Ameen Rihani meaning intended to be about himself, rather than a biography of May alone. In this case, it is written of his part in helping his friend May, her suffering, and her successful release, assuaging any guilt of what he’d not done beforehand. He describes when he’d first arrived at the Rubaiz hospital to visit her the day after Christmas, he’d found her covering her uncovered arm and her face with a blanket, and beside her on the table were a comb, an apple, and a few small toys.

And Ameen would try to persist for May to talk with him pretty continuously. She was open for help with her mental wellness, which is how her Dr. Cousin began to talk with her in the first place. She wanted to move to a home after the hospital and have a nurse help her toward the end years of her life, but her Doctor Cousin took her money, spent it, and put her in the asylum.

The main inciting action seemed to be when May wanted to donate a copy of each of her books she’d written to Egypt and another to Lebanon, the places she’d lived, from her own home library, and her relatives abroad did not want this for conflicting their different beliefs, and interfered to sought to stop this. It is possible that her beloved Kahlil Gibran’s donating of his books to Lebanon after he’d died added even more pain to the interference of the relatives for May.

It’s also especially interesting how May would for awhile only talk to a woman there who was doing well before she was, and the woman would visit May everyday even after the woman was released. This woman named Badriyya would calm May and tuck her into bed, Ameen has a little trouble understanding why “he had to go through this little woman named Badriyya to communicate with his ‘friend for years,’” yet he expresses that with a light tone of comedy.

And it would be Miss Badriyya, (a woman who ‘had arrived from Damascus seeking treatment, an Algerian’) who would listen closely to May’s case to help her be able to leave the hospital, asking questions in a gentle, respectful way of the place and time, and this woman Badriyya and her relatives, among them, a prince and two princesses, gathered to help May, along with Rihani’s friends in Law, and Badriyya’s relatives said they’d provide May with anything she needed.

Rihani really was really a big help as he’d put together the campaign to free her and she was set free. He died just a year before she did, and had helped her settle into a home in Egypt, when she was released from the second place, an American Hospital in Lebanon.

When she felt her own freedom, doctors noted as monumental to her wellness, she enjoyed cups of hot chocolate in the hospital, and she’d offer her visitors fruit from the hospital with amusement. She had wished her family understood her and believed her innocent and kind nature, and not the press rumors of her own conniving relatives’ apparent creation.

The book contains a brief summary of May’s life at the end, it is only slightly inaccurate; she was born Feb. 11, 1886 and her mother was Palestinian and father a Lebanese teacher and editor of Al Mahrūsah; they had lived in Lebanon, esp. during the summer. She spoke several languages. Also, she traveled to Europe alone after Gibran and her parents died, as it says, and her last trip was probably to Italy, which she’d come back fearful of the Italian government (I don’t believe mentioned in this book); it seemed to actually be an Italian literary society that contacted her wishing to honor her. 

She’d had a Catholic childhood spiritual background, schooled at a Catholic boarding school in the Lebanese countryside in high school, she was a faithful, independent, feminine, accepting, dreamy, and boldly spoken person, and she continued to offer special Masses to honor her parents toward the end of her life.

It was very sad for her to be misunderstood and to lose the literary respect she’d had as a literary salon host, speaker, and writer, yet this book recounts she’d participated again in literary society at some point after her release and move to her home. She was described as faithful, straightforward, and feminine, warm, treasured honesty, empathy, truthfulness and creativity, and kindness.

Jade

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