May Ziadeh, a Brief Biography

(featured photo from a novel, I like to look at the photo of May on the cover with colors)

A brief biography I wrote recently about the author, May Ziadeh you may have seen written of often on this blog, beginning in May 2021.

Author, poet, speaker, literary salon host was b. Feb 11, 1886 as Mary Elias Ziadeh in Nazareth. She later shortened her name to “May” as suggested by her mother when May was looking for a penname to publish her work. May had her own column she wrote in the Cairo, Egypt newspaper her father ran, and studied Arabic Literature, Philosophy, and Social Sciences at Cairo University. 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 under the name May Ziadeh and was most famously referred to 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 was traumatic to her.

May was finally released in 1939, with the help of a campaign 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 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 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 feeling, for a factual and personal, heartfelt literary press.

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📰 On the blog this week:

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