May Ziadeh, a Biography by Jade Nicole Beals

July 21, 2022 (completed Jan. 2023)

featured photo, Miss May

A biography I wrote about the author, May Ziadeh, an author I’ve written of often on the blog, with biographical facts, and immersive writings in my own experiences beginning in May 2021.

At the end, a summary and reflection of the book My Life With May by Ameen Rihani translated by George Nicolas El-Hage, with imaginative question and reflection. This essay may appeal to anyone interested in philosophy, law, creativity, and psychology.

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 countryside of Lebanon. She was a tutor and speaker who may be requested to speak at universities in London and Italy and also at places near her home, she cared for babies and children, wrote many books, mostly in Arabic, and published poetry, stories, and biographies. She also studied social sciences and psychology of the time from a variety of sources and had for example, been asked to give a speech on the inventions of their time, another topic they may discuss at the salon. (I found this info reading a few of her letters received.)

In the 1900s until around 1930, May hosted a literary salon at her home, 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 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, modeled after the literary salons in Europe during that earlier time period they’d discuss.

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.

The 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 during the 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 seemed to be publishing 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, polite, modest, 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.

***

While there may have been 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 appreciative words and translations of Miss May Ziadeh’s creative work are shared, with close attention and interest, and written from my own viewpoint of admiration, thrill, delight, and simply great feeling, for a factual and personal, heartfelt literary press.

***

Would you like to read some more? Here’s 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 great desire or need by Rihani to write about how he suddenly understood later why May was so upset with him when he and others had backed away from her, 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 the conflicts she was undergoing, and not helping her.

It gives a first-hand account from a loving friend’s perspective, and Ameen also notes that he and May were not romantically involved, and he recounts an image of meeting May in Lebanon: she was wearing a white dress and round white hat with flowers, and 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, understanding her suffering, and her successful release, assuaging himself of 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 find her cover up her arm and her face with a blanket when she saw him enter, and beside her on the table, he writes were a comb, an apple, a small Christmas tree, and a few small toys. She’d later say to him, “Why didn’t you help me? Why did you just let them keep me in this awful asylum?” She’d said, “When they came to take me away and shot me in the leg with morphine, and I was screaming for fear and pain, you did not help me.” He had stayed away, and he felt sorry for that, but he would do what he could to help now.

And Ameen would persist for May to talk with him pretty forwardly and repeatedly, getting closer to her and looking into her face. Ameen recounts she was silent, purposely, out of a feeling of betrayal from him. She may have also been refusing food so the asylum would let her go as she would die otherwise, the book suggests. It is also possible she was catatonic.

She had been 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 Dr. cousin took her money, spent it, and put her in the asylum.

The main inciting incident 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 did not want this (for conflicting their different beliefs, as she was a feminist and open to differences in belief of others, wanting women to be free to be able to be educated if they wanted to do that, have their own interests that makes life more exciting, and so on), and her relatives interfered to stop this. It is possible that her beloved Kahlil Gibran’s donating his books to his country of birth, Lebanon after he’d died intensified the pain of the interference of May’s relatives.

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. It is noted by another source that there was a nurse with this name who had worked at the Rubaiz hospital.

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

Although Rihani calls the woman who would help May at her house, the housekeeper, it is possible this housekeeper was the nurse, from the hospital, Badriyya, and as stated by the book a former patient of the hospital where May stayed. We also don’t know if the nurse was very well-meaning, but possibly maybe not qualified to care for May at the end of her life, or could have suffered from a mental instability herself at the time.

It is possible that there was a comforting love and support, as maybe she was one of the few to attend May Ziadeh’s funeral. (Although another historian will state many actually attended her funeral, which was in October at the time of the start of WWII in 1941.) Maybe the numbers did not matter, and also numbers don’t necessarily hurt, and can bring a different good.

Rihani really was a big help as he’d been very driven to be and put together the campaign to free her, and she was set free, as he had contacted officials which let him know that May just needed to write a letter herself stating her own state of wellness, and she did, and she was released.

Rihani died just a year before May did, which was from a fall that resulted in his skull broken; he had helped May settle into a home in Egypt, when she was released from the hospital, which was nicer than the asylum, an American Hospital in Lebanon.

When May felt her own freedom, doctors suggested, that this was monumental to her wellness of mind. They noted that she was eating more, enjoying cups of hot chocolate in the hospital, and that she’d offer her visitors fruit from the hospital with amusement.

She had wished her family understood her and believed her kind and good nature, and not the rumors of her own conniving relatives’ apparent creation. The psychiatrists had diagnosed her as “feeling, or having the belief of being oppressed.”

The book contains a brief summary of May’s life at the end, it is only slightly inaccurate; she was born Feb. 11 in 1886, and her mother was Palestinian and father a Lebanese teacher and editor of Al Mahrūsah newspaper; they’d lived in Lebanon especially during the summers. She spoke several languages, and her literary salon mostly took place in their home in Cairo, Egypt.

She traveled to Europe alone after Kahlil 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 finding her an Arab woman in their country (I don’t believe this fact was specifically mentioned in this particular book, but I’d read it in a different biography); it was stated that it seemed to actually be an Italian literary society that contacted her and wished to honor her. May also spoke Italian fluently, wrote poems and articles in Italians, and had penpal friends who lived in Italy.

She’d had a Catholic childhood spiritual background, schooled at a Catholic boarding school in the countryside of Lebanon through high school.

She was described by others as faithful, independent, feminine, accepting, dreamy, and a boldly spoken yet polite 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 feel misunderstood and betrayed, and to lose the literary respect overall that she’d had as a literary salon host, speaker, and writer due to her mental struggles later in her life, yet this book recounts May participated again in the literary society at some point after her release and move to her home.

May Ziadeh was described as faithful, straightforward, welcoming, feminine, beautiful, warm, tolerant, clear-speaking, romantic, and compassionate.

She treasured honesty, empathy, openness, truthfulness, creativity, close friendship, freedom of opinion, nature, spirituality, and kindness. Even in her passing on from this life, her writings are read, and she is admired as an inspiration by people reading today.

Jade

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: