May Ziadeh: When Visions Come Too Early

by MainGate Staff
Spring 2022

AUB continues to celebrate its coed centennial, having taken global leadership in admitting women in 1921. May Elias Ziadeh, prolific author of poems and books, a key figure in the Arab Nahda of the early 20th century, and one of the region’s earliest advocates of modern feminism, commended AUB for its progressive decision in an address she delivered at West Hall and in a letter to Professor Jabr Dumit, AUB professor of Arabic. The letter is featured in the university’s coed centennial exhibit at Jafet Library: Stories of Women from the Archive, among other original writings by Ziadeh and publications that display her work.

Like AUB, Ziadeh had a vision and fearlessly advocated for it far ahead of her time. And like AUB, the road for her was paved with struggles and triumphs.

Born in Palestine in 1886 to a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother, Ziadeh was educated in Aintoura, Lebanon, and wrote various works both in Arabic and French. In 1907, she moved to Egypt, where she continued to study Arabic literature, Islamic history, and philosophy; published her writing; gave private lessons; and studied German, Spanish, Italian, English, and French. In 1912, she founded her literary salon, the Tuesday Seminar, which was attended by famous literary figures such as Taha Hussein, Khalil Mutran, Yaqub Sarruf, Ahmad Shawqi, and many others.

Ziadeh was a strong advocate of the emancipation of women and published articles and a book, Bahithat al-Badia, on the topic. In 1910, she met Amin Rihani in Lebanon and with him got in contact with Gibran Khalil Gibran. She then started exchanging letters with Gibran, sharing with him a unique love affair that lasted until the end of their lives.

After the death of her parents, her brother, and Gibran, she suffered from depression and was admitted by family members to the Lebanon Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders (Asfuriyah). The AUB archives hold a letter exchange between King Abdallah I of Jordan and Lebanese President Emile Edde, whose intervention led to Ziadeh’s eventual release.

In 1922, Ziadeh became the first woman to lecture at AUB, speaking about Columbus and the discovery of America. In 1925, she gave an address titled “Lessons in the Desert.” Shortly after her release from the Asfuriyah, she was invited by Al Urwa al Wuthqa Society at AUB in 1938 to deliver the “Message of the Man of Letters to the Arab Life.” Her last visit to AUB was later that year, when she spoke about “The strength and weakness in our spiritual life.”

May Ziadeh died in 1941 at the age of 55, influencing generations with genius that has rendered her immortal. In 1999, she was named “Personage of the Year” by the Lebanese minister of culture in the annual celebration of Beirut as the cultural capital of the Arab world.

“Powerful is the one whose motto in life is: I might suffer but will never surrender.” — May Ziadeh.