New Book Places Famed 20th Century Lebanese Beauty and Unappreciated Intellectual May Ziadeh at Center of Controversy Now as Then

Forthcoming in Al Jadid
By 
Elie Chalala
From left to right, Waciny Laredj from elhourya.com, the cover of “May: The Nights of Isis Copia,” and May Ziadeh by John Sayre for Al Jadid

Twenty-years ago, Al Jadid published “The Victim Of Beauty: Reviving the Literary Legacy of Mai Ziadeh” by Ghada Samman. The issue we tackled then was how Ziadeh's talents and skills were overlooked because of her gender, and even worse, how highlighting her personal life at the expense of her intellect distorted her legacy. One Lebanese critic was emotionally overwhelmed by the recent book, “May: The Nights of Isis Copia” (Dar al-Adab, 2018) by Waciny Laredj, expressing her appreciation for this kind gesture by the Algerian-French novelist and academic toward a fellow “Lebanese.” However, an Egyptian critic takes issue with the new book. The same concerns which fueled early criticism of how Ziadeh was treated did not escape the notice of Sharif al-Shafei's thoughtful essay in Al Modon newspaper.  
 
May Ziadeh (1886-1941), born in Nazareh, Palestine, to a Lebanese father and Palestinian mother, emigrated with her family to Egypt in 1908, where she later died at an early age of 55. By most accounts, she led a tragic life in Lebanon, the victim of cruel treatment by family members towards the end of her life. In Egypt, however, she grew as an intellectual, mastering half a dozen languages, becoming a patron of a famous literary salon during the 1920s and 1930s, and befriending pillars of Arab culture like Mustafa al-Akkad, Taha Hussein, Khalil Mutran, Lutfi al-Sayid, and from far away, Kahlil Gibran, among others.
 
The complete and original manuscript of May Ziadeh’s memoir, “The Asfourieh Nights: The Details of My Tragedy from the Spring of 1936 to the Autumn of 1941,” details the circumstances of her wrongful admittance to Asfourieh mental hospital. Ziadeh composed the work during her stay in the hospital and the manuscript was discovered recently in the Giza Plateau. Inspired by it, Waciny Laredj wrote a novelized interpretation of her life. This literary product generated controversy, with Laredj standing accused of trivializing Ziadeh's life, pulling excerpts with no context and highlighting the thrilling, romantic and tragic moments to gain public attention and to sell his books, all at the expense of her intellectual life. So, over 20 years later, some aspects of Ziadeh’s life remain sensationalized, at the expense of her literary accomplishments. This approach toward the contributions of Isis Copia, Ziadeh’s pen name and which is part of the new book’s title, has fueled criticism against Waciny Laredj.
 
In his methodical review of Laredj’s book for Al Modon, Sharif al-Shafei levels criticisms against “May: The Nights of Isis Copia,” condemning its trivialized and eclectic depiction of Ziadeh’s life and accusing Laredj of “trivial fictionalization.” The novel ignores Ziadeh’s intellectual life, while dramatizing her family’s betrayal, her relationships, and her sexuality. Al-Shafei appears to dismiss the claim that the book intended to promote the image of the Arab woman as oppressed.
 
In Khalid Azb’s laudable review of Laredj's book in Al Hayat, the bulk of his review essay extensively cites from the book, focusing on critical personal aspects of Ziadeh's life and leaving the reader -- perhaps inadvertently -- with a strong impression that May as an intellectual is negligibly present. Raised by a Maronite father and Orthodox Christian mother, the link between a religious upbringing and later difficulties in May’s adult life becomes apparent, as she even claims, according to Azb’s review. A good example is how she shied away from al-Akkad’s romantic gestures toward her, attributing the reticence to her religious upbringing. Though her religious upbringing is examined in a personal context, which is important, the readers would be better served if presented with more discussion that delves into Ziadeh’s views on a wide range of topics that transcend the personal.
 
Al-Shafei also points out problems of the book as a whole, taking issue with how the book’s genre is classified. He faults Dar al-Adab, the publisher, with mistakenly labeling “May: The Nights of Isis Copia” as a biographical work, rather than a historical novel, when it does not historically or accurately represent Ziadeh’s life. Al-Shafei criticized Dar al-Adab for considering the book a witness to Ziadeh’s time period and a reliable record of the enlightenment and modernist intellectual battles which occurred during that time. In reality, the author fails to  adhere to facts of the time period or Ziadeh’s life. Laredj himself stated in media interviews that “May” was a historical novel that takes creative liberties based on historical fact. Laredj went on to express his wish to write a biographical analysis while using the writing devices of novels. To this point, al-Shafei criticizes his claims of drawing inspiration from the genre of biography when “May” eclectically discussed certain parts over other aspects of Ziadeh’s life. Al-Shafei also challenged Laredj’s claim that the novel was meant to restore the memory of a famous figure in literature. According to him, rather than publish such a controversial novel, it would be more effective to publish Ziadeh’s authentic memoirs to preserve her memory.
 

Elie Chalala’s essay, “New Book Places Famed 20th Century Lebanese Beauty and Unappreciated Intellectual May Ziadeh at Center of Controversy Now as Then,” is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019.

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