Artist, Activist, and Guardian Angel of the Literary Word: Mai Ghoussoub’s Long Journey from Trotskyite to Liberal-Democrat

Lauren Dickey
Mai Ghoussoub by Mamoun Sakkal for Al Jadid.
For a woman who spent her early years as a pro-Palestinian Trotskyite revolutionary, risking her life in the process, Mai Ghoussoub went through an extraordinary evolution to become the co-founder of a major publishing house, the London- and Beirut-based Al-Saqi Books. This publishing house has distinguished itself by publishing moderate and liberal books that breach taboos and break down cultural and gender barriers. Her recent death is a significant loss for the Arab literary world. Her friend, a famed Syrian poet Adonis, mourned in As Safir newspaper, “I do not cry on hearing of a death, but I cried for the death of Mai Ghoussoub. I’ve known her since her school days – full of life and enthusiasm.” Mai Ghoussoub, publisher, artist, and writer, died on February 17, 2007. She was 54 years old.
Ghoussoub was a woman of many talents, with her interests extending well beyond her publishing house. She studied French literature and math in Lebanon and then sculpture in England. She created her own body of artistic work, writing books, essays, plays, and sculpting. Interviewing her for the Beirut-based An Nahar newspaper, Ghoussoub’s friend Shadi Wehbe once asked her, “Which is closest to the heart of Mai? Writing, sculpting, or publishing?” She responded, “I cannot choose. They are all my languages and expressions of myself.”
Ghoussoub was also a performer, often appearing in her own plays. When asked why she chose to perform when she was already involved in so many other activities, she told Al Hayat’s Sayid Mahmoud that she was not content with words alone and would always have the desire to use her hands and all her senses. Writing, for her, was a nonsensical practice that one could not touch, regardless of how powerful the expression was.
Whether writing, sculpting, performing, or publishing, all of Ghoussoub’s endeavors revealed her commitment to social issues. Ghoussoub was an ardent human-rights activist, feminist, champion of free speech, and critic of Arab political and social underdevelopment. In her Al Hayat interview, she passionately defended the individual’s right to be free and spoke openly against double standards: “I am against the imposition of anything…that represses individual freedom.”
Ghoussoub’s concern with women’s issues is best evinced in two of her works, the 1990 “Arab Women and Masculinity,” followed by the 2002 publication of “Imagined Masculinity,” which she edited with Emma Sinclair Webb. Ghoussoub has been critical of the apologia of the status of Arab women in the Arab world. In the Al Hayat interview, she was critical of those who claim that women have achieved equality. She was equally critical of those who attribute the advocacy of women’s equality to Western influence and ridiculed those who speak of “equality” and the “empowerment” of women in the Arab world. Such views, Ghoussoub told Al Hayat, “are merely romantic and artificial, with no real basis on the ground.”
“Post Modernism: The Arabs in a Video Clip” showed Ghoussoub’s fascination with Western postmodernist thinkers and her dismay over the failure of the Arab world to embrace postmodernist principles. (Ghoussoub personally completed Arabic translations of many postmodernist works to make them more accessible to Arab audiences.) “Post Modernism” contains her highly critical analysis of the Arab resistance to modernization, and she contends that Arab “backwardness” can only be addressed by embracing Western thought. Open-mindedness and tolerance were some of Ghoussoub’s attributes. It is no wonder that the Lebanese poet Paul Shaoul found her free from rigidity and monotheism in vision and ideology; these characteristics manifest themselves in most of her activities, whether writing, publishing, or the visual arts.
As a playwright, Ghoussoub received acclaim in 2006 for “Bookkillers,” a performance drawn from her own experiences during the Lebanese Civil War, when militiamen occupied civilian houses and burned books. It was a multimedia performance combining digital images, dance, and drama that served as a testament to her belief in the importance of freedom of expression. The play examined the effect of literature on the mind and whether it can change an individual’s behavior. The final scene of the play concludes with the lines, “Words do not kill people. People kill people.” One critic reviewing the play called it “A tragic nightmare, not of the civil war that passed, but of the civil war to come.”
Ghoussoub is most widely recognized for her 1998 memoir, “Leaving Beirut” (see Al Jadid, Vol. 4, no. 24, Summer 1998). Born to an upper-middle-class Christian Maronite family, from a young age, Ghoussoub chose to distance herself from the long-established politics of her community and began going against the expectations that she would embrace traditional values, a move that belied her upbringing.
The civil war punctuated the early years of Ghoussoub’s life, and her activism during those trying periods left an indelible mark on her personality. In 1975, during the first wave of the Lebanese Civil War, she was a member of a Trotskyite group that involved itself in humanitarian, rather than military, activities. In the Beirut-based As Safir newspaper, Adonis remembers Ghoussoub’s personal reasons for involvement in the war: “She joined the civil war for one major purpose: to fight the war itself.” At one point, Ghoussoub and her group were kidnapped and arrested by Fatah, the PLO’s main military organization. They were brought before the late Yassir Arafat, who was angry about the group’s publication of pamphlets criticizing his corruption. Luckily, they were released when it was discovered that one of the group’s members had an influential father. 
Despite Ghoussoub’s growing disillusionment, she continued her humanitarian activities. She took part in negotiations between warring factions to secure the release of hostages and defended Palestinian refugees who, at the time, were being massacred. She would even cross the Green Line to visit her friend Khalida Said, the wife of Adonis, who wrote in As Safir: “I used to warn her every time that all wars are blind, even to their own goals. Mai would respond, ‘The war is everywhere, affecting every Lebanese. I am no more precious than any other.’”
Ghoussoub also established medical dispensaries where no one else would, collaborating with her future publishing partner, Andre Gaspard. In 1977, in the embattled and impoverished Nabaa neighborhood, a shell hit her car while transporting an injured man to a hospital. She suffered nearly fatal shrapnel wounds and lost sight in one eye; her injuries were so severe they forced her to seek treatment in London. At the time, she was 23 years old.
After her recovery, rather than return to Lebanon, Ghoussoub moved to Paris, where she worked as a journalist for Arab newspapers. A short time later, she moved back to London, where she settled in what would become her permanent home in 1979. On Ghoussoub’s return, she was dismayed to find that, unlike in Paris, no bookstores were dedicated to Arab works in this otherwise cosmopolitan city. She invited her childhood friend Andre Gaspard to join her in founding a bookstore; he promptly accepted. With great enthusiasm, despite the lack of money and proper visas, Ghoussoub and Gaspard embarked on establishing the Al-Saqi Bookshop. At the time, Beirut was still mired in war, and the means to export books to London were extremely limited.
Despite logistical complications, the shop soon became “the heart and soul of London’s Middle Eastern community,” serving as an indispensable source for Arab intelligentsia by providing the most current, if sometimes contentious, opinions. Part of Saqi’s success is due to Ghoussoub’s dedication to working with authors whose ideas fell well beyond the boundaries of the Arab mainstream. Saqi was also an important outlet for authors of English works who could not find a publisher due to their anti-Western tone.
In addition to offering an outlet for the printed word, Saqi became a famous hub for social gatherings. In keeping with the policy of toleration, all found a warm welcome, and attendees seemed willing to leave their prejudices at the door for the pleasure of participating in one of these famously enjoyable soirees. Well-known for her hospitality and generosity, Ghoussoub’s parties were an important factor in her success.
In 1990, Ghoussoub and Gaspard opened Dar al-Saqi in Beirut, the Arabic-language branch of Al-Saqi. Citing the difficulties in the world of Arab publishing, Ghoussoub was dissatisfied with the state of translations in the Middle East, according to her Al Hayat interview. She also lamented the disrespect of authors’ rights, intellectual piracy, and censorship. Today, Dar al-Saqi is one of the most prominent publishing houses in the Middle East. One journalist friend noted that establishing a branch in Beirut was largely due to Ghoussoub’s strong commitment to a peaceful Lebanon and her belief that “coexistence” within the city was possible.
In 1991, Ghoussoub married fellow Lebanese writer Hazem Saghieh, a prominent journalist for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, well-known for his commentary on the Middle East. According to many reports, Ghoussoub and Saghieh had a loving and close relationship, although they frequently engaged in heated political debates.
One issue Ghoussoub and Saghieh always agreed on was their commitment to non-violent resolution of conflict, something which Ghoussoub desperately wished to see happen in her beloved Beirut. Two weeks before she died, Ghoussoub and Saghieh revisited Beirut with journalist Neal Belton. Belton recalls the image of the city that Ghoussoub preferred to remember, an “ideal of civilized living, a city of hedonism, sunlight and the free exchange of ideas, a place where boundaries were made to be crossed.” Although she retained loyalty to Beirut until she died, Ghoussoub’s last visit left her feeling depressed for the first time about the future of her country. According to An Nahar, Rozan Saad Khalaf, a Lebanese academic, quoted Ghoussoub, who spoke softly: “I do not necessarily believe in Lebanon, but I always believed in Beirut.”
Ghoussoub’s dynamic personality, keen intelligence, warmth, and compassion will be remembered along with her many career achievements. Her friend and colleague, Jo Glanville, told The Guardian about Ghoussoub’s passing: “She was one of those rare people whose death leaves a hole, not just in the lives of family and close friends, but in that of a wider community. Her influence will remain, but her input is still needed: at a time of conflict, polarization, and very few laughs, her culture, and humanity were evidence of just how much brilliance the Middle East can produce.”
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 13/14, Nos. 58/59, 2007/2008.
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