Writer, artist and co-founder of Saqi
Published: 23 February 2007
Mai Ghoussoub, writer, artist and publisher: born Beirut 2 November 1951; twice married; died London 17 February 2007.
In the late 1960s a terrible murder shocked Lebanon. A young servant killed her new-born baby by throwing him from the ninth floor of a building. For days, the media pilloried her as a monster. Then, a student, barely 18, discovered that the maid had been raped by her employer and that, unable to endure this "shame", had chosen to expiate it by killing the evidence of that rape. The student went on to write a searing plea for the maid and offered the article to every newspaper in the land. Not one dared publish it. In patriarchal Lebanon, men could not be guilty of rape; the fault always lay with the woman.
So started the extraordinary career of Mai Ghoussoub, sculptor, writer, publisher, human-rights activist and one of the most remarkable women of our times, who died suddenly last week.
Born in 1951, Ghoussoub graduated in maths from the American University of Beirut, then studied literature at the Lebanese University, then sculpture at Morley College in London. She participated in the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) as a Trotskyite. Soon, disillusioned that, in pursuit of expediency, even idealistic leftist movements reneged on their moral and progressive values, she devoted herself to humanitarian work. On one occasion, as she was driving a wounded victim to hospital, her car was hit by a shell and she herself was badly injured. Despite treatment both in Lebanon and England, she lost an eye, a fact known only to her relatives and a few friends.
Mai Ghoussoub lived and worked as one unscathed - or rather, as one for whom being scathed was just one of life's quirks. Her book Leaving Beirut: women and the wars within (1998) is one of the most poignant testimonies to that fratricidal war.
In 1976, she moved to Paris and worked there as a journalist for Arab newspapers and, in collaboration with her childhood friend André Gaspard, then working in a bank, wrote Comprendre le Liban, an exposé of Lebanon's contradictory identities that appeared over the pseudonyms Selim Accaoui and Magida Salman. (Magida Salman survived to write elsewhere, contributing, for example, to another book, Women in the Middle East, 1987.)
Two years later, during a trip to London, Ghoussoub noted that this cosmopolitan city did not have a bookshop specialising in Arabic works. So she rang Gaspard and suggested that they should start one themselves. Gaspard came over immediately. And the two, as yet without funds or premises and, not least, without residency permits, set about achieving this. Thus, in 1979, they founded the Al-Saqi bookshop, in Westbourne Grove, which, over the years, has become a treasury for anyone interested in Arab culture and scholarship. The bookshop soon engendered a publishing house. Today, this house, with its imprints, Saqi and Telegram, has established itself as one of the most vibrant, daring and humanist independent publishers in the world.
Early in 1991, Mai Ghoussoub married a compatriot, the distinguished writer Hazem Saghieh, an astute commentator on Middle East affairs. If there really are marriages woven by a divine authority, this was one of them. Dynamic at every level, the couple enjoyed an enviable diet of heated political arguments, hilarious laughter, explorations of the arts and love of the most caring kind.
Mai was a life force. She vivified every social gathering, every professional engagement and, above all, every one she met. I don't know - nor can I imagine - a single person who, whether he/she agreed with her powerful views or not, was not captivated by her at first sight. She had many interests, she excelled in many disciplines. She never admitted to having one identity. She maintained she had many identities or, rather, many identifying elements.
True to the spirit of her beloved Beirut and its diverse cultures, she loved words. Consequently, she campaigned ardently against censorship. Though she acknowledged that words, misused, could incite hatred and conflict, she defended their right to be voiced. Exposing their evil, she maintained, was a challenge we all had to face. Her keynote speech for Freemuse in 2005, "It is Banned to Ban", is a passionate defence of freedom of expression; and her 2006 play Texterminators is as moving a paean to the sanctity of books as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. "Words," she said, "don't kill; humans do."
Always non-judgemental, as evinced by her defence of the unfortunate maid who committed infanticide, she constantly defied, through both her sculpture and writing, all forms of inequity, injustice and taboos. In many articles and from many platforms, she censured political transgressions and human-rights abuses, not least the tortures in Abu Ghraib. In her installations Displaces and What is the Purpose of Your Visit (Berlin, 2005), she attacked the prejudices against "identities" and refugees.
She explored the vagaries of masculinity in Imagined Masculinities: male identity and culture in the modern Middle East (2000), a collection of essays that she edited with Emma Sinclair-Webb. She fathomed the mysteries of femininity and transvestism and the metaphors of dressing in her 2002 performance play Jamil/Jamila, in her sculptures of such iconic divas as Um Khaltoum and Josephine Baker, and in her installation Penelopeia Project (Hellenic Museum, Chicago, 2006). And she grieved for her beloved, conflict-ridden Lebanon in such exhibitions as "Under Different Skies" (Copenhagen, 2006), "Beirut Out of War" (Museum Man, Liverpool, 2005-06) and "Lebanon - Image in All the People" (Liverpool Biennial, 2006) - the last with her fellow artist Souheil Sleiman.
Her works, I believe, will live on. So will Saqi, the publishing house she co-founded. Its staff, its editorial team and its authors may feel like orphans, but they know that she remains everywhere around us.
Mai Ghoussoub had a unique combination of formal intelligence and joyous creativity, writes Maggie Gee. She saved my career as a writer; it is as simple as that. Without her, my 2002 novel The White Family would not have been published and subsequently shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the International Impac prize.
She read the novel, loved it and rang the same day to accept it, after all London's mainstream houses had turned it down. Perhaps the book's frank description of racism struck a chord with her; also, she knew that the censorship of unacceptable thoughts does nothing to deal with their root cause, fear breeding hatred.
Mai was an artist in everything she did, and in her physical self as well, slender, warm, curvaceous and intensely graceful, a trained dancer who still had long dark hair in her fifties and dressed in dramatic deep reds and blacks.
Her autobiographical book Leaving Beirut is a gripping and enlightening meditation on how you can live beyond the horrors of the past and find new hope without forcing or falsifying forgiveness.