Culture

Mai Ghoussoub, 1952-2007

Obituary

BEIRUT: Lebanese artist, writer and publisher Mai Ghoussoub died suddenly on Saturday afternoon, after being hospitalized the day before for what seemed like no more than a particularly virulent flu. She was just 55 years old. With her untimely death, artists, writers and intellectuals all over the Arab world and the diaspora have lost one of their fiercest defenders of contemporary cultural production and artistic experimentation.

Born in 1952 to a family from the lush green mountain town of Beit Shabab, Ghoussoub grew up in Beirut and attended the French Lycee. She came of age in the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, and was precocious in exploring the intellectual ups and downs of radical, revolutionary leftist politics and university-style activism. She studied French literature at the Lebanese University and earned a degree in mathematics from the American University of Beirut.

In 1977, Ghoussoub was seriously wounded in an explosion that ripped through Beirut in the early stages of the Civil War. She sought medical treatment in Paris and stayed, once it became clear the conflict wasn't going to end anytime soon.

Two years later, Ghoussoub was in London, where she studied sculpture, lived the life of an artist and forged links with a community of Arabs in exile from the defeats and disappointments of the preceding two decades. She and her best friend Andre Gaspard - realizing there was no proper place in London to buy novels or nonfiction from the Arab world and fearless of the fact that they had no experience in publishing whatsoever - established Saqi Books in 1979.

With time, the bookshop grew into a bi-continental publishing business, Dar al-Saqi, with offices in London and Beirut turning out daring books in English and Arabic on everything from art to politics.

By the early 1980s, Ghoussoub was exhibiting her sculptures in clay, iron, resin and aluminum. She eventually added installation, performance and collage to her broad arsenal of artistic practices.

In 1998, Ghoussoub published "Leaving Beirut: Women and the Wars Within," a tangled and creative mix of memoir, fiction, recollection, old-fashioned yarn-spinning, postmodern pastiche, literary criticism and methodically plotted political essay. The book tapped into a major dilemma which, then and now, preoccupies Lebanese literature - the decision to stay or go.

The book's opening chapter, "A Kind of Madness," begins with a young woman in Paris whose serene sense of exile is jolted out of place by the rude intrusion of a ringing telephone: "Beirut calling, hold the line."

Ghoussoub's book delves into the character's memory of life in Lebanon and twists and turns around the people she used to know and the question she is reluctant to answer: What would have happened if she had stayed?

In its trenchant depiction of the sometimes irrational attraction and repulsion of Beirut - "Beirut exhaled a fragrance of damp earth. A sweet, teasing scent filled her nostrils. A triumphant sun had cleared the grey thickness from the sky, appeasing its anger with an offering of blue" - the book has become required reading for anyone, foreign or native, harboring a love-hate fascination with the city.

In addition to telling stories about such characters and places as Mrs. Nomy, Masrah Farouk (a text later incorporated into artist Nada Sehnaoui's site-specific installation on Martyrs Square about recollections of Beirut before the war), Umm Ali and Leila's grandmother, "Leaving Beirut" touches down on Chen Kaige's film "Farewell My Concubine," the video testimonies of so-called "martyrs," Andalusia and the Cid, photographs by Robert Capa, poems by Paul Eluard, French collaboration with the Nazis, torture in Argentina and tragedy in Bosnia and Rwanda.

The voracious appetite of the book's intellectual, aesthetic and political concerns replicates in miniature the wide-ranging and all-consuming interests of its author. Ghoussoub seemed to dabble in everything with restless enthusiasm, boundless energy and unconditional generosity for people, places and subjects alike.

In collaboration with Emma Sinclair-Webb, Ghoussoub edited a volume of essays in 2000 entitled "Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East," a groundbreaking and unprecedented book that took the gender lens - typically used to gaze upon women - and turned it to focus on men and the construction of masculinity, at a time when traditional definitions of what it means to become and be a man were - and still are - changing rapidly in the Arab world.

In her 28 years at the helm of Saqi, Ghoussoub remained intensely involved in all the books she and Gaspard signed on to publish. She believed in them just as she believed in not just rocking but overturning, beating, smashing, shaking lose, salvaging the wreckage from and reconstituting better the entirety of the proverbial boat.

During her tenure, Saqi published such books as Trevor Mostyn's "Censorship in Islamic Societies," Fuad Khuri's "The Body in Islamic Culture" and Brian Whitaker's "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East," which is slated to be translated into Arabic, censors be damned.

Over the years Saqi has also put back into circulation new editions or reissues of Ismail Kedare's critically acclaimed novel "Broken April," Hanna Batatu's "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq," Fatima Mernissi's "Beyond the Veil," Tawfik al-Hakim's "Diary of a Country Prosecutor" and Mohamed Choukri's cult-classic autobiography "For Bread Alone," along with important works by the poet Adonis and the prototypical Egyptian feminist Nawal el-Saadawi.

Saqi has published books about the Jewish community in Iraq, the Yezidis and Kurdistan during World War I, along with Moris Farhi's raucous and lusty "novel in 13 positions" ("Young Turk"), Syrian writer Ammar Abdulhamid's novel about a man who suffers an acute olfactory ability to detect when a woman is having her period ("Menstruation") and Dubravka Ugresic's novel about young students who flee from Yugoslavia as it disintegrates only to find work in a fetish-footwear factory in Amsterdam ("The Ministry of Pain").

Saqi has put in a valiant effort in terms of filling the gaping void that exists in the documentation of Arab cultural production and artistic expression. At a time when few archives exist to record the work of artists from the Middle East, Saqi has printed beautiful monographs for Hussein Madi and Mohamed Rawas (a painting of whose graces the cover of "Leaving Beirut").

In early October 2005, Saqi spun off a fiction imprint called Telegram Books, and Ghoussoub's wild productivity in responding to the war in Lebanon during the summer of 2006 - not just with articles and emails but with books, exhibitions and performances - attests to the outrageous energy she gave so generously to the world of arts and letters.

Ghoussoub supported artists, filmmakers, musicians, young designers and, of course, writers both established and unknown. Nothing was too experimental or "out there" for her, and she gave everyone who came to her with an idea, no matter how half-baked, a fair shake.

Moreover - and as was noted by one of the many people to have posted tributes to her online in the last few days - Ghoussoub was cool. Seeing her around Beirut or London, at exhibitions or performances or festivals, was like catching sight of Debbie Harry in New York. Ghoussoub embodied brains and the life of the mind with both style and street cred. She was icon, she was an example, she made things happen, she left a remarkable record of work, and she will be deeply, painfully missed.

 

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