Mai Ghoussoub in her time
Neil Belton
22 - 2 - 2007

The Lebanese artist and publisher was a courageous force for the enlargement of life, writes her friend across decades, Neil Belton.

 

 

Mai Ghoussoub, the founder and joint proprietor of Al Saqi Bookshop and the publishing company linked to it, has died suddenly at the age of 54. Her death is cruel, completely unexpected and still inexplicable. Much more than a bookshop owner and publisher, she was one of the most open, generous, and tolerant people in the cultural life of London over the past thirty years.

Her own work as a sculptor grew in stature with each passing year, and her literary contributions to debate over the middle east were highly personal, urgent pleas for a culture of democratic reconciliation of differences - for a move beyond the cycle of revenge and grievance in which Arab (and Israeli) politics is stuck. Quite apart from her own creative work, she was a kind and encouraging friend to writers, artists, and young people finding their way intellectually and politically. Her instinct, the opposite of the coldly exclusionary reflex of English literary London, was to draw people in, to assume the best of them and to help them by introducing them to writers or academics who might stimulate them. Her death leaves a raw wound for many of us that will take a long time to heal.

Beirut, exile and return

Mai came to London in 1979. She had survived the first phase of the long civil war in Lebanon that had started in 1975, but only just. She lost an eye and had shrapnel wounds in her side that could have been fatal. The tiny Trotskyist group of which she was a member - the Lebanese section of the Fourth International (actually of the United Secretariat of the FI, one of the organisation's many splinters) - refused to participate in the fighting between what many imagined to be the "left" (the Palestinians, the communists, the Arab nationalists and Muslim groups) and the "fascist" forces of the Maronite elite.

With her friend and comrade Andre Gaspard, she organised a pharmacy in Mabaa, a confessionally-mixed working-class area of Beirut that was completely surrounded in the first months of the war. They brought in doctors, nurses and medicine under fire, and distributed free powdered milk to mothers of young children. Much of their time was spent negotiating with the armed groups for the release of Christian workers who had been kidnapped as "spies". Andre was wounded in the knee; the two people standing next to him were killed. Mai was bringing a wounded man to hospital when her car was hit by a shell as she crossed one of the invisible lines that made the city so dangerous. She was 23 years old.

Mai realised more quickly than many western observers that the "armed struggle" had degenerated into a vicious sectarian war, with armed gangs controlling neighbourhoods and slaughtering innocent members of the "enemy" community at improvised roadblocks. The logic of revenge and territorial control had taken over, and her revulsion from it led her towards a very different vision of politics. The caudillo-like leadership that coercive solidarity generates was brought home to her, she told me once, when the members of her small group were "arrested" by Fatah and hauled before Chairman Arafat himself for printing some critical piece about him in their newspaper.

She left Beirut when she recovered from her injuries, and completed her treatment in Britain. Going into exile was not an easy thing to do, even in the midst of a war that had turned the city into a series of armed camps run by militia bosses. Beirut for her represented an ideal of civilised living, a city of hedonism, sunlight and the free exchange of ideas, a place where boundaries were made to be crossed. "Cosmopolitan" was one of her favourite words, and it had no negative connotations for her. In Beirut, Arab traditions of hospitality and courtesy met European forms of restlessness and scepticism; she recalled a café culture of intense discussion, days at the beach-clubs and nights on some restaurant terrace in the mountains.

There was, I'm sure, an element of yearning nostalgia in her picture of Beirut before the fall, though she was clear-eyed about the social and civil tensions that were already undermining the so-called Switzerland of the middle east; yet her image of the country is one shared by many Lebanese expatriates who remember life before the war, and she retained an intense loyalty to the city and to the possibility of coexistence in Lebanon. Two weeks before she died she had gone there again, and for the first time, friends say, she felt utterly depressed about the future of the country, which is once more digging itself into its communal trenches and living in fear of another and more devastating war between Syria and Iran, on the one hand, and Israel on the other, which will be fought out on Lebanese territory.

Since the end of the cycle of wars in Lebanon in 1990, the country had seemed to be recovering part of its old dynamism and prosperity. Mai and her partners opened an Arabic-language branch of the publishing house in Beirut, which is now one of the Arab world's leading imprints; she exhibited her work and was spending more of her time there. Hizbollah's opportunistic raid and Israel's grotesque overreaction seemed to have put paid to fifteen years of patient reconstructive work.

A cosmopolitan wind

Mai Ghoussoub was born into the Maronite upper middle class in the heartland of Mount Lebanon. Her parents' home village is not far from the town of Bikfaya, the stronghold of the Gemayels, the dominant clan of the Maronite political establishment. She was educated at a French lycée, like all her peers, and grew up reading French literature as a matter of course, as aware of events in Paris as of crises in Palestine. It was here that she met her many friends of Sunni and Shi'a origin, who were longing for something new that would cut down the old sectarian barriers. She studied literature at the Lebanese University and also took a mathematics degree at the American University in Beirut.

In London in the early 1980s, Mai was part of a network of leftwing reformers challenging the dominant nationalist pieties that still governed thought about the middle east. The journal Khamsin, which brought together Iranian, Israeli, Iraqi, Lebanese and Egyptian intellectuals, played a crucial role in stimulating debate. Mai was close to those of her ex-Trotskyist comrades who challenged the standard left line on Khomeini in the early days of the Iranian revolution: far from being a kind of Kerensky who would be swept aside by the masses, he was an intelligent theocrat who had shaped an alliance of the bazaar merchants and the "disinherited", and he had genuine mass support. This now seems obvious; in 1979-80 it was heresy for the anti-imperialist left, more concerned with finding good in America's latest enemy than in seeing him for what he was.

Soon after her arrival in London from Paris, where she had spent three years after recovering from her injuries, she noticed that while Paris had three bookshops specialising in the Arab world, London had none. She called Andre Gaspard, by then another refugee from the civil war living in New York, and within a short time they had raised the money to open Al Saqi Bookshop on Westbourne Grove. It was an impulsive enterprise - they did not have proper visas, and English was their third language - but it was very successful, partly because it refused to censor itself: every current of opinion in the region and in the west was represented in the literature that the shop sold, and it became a lifeline for scholars and for dissidents in the repressive societies of the middle east. Minor Saudi princes turned up, for example, and spent thousands of pounds on books that no-one would dare sell in the kingdom.

The publishing company, also called Al Saqi, played a central role in bringing writings on democracy to an Arab audience, including books by Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper and many others. They also helped to change western perceptions of writing from the Muslim world.

Al Saqi was the first publisher in Britain to sponsor translations of the work of Ismail Kadare, long before he became celebrated in the English-speaking countries. Broken April, his great story of a society trapped in the logic of vendetta, was, I think, a fundamental book for Mai. Other translations included work by Tahar ben Jalloun, Amin Maalouf, Germaine Tillion, Gilles Kepel, and Fatima Mernissi's groundbreaking feminist text Beyond the Veil. Al Saqi also published Mai's memoir, Leaving Beirut, which combines her own memories with lightly-fictionalised stories of those who went through the war - especially women - and reflections on historical amnesia and the fragile potential for democratic reconciliation of differences. Most importantly, it was about escaping the culture of revenge, and "the difficulties of salvaging kindness in the harsh reality of this Middle East where people both live and condemn each other to exile."

 

The gift of life

The logo of Al Saqi, the water-carrier, showing a seller of water bent under the weight of his life-giving burden and offering a cup to someone who is thirsty, is one that I will always associate with Mai herself. She was not a good haggler, and I've never met anyone more willing to give of her time and resources to anyone in need. People who worked for her often became friends, and could be found at dinner in her house.

The parties in the bookshop and the Kufa Gallery next door to it were not routine book-trade affairs, because Mai's warmth and interest in people made you feel that you were attending a continuously evolving salon at which your presence really mattered. She was genuinely democratic, and would introduce some deeply unfashionable writer to the Lebanese ambassador or the literary editor of a newspaper without any of the calculated networking motives that such events normally excuse. You didn't always want to read or look at the work of the artists you met at the Kufa Gallery, but you wanted to spend time with them in the atmosphere Mai created, and you looked forward to being drawn in to this generous space again.

Her evenings at home were even better: friends sitting on chairs or on the floor around her living-room, speaking lightly yet with deep seriousness about books, films or issues of the day. You expected passionate argument at Mai's evenings, often kicked off by a debate between her and Hazem Saghieh, her husband and, in the most literal sense, her other half - brilliant, funny and provocative argument about intractable situations between people who refused ever to give in to despair. They were an extraordinary couple, whose disagreements only seemed to strengthen their commitment to each other and to the case for the non-violent resolution of disagreements in the world from which they had come, even as it sank into violent chaos in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.

At the heart

I have memories of Mai's kindness that are too personal to express in the immediate aftermath of her death. If she knew you were in despair she had a way of reconnecting you with life; she could make you feel, without trivialising your difficulty, that the important thing was to revel in what we have left. She would fix you with her one good eye, steadily and humorously, and draw you into accepting an invitation to a concert or an evening in some wonderful Lebanese restaurant, where she or Hazem would insist on paying.

Above all, I will remember the time I spent with her in Lebanon. The first time I went there with her and Hazem was in 1993. The old centre of Beirut was a heap of pockmarked ruins, the landmarks of her idyllic childhood turned to rubble. Syrian paratroopers were everywhere; Syrian intelligence thugs manned checkpoints on the road south to the border of the Israeli-occupied zone. Hizbollah's western hostages had just been released. The names of villages by the roadside recalled massacres and expulsions. But Mai saw the possibility of renewal and was determined to show me the diversity and strangeness, and what was left of the beauty of the country.

For nearly two weeks she and Hazem made the time to take me to the Shi'a south, the Druze mountains, the coastal cities, the Palestinian camps. She patiently explained the rivalries between the Maronite factions as we travelled around the villages on Mount Lebanon. We went to Hazem's home region of Akkar in the north, an extraordinary patchwork of Orthodox Christians and Sunni Arabs close to the Syrian border. They had friends in every community, ex-communists, ex-nationalists, ex-militiamen. They seemed to have seen the worst that politics can do, had lived through a nightmare and wanted to create the possibility of a life that isn't held hostage to impossible dreams of triumph over a near-mythical enemy. She was teaching me her country, and "salvaging kindness".

Mai was at the centre of that web of sadder and wiser friends, refusing to allow petty differences to stand in her way and seeing the good in almost everyone. I am certain that they will all miss her terribly. I know I will.

Mai Ghoussoub, an artist, writer and publisher, was born and brought up in Beirut, and lived in London from 1979. Her books include Leaving Beirut: Women and the Wars Within (Saqi, 2001) and (co-edited with Emma Sinclair-Webb) Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in the Modern Middle East (Saqi, 2006)

Mai Ghoussoub wrote four articles for openDemocracy:

"Abu Ghraib: I do not know where to look for hope"
(10 May 2004)

"Who is serious?"
(9 June 2004)

"Lebanon: slices of life"
(31 October 2006)

"Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award"
(13 February 2007)

Mai Ghoussoub died in London on 17 February 2007.

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