Mayy Ziyada

مي زيادة

Palestine
1886-1941

Mayy Ziyada (1886-1941) was born as Mary Ziyada in Palestine, her father’s native home; her mother was Lebanese.  She was educated in girls’ schools but she and her parents immigrated to Egypt in 1908, amongst many white-collar Levant Arabs to flee various hardships in the Ottoman Arab provinces, seeking opportunities in Egypt’s livelier urban scene.  Her father took on the editorship of al-Mahrusa newspaper and Ziyada published her first poetry and prose there.  She emerged as a central figure in the Cairo world of politics, literature and art, instituting a long-running weekly salon in her home that brought together leading men and women in the period when Egyptian anti-colonial nationalism was at its height. Known as a spell-binding orator, she also published widely in the press; many of her writings were collected in volumes published by the presses of two leading Levantine-edited magazines, al-Hilal and al-Muqtataf.

 

Ziyada was acutely interested in biography, as a mode of bringing to notice the feminist intellectual work of earlier women and contemporaries, and she wrote intellectual biographies of three women (one a short speech, the others longer studies serialized in the press).  In them, she makes overt references to the ways that biography is always autobiographical.  In other writings, she employs an emotionally dense and poetic style of personal sentiments, a sort of ‘veiled autobiography’, perhaps, as in the composition below, where second-person and self-address intersect and the figure of the restless and despondent young woman is both highly specific and universal. 

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Guard your Heart Carefully

1922

Slowly the twilight lowered its curtain over earth, cloud-margins bordered, patched and yoked with threads of gold and silver. Mirrored in the bowers of sunset, tiny lake-images of ruby and pools of emerald faded, and a gloomy morose melancholy settled on the earth. Dejection settled over your eyes. Inside you what sun sets, O young …