Friday, February 23, 2007

R.I.P. Mai Ghoussoub, 1952-2007

I was devastated when I learned earlier this week of the death of Mai Ghoussoub over the past weekend. I first met Mai in 1971, when we were both undergraduates at the American University of Beirut. We were both involved in left student politics at AUB, and both belonged to an independent left student organization called Our Struggle (Kifahuna) that published a mimeographed magazine by the same name. Mai was also the member of Lebanon's small but active Trotskyist movement at that time.

I lost touch with Mai after I left Beirut in January 1976, during the civil war, but I did hear from mutual friends that she had been wounded in the civil war. I also knew that she had co-founded Saqi Books in London, but although I was in London three times in the '80s, our paths never crossed. It wasn't until April 1999 that I met her again, when we both presented papers at a conference on Middle East Culture at Georgetown University, organized by Walter Armbrust. Since then, we stayed in touch, and I saw her in London in September '02 and July '03. I had a fabulous time with Mai the last time I saw her, when she took me to Momo's and its very exclusive downstairs Kemia bar. She liked to keep me informed about Beirut's cultural revival (I've not been back since January 1976), and it's thanks to her that I know about Beirut's jazz scene and groups like Soap Kills.

Mai was so generous, so creative, so vivacious and smart and fun. She worked very hard to make Saqi Books the first-rate publisher of Middle East (and other) books that it is today. She was a very fine writer--her Leaving Beirut: Women and the Wars Within is one of the best books I've read about Lebanon and the civil war, incredibly moving and lyrical. Mai was also an accomplished sculptor, playwright and actress. Her departure leaves a gaping hole.

Excellent obits/tributes can be found here and here and here.

And some examples of her writing:

"Lebanon: Slices of Life" (Oct. 31, 2006)

"Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award"
(Feb. 13, 2007)

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