Women Readers, Women Writers in 19th and Early 20th Century Lebanon

In Anbara Khalidi’s Memoirs of an Early Arab Feminist: The Life and Activism of Anbara Salam Khalidi, Khalidi spends a fair bit of time discussing her views of literature, magazines, and writers:

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Although, as she notes, reading was one of the few pleasures open to her, as she didn’t have access to the “cinema, no trips, no swinging parties, no nightlife, no sunning ourselves on the beach, no listening to the radio, no lounging before television screens.”

Khalidi was born in 1897, nearly a half-century after Lebanese author Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq published his genre- (and gender)-bending four-volume Leg Over Leg. Yet Khalidi’s feminism seems in many ways less ambitious than al-Shidyaq’s. Khalidi’s was instead inspired by Qasim Amin (1863-1908), a writer sometimes called the “first Arab feminist.” While that’s doubtful — al-Shidyaq’s feminism is surely more fun than Amin’s — Amin was perhaps the first prominent Arab writer to argue in favor of following the patterns of Western gender relations.

Khalidi certainly found her family’s and social class’s gender roles suffocating, and obviously with good reason. But she she was not prevented from reading widely, and indeed came from a family of learned women: Her mother’s grandmother could read and write, and her own mother loved to read religious, historical, and fictional works. “I remember the trousseau she brought with her to her husband’s home included books such as The Life of Animals by al-Damiri [d. 1405], The Comprehensive History of Ibn al-Athir [d. 1232] and others. She and my father would often spend their evenings reading these books. She continued to read until her very last days when she was reading the novels of Ihsan ‘Abdul-Quddus [d. 1990].”

Khalidi describes herself as “an avid reader, there being no other means of entertainment.” She notes that there were no particular books for children in those days, but she was engaged both by the story of ‘Antar and the Thousand and One Nights. 

When Khalidi turns to describing women writers of the early twentieth century, in a chapter on “The Literary Scene of the 1920s and Beyond,” she reserves most of her admiration for Palestinian-Lebanese author May Ziadeh, “who was at the very pinnacle of women’s literature, and, without any doubt, without equal. A captivating writer, a brilliant literary salon hostess, and an orator who won the hearts of all who heard her, she was the focal point around whom revolved the most prominent men of science, literature, and poetry.”

Khalidi describes Ziadeh, who she met, as combining “scholarly maturity with the coquetry of a lovely young woman” and “profound thinking” with “an overpowering feminine mystique.” In this depiction, Ziadeh doesn’t sound altogether different from women writers of an earlier era — or at least such were the expectations hung on her, the lens through which she was often seen.

Khalidi glosses over the end of Ziadeh’s life, when she fell into a depression around 1935 and her relatives had her legally declared incompetent and committed her to a hospital for mental diseases. Her friends eventually obtained her release, but this imprisonment left its mark on the rest of her days.

Khalidi’s memoirs are probably not for the casual reader, but for the reader interested in Lebanese history of the early 19th century, particularly the histories of upper-class women, they will certainly be of interest.

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