Remembering Mai Ghoussoub

Anthony Barnett
Anna Wilson Maggie Gee Anthony Barnett
20 February 2007

Anna Wilson, Saqi books

I spent many happy hours looking for things with Mai. Some of our most fruitful conversations and ideas emerged while searching for her handbag, her keys (kept in a giant pink spectacle-case with magical powers of camouflage), or, often, a manuscript. Every meeting was an opportunity to find things, and lose things; to leave things on desks and to take other things as mysteriously away. And it always delighted me to come upon her phone beside the coffee machine, or her bag under my desk, as it meant she would soon be back.

Now on my desk is the goofy, toothy, toy camel she brought from Dubai for my as-yet-unborn child. I was looking forward so much to having a child that Mai would know; it was one of the many reasons I think of my child as lucky. But I know that no amount of effort on my part will ever conjure for him, or for her, one tiny iota of this elegant, intelligent, humorous, humanist lady, who made time for every single person she met, who put such a refreshingly high value on life, who loved her friends and family with such devotion, who loved art and books and films and performance and human culture in all its forms, and who has left me behind, on this last leaving behind, with a sense of shocked disbelief that I should ever have had the outrageous good luck to know Mai and to work with her for four precious years.

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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Maggie Gee, novelist

Mai's article on a Beirut photo is typical of her: willing to rethink things, generous-spirited, empathic, ready to give credit to other artists and not rush to judgment or to condemn.

I wish more people could think and feel as Mai's extraordinary life taught her to think and feel. But as soon as I write that, I realise Mai would never have wanted more people to be like her, since she believed in variety and diversity above everything. I am probably just saying I wish from the bottom of my heart that she were not dead.

If you look at her life and her struggle to become an artist and fight for freedom of expression, to cross cultures, bringing what she learned from one life to enrich the next, to publish books she believed in, many of which, like my own The White Family, might never otherwise have seen the light of day, you see that Mai Ghoussoub was an emblematic figure for openDemocracy. This space carries forward the freedoms she believed in, and her friends will be grateful that you mourn her today.

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Anthony Barnett, openDemocracy

I find Mai's death acutely painful in a way that may show something about her exceptional spirit.

For a long time I knew of her only as the legendary co-founder of Saqi books. I met her for the first time not long ago, got to know her slightly when she wrote for openDemocracy. Then she approached me, as she did others, to help with Lebanon, Lebanon, the collection she inspired as a protest against the Israeli attack in July-August 2006.

I had been enraged by the Israeli chief-of-staff's decision to punish an entire people for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Here was a society on the way to recreating a secular, pluralist, economically promising country in the middle east and it was being smashed. I threw myself into helping Mai as much as I could.

From this moment of collaboration I learned of Mai's qualities as an artist. She was exceptionally gifted as a sculptor, and a radical choreographer of performance, as well as an inspirer of culture and publishing. We talked of my borrowing some of her sculpture, of going to Lebanon, of a possible collaboration between openDemocracy and Saqi books. In her emails she always added kisses to my partner. It was as if we were in our 30s, anticipating a working friendship tempered by experience.

The pain I feel at her death is that I was looking forward to getting to know her.

Our last conversation was when I called to ask her view of the large Hizbollah mobilisations and she said she found herself in a most uncomfortable and unusual situation of feeling she should support a government.

The article we published in openDemocracy a week ago - "Beirut and contradiction: reading the World Press Photo award" (13 February 2007) - was typically self-reflective, calmly taking the reader through her own change of mind about a prize-winning photograph from Lebanon which juxtaposed the war and young fashionable women. Mai examined the layers of experience it contained, brought it back to the viewer (and, as she put it, voyeur) and helped you to do what is so necessary yet so hard in today's world - to look twice at an image. It was her looking forward.

And so, I looked forward to working with her. She was open to the future because she was naturally, independently and continuously creative. Few countries need these qualities as much as Lebanon. I hope a new generation will step forward to try and fill her role with same intelligence and humanity.

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