By Mrinalini Pandey
Gibran wrote in Sand and Foam, “only an idiot or a genius breaks man-made laws; and they are the nearest to the heart of God” (Gibran, 2019, p. 656). This article examines how a unique relationship between two thinkers – Khalil Gibran and May Ziyadah – questioned societal norms through love and intellect. They were companions who, although separated by thousands of miles, remained intellectually and spiritually united.
Gibran’s name is not unfamiliar in the Arab World, he was one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century, who became immortal after writing The Prophet. Born in Bsharri, Lebanon in 1883, he, along with his family, immigrated to the US when he was twelve years old. While he was already in school, he developed an ardent interest in literature and art. When he was just twenty-two, a renowned Boston photographer, Fred Holland Day, organised Gibran’s painting exhibition. The year 1905 saw the publishing of his first book, Al-Musiqah (Music), by the end of 1908 he earned the reputation of rebel after his book Al-Arwah al-Mutamarridal (Spirits Rebellious) was published. In 1912, his much celebrated book, The Broken Wings was published, after which he got in touch with Ziyadah, and their correspondence lasted until Gibran’s death (Bushrui, 2012, p.11). However, it was The Prophet that overshadowed many of his previous works and people began considering him as the third-best selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Laozi. “The Prophet sold more than 9 million copies in its American edition alone…The Prophet has been recited at countless weddings and funerals” (Acocella, 2007).
However, little is known about his unusual and unconventional, yet platonic, literary relationship with Ziyadah. It is often believed that when it comes to love, society tends to abide by its own unwritten laws which few dare to defy. Gibran, in describing the courage it takes to break the shackles of convention, says “What laws shall you fear if you dance but stumble against no man’s iron chains” (Gibran, 2019, p. 594). He shared a special bond with May Ziyadah for over nineteen years, a time during which they never met, keeping their friendship alive through the exchange of letters.
As if straight out of a fairy tale, May Ziyadah and Kahlil Gibran shared a relationship nothing short of fantasy. In the English translation of Gibran’s Self Portrait, Anthony R. Ferris quotes Dr. Jamil Jabre while writing about Ziyadah’s relationship with Gibran: “it is difficult to imagine a man and a woman falling in love without having known or met one another except by correspondence. But artists have their own unusual way of life which they themselves can only understand” (Ferris, 1959, p.37). “Gibran’s relationship with May Ziyadah differed in many respects. It is impossible to define such a love, though it included spiritual and platonic elements” (Bushrui & Jenkins, 1998, p.208).
Although Ziyadah’s name is well respected in literary circles, she remains unknown to much of the wider reading public. She was a Lebanese-Palestinian writer and poet and one of the prominent figures of the Nahda (Arab Awakening) in the early twentieth century. Though her Christian name was Mary, she preferred May, finding it to be more poetic. She was born in Nazareth but left for Cairo at the age of twenty-two and enrolled herself at the Egyptian University where she studied Classical Arabic Literature. 1911 saw the publishing of her first collection of poems titled Fleurs de reve, published under the pseudonym Isis Copia.
Throughout her literary career she remained vocal about several issues concerning women, such as their status in society and the women’s movement in Egypt and the broader Arab world. She remained forthright in expressing how women were forced by their families to marry men they did not love (Aytac, 2002, p.72-74). In one of her most acclaimed works, Woman with a Story, she goes into great lengths to narrate the predicament of a woman who falls prey to patriarchal societal norms, gossip, and slanders (Muttairi & Khatri, 2022, p.41). In addition to writing poems, novels and essays, May penned the biographies of three pioneering women writers: Warda al-Yaziji; Aisha Taimur; and Bahithat al-Badiyya (pseudonym of Malak Hifni Nasif). Bahithat al-Badiyya, Ziyadah’s biography of Malak Hifni Nasif, was especially noteworthy because it was the first book written by an Arab woman about another Arab woman (Mowafy, 1999, p.61). Nasif herself went through a troubled marriage, finding out after her marriage that her husband had another wife, polygamy a common practice at the time. As a consequence of that, she took it upon herself to write about the predicament of women through her writings and continued to raise the issue of women’s rights throughout her career. Ziyadah likened Nasif’s pain to a “sacred fire” which burned within her and motivated her to work towards the cause of women (Kader, 1987, p. 65).
Despite the multitude of literary guises she capably assumed, what made her even more unique was her relationship with Kahlil Gibran. Their correspondence began after Ziyadah read Gibran’s Broken Wings in 1912. She unabashedly expressed her opinion about the book in a letter that was addressed to him. Though she admired his style of writing, she was unable to empathise with the protagonist of the story:
“…I do not agree with you on the subject of marriage, Gibran… I am in full accord with you on the fundamental principle that advocates freedom of woman. The woman should be free, like the man, to choose her own spouse guided not by advice or aid of neighbours and acquaintances but by her own personal inclinations. After choosing her life partner, a woman must bind herself completely to the duties of that partnership upon which she has embarked… Why can’t a married woman meet secretly with the man she loves? Because by thus doing she will be betraying her husband and disgracing the name she has willingly accepted, and will be lowering herself in the eyes of the society of which she is a member… Suppose we let Selma Karamy, the heroine of your novel, and every woman that resembles her in affections and intelligence, meet secretly with an honest man of noble character; would not this condone any woman’s selecting a friend, other than her husband, to meet with secretly?” (Ferris, 1959, p.37).
This marked the beginning of a nineteen-year-long relationship which continued until Gibran’s death in 1931 – a relationship that thrived on intellectual companionship and a spiritual connection that transcended any physical aspects. They were never destined to meet, yet their letters are testament to their emotional proximity. In one letter Gibran writes, “May God forgive you, you have robbed me of my heart’s tranquillity and had it not been my steadfastness and obduracy you would have robbed me of my faith” (Bushrui & Kuzbari, 2015, p.102). Once, when Gibran asked her to visit him in New York, she refused by claiming that she was not allowed through customs.
Nevertheless, Gibran stood by her side through all the ups and downs of life. When her father died he wrote to her, “ I learnt today that your father has travelled beyond the golden horizon and has reached the goal towards which we all make our pilgrimage. What am I to say to you? Mary you are far too sublime in thought and in your choices of words, you wish to hear for soothing platitudes of consolation. But in my heart there is a strong desire to stand before you, and a longing to hold your hand in mine in silence, feeling all that fills your soul, inasmuch as he who is near to you and yet still a stranger is able to share in what you feel” (Bushrui & Kuzbari, 2015, p.158).
The letters Gibran wrote to Ziyadah were compiled and given the form of a book titled Blue Flames, edited by Salma Haffar al-Kuzbari and Suheil Badi Bushrui. Their correspondence embodies the messages of love, friendship, and the importance of connecting with someone on a deeper level – for when you do so, you embark on a path of self discovery, and “search [for] God in the heart of the other” (Aslani & Amirian, 2019, p.132).
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