PEN hears with great sadness about the death of Mai Ghoussoub

Mai, member of PEN, artist, writer and founding director of Saqi Books sadly passed away on 17 February 2007 in London.

“We all mourn the sudden death on 17 February of Mai Ghoussoub, a formidable woman, a fine artist, and an inspired publisher. Her energetic presence marked all who came into contact with her. She rallied us into action over the tragedy of the last Lebanese war, hosting the Lebanon Lebanon evening for PEN members. Mai made Saqi Books not only a list but a site for understanding. She will be very much missed.” Lisa Appignanesi, Deputy President

“It was an extraordinary privilege to work with Mai Ghoussoub. Vibrant, passionate, committed to giving a voice to persecuted writers whose words might not otherwise have reached the reading public, she was also sensitive to the anguish involved in giving shape to a harrowing account of torture and rape. It is wholly typical of her dedication and skill as a publisher that she was able to make space at Saqi Books for Asiye’s Story, Turkish journalist Asiye Guzel’s acccount of her ordeal in prison.

My most vivid memory of Mai is of her standing beside Asiye and Fiona Shaw at the launch of Asiye’s Story in 2003. Asiye was a main case for the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN, and Richard McKane, our vice-chair, had translated her words from the Turkish. Asiye’s lines, which she repeated under torture: `There is no way out/my heart/no other way/we will survive these pains,’ was a testament to her courage; they also spoke vividly to me of Mai’s own courage and determination in championing the cause of a free Lebanon.

Last September English PEN and Saqi Books cooperated on another joint venture, together with OpenDemocracy and Index. An evening of readings, music and performance celebrated the publication of Lebanon, Lebanon, the anthology Mai created in protest against the Israeli attack of 2006. At the New Player’s Theatre, many of Mai’s authors read against a video backdrop of images of war. It was a full house and, as Mai wished, all the proceeds went to the children of the Lebanon. An outstanding event of the evening was Mai’s performance of Texterminator, a piece she had previously brought to the Lyric Theatre. She was, said my daughter, who helped to stage manage the event, `Just awesome.’ Awesome, and irreplaceable.” Carole Seymour-Jones, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN

Mai was born in 1952 in Lebanon and moved to London in 1979, where she studied sculpture at Morley College and the Henry Moore Studio. That same year she and her childhood friend, André Gaspard, founded the Al Saqi Bookshop, which has become a beacon of Arab culture in London. In 1983 they founded Saqi Books and in 1990 started the Arabic publishing house Dar al-Saqi in Beirut.

Since the 1980s Mai combined her activities as an artist, writer and publisher. Her art has been exhibited nationally and internationally. She wrote numerous articles on culture, gender, aesthetics and the Middle East, and is the author of many books in English, Arabic and French and her short stories have appeared in various anthologies.

In 2005 she wrote, directed and performed Texterminators at the Lyric and Dominion theatres in London, the Unity Theatre in Liverpool, and the Marignan Theatre in Beirut. It was described as ‘outstanding theatre’ by Time Out. Most recently, her work was featured in the exhibition Beirut Out of War at the MAN Museum in Liverpool.

Click here to read The Independent‘s obituary

Click here to read Open Democracy’s tribute to Mai

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