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2 November 1952 – 17 February 2007
The sudden and untimely death of Mai Ghoussoub shocked the arts and literary worlds. Mai was such an icon of life, of creative force and imagination. She was always daring, always humanistic and caring in her words, her actions and her art, always there, always approachable, utterly indefatigable in her support of freedom of expression, relentlessly tireless in her rejection of any form of censorship.
It will be difficult for a long time to really comprehend that this vibrant and endearing personality is no longer at the end of a phone, or sitting at her desk, or smiling in her sweet way with her head cocked on one side, walking towards you from across a room.
Mai was one of the first people we interviewed when we started Banipal magazine, keen for her to tell us how she established Saqi Books, the first Arab publishing house and bookshop in the UK.
“What we wanted to do,” she explained, “was enable expression of all opinions, making them available, so to speak, publishing things we liked and things we hated, it did not matter. What was vital for us was giving readers a choice.”
How much she packed into her 55 years, after that chance visit to London in 1978 where she discovered “so much Arab life . . . but no Arabic bookshop, not one”.
In London, she also studied sculpture, already having studied French Literature and having a Mathematics degree. She became a writer, witness to the age she lived in, an iconoclastic installation artist, a playwright, an artist who was always ready to fuse genres and styles and come up with unexpected visual and aural ways of tackling issues of human failure, of repression, of discrimination, of censorship.
In the last years she saw her work performed and exhibited in many countries and cities, her titles and publishing house winning awards, she founded a new imprint for international literature, and surely, was about to enthrall us with yet newer works and projects.
She is terribly missed.