Jean Said Makdisi

I believe it is absolutely essential that we do our homework, and work hard on the history of Arab women…To know our past better is to understand ourselves better, and to plan for the future better. I hope young feminist scholars and writers will take our movements in this direction.” Jean Said Makdisi to the Knowledge Workshop, 2017. 

About the Author:

Who is Jean Said Makdisi?

Jean was born Jerusalem, and grew up in Cairo. She lived in the USA for some time before settling in Beirut in 1972. She taught English and Humanities at the Beirut University College (presently the Lebanese American University) from 1972 till 1995. During that time, she-worked in the university theater, co-directing a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Gondoliers, in 1988; served as music designer for a university production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1991, and adapted for the theater from the ancient epic, Gilgamesh, and then directed the play in 1995. She has sung with the Beirut Orpheus Choir, the AUB Choir and currently with the AUB Choir and Choral Society.

She has worked with the women’s movement in Lebanon, and has written widely on Arab women and feminism, war, literature, and the cinema. She has participated in numerous international and regional conferences, and has been an active member of the Lebanese Association of Women Researchers, co-editing several books and co-organizing several international conferences with the association, most recently Arab Feminisms: A Critical Perspective (2009).

She is the author of Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir (New York: Persea Books, 1990) which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book in1990, and was translated into Arabic in 2008 as shatat Beirut: muthakarat harb شتات بيروت: مذكرات حرب (Beirut, Saqi). Her second book was Teta, Mother and Me: An Arab Woman’s Memoir (London: Saqi Books, 2005) which was then published in New York (Norton:2006) as Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women. She edited Serene Husseini Shahid’s book, Jerusalem Memories (Beirut: Naufal, 2000), and co-edited the English translation of Shafiq al Hout’s memoir, My Life in the PLO (London: Pluto Press, 2011).

Writing Rituals:

We are always curious about authors’ writing rituals, and so we asked Jean if she has her own writing ritual, and a time and a place that she prefers for writing. She told us:

I always write in the morning, though sometimes, if a deadline is fast approaching, I might work all day, usually editing or re-writing. But I do not feel creative in the afternoon or evening, and generally if I have not written what I must by noon or early afternoon, I give up for the day.

I always write at home, and at my desk — once I had one: for years I did not have “a room of my own,” or a desk, and only acquired these once my three sons grew up, married and moved to their own homes.  I know that some people can work to music, but I need total silence. Also I like to be near a calm natural scene. Before the current building orgy began in Beirut, I would sit on my balcony and look at the sea as I composed, especially between sentences or as I sought the right word. Today because of all the construction around my house I cannot see the sea — or the sky for that matter– so I just close the door of my room and do the best I can. I have a modest collection of paintings, lithographs and photographs by Lebanese women on the wall in front of me which is a substitute for a view. I stare at the pictures when I am searching for the precise wording to express my thoughts. In my summer home in Dhour el Shweire, I have a stunning view of the surrounding mountains and always feel the presence of the sky, which I miss very much in Beirut. I often sit and write in the garden under the ancient trees, including a great cedar, which we are lucky to have, and but for the odd bee or ant, or the distant sound of the inevitable bulldozer — how our lives are dominated by these dreadful machines these days — I am very happy to be there.

About the Books:

Jean Said Makdisi’s wonderful books are available at the Knowledge Workshop

Beirut Fragments: War Memoir is a beautifully written autobiographical account of life and persistence in the midst of the different stages of the civil war in Lebanon. In one chapter, there is perhaps some humor, even if bitter, in providing a glossary of phrases and words that were well-used during the war. In another chapter, she gives a glimpse of the social and economic life in Beirut and Hamra, and experiences of being out in Hamra Street when the sounds of gunfire blast in the air. Another chapter is dedicated to the Israeli invasion of 1982, while she also recounts life in the Spring of 1989, and the persistence of going on with daily life despite the destruction, fear and sense of hopelessness.

The historical context that we read in the background of Beirut Fragments shifts to the center in Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women, with the same attention to details of domestic life and the social and political contexts.

Jean explores her personal and collective past starting with her own girlhood in Cairo and Dhour El Schweir, her travel to the U.S and her return to Beirut— always paying attention to what is happening around her, on the familial and political levels. Through writing about her grandmother, she also writes about the missionary schools, the women who taught there and the education that girls received at schools. She also recounts stories of her teta’s married life in the context of economic hardships during World War I and later, the fall of the ottoman empire. The story of Jean’s mother is partly presented through her mother’s journals describing life in Palestine in the 1920s until the 1940s, and letters between her parents, showcasing the very varied sources that the writer used in order to construct this memoir.

Teta, Mother and Me is an informative, multi-layered, and enjoyable read, and we consider it an important feminist book that entangles the domestic with the social and political spheres. Consequently, it provides us with needed insights into the lives of some Arab women— especially middle and upper class women, in 19th and 20th century Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine.

The Writing Process:

What can you tell us about the writing experience for each of your books, Teta, Mother and Me and Beirut Fragments?  That is, how was the writing process different in each of your books?

Beirut Fragments was written in bits and pieces over the years of the war. It was not a diary, or a journal of daily events, or anything like that. That is, it was not written in any kind of chronological order, but rather as a series of separate chapters which came about, stimulated by outside events, and which were put together during the final editing process. In fact, the first chapter I wrote early on in the war actually became the middle chapter of the book: Mirrors, or Contradictions: A Self Portrait. I had felt alienated from the confusing events I was living through, and so wrote this to find the links between these outside events and the conflicts in my own personal life. It was very important to me to do so, and it was quite difficult to do, but I gained a kind of inner peace by trying to understand my place in the world.

The arrangements of later the chapters fell into place almost naturally and without any planning — but for the final chapters — until the final editing process. I wrote my account of the 1982 Israeli invasion of 1982, for example, on the first day of a trip to New York that I took shortly after the invasion, as I sat alone in my brother’s home. He and his wife had gone to work, and their children to school. I felt a terrible emptiness and almost panic as, sitting alone in that empty house, I relived those awful days, and so decided to calm myself down by writing about them, beginning at the very beginning, June 4, and tracing my family’s experiences one day at a time.

The first chapter of the book was a kind of introduction to its nature, and the form it was taking after it was done. I never attempted to write, or even thought about writing, a blow-by-blow narrative of the political events. That was already being done by many journalists and historians, and political commentators, and I felt that they were somehow missing the point. I wished to record the experience of war, not an analysis of the events.

My second book, Teta, Mother and Me was of an entirely different nature. Beirut Fragments had just been published, to some acclaim, and my mother had recently died. I was feeling her loss very keenly. I had long ago thought about writing about her, and her mother, whom I had loved very deeply and who often lived with us. So I started out what I thought was going to be a simple, nostalgic, loving account of their lives. It was only when I began writing that I suddenly discovered how little I knew of them, their schooling, their parents, and so on. That made me understand that I had to do some research, but I had no idea how much research I would have to end up doing. I had to create my own research system as there was almost nothing in the established histories, to which I had turned with great expectations, about the lives of women. So, although much of my readings in these histories were enormously useful in helping me reconstruct the political and historical past, I learned next to nothing that was of use in trying to recreate the way my grandmother and mother had lived. I worked for a couple of years tracing family histories often based on anecdotes and gossip, and family trees (which always, by the way, left out women, however illogical that was!) finding old letters, interviewing people — mostly women — who had known them in their lifetimes, and in general digging into a lost past.

Suffice it to say that the writing of this book was much more deliberate and planned than the other.

Some time after I finished Teta, Mother and Me, my work on some academic projects was interrupted when I began work on Serene Husseini Shahid’s book, Jerusalem Memories. Serene was in her eighties when she came to me one day with some papers, little anecdotes and small stories about her childhood and young adult life in Jerusalem that she had been jotting down, and asked for my opinion as to whether she should continue, and whether she should try to publish them. Based on the feminist ideology described below, I thought she definitely should, for although they were small — two or three pages long — and described personal incidents, I felt that memoirs of Palestine, especially those written by women, and more especially when their subjects involved little girls, who are rarely if ever written about in the Arab world — should be added to the layers of the Palestinian chronicle.  I tried hard to find an editor who could do justice to these little pieces, not turning them into yet another political essay on Palestine but respecting their nature as naive word paintings, providing distinctive and entirely personal details and colour. In the end, I decided to take on the job myself. I had to turn them into a coherent whole, and once again I had to do quite a bit of research to fill in some of the historical blanks, and to correct some of her historical errors, in order to get them into publishable shape. Also I had to polish her English, in which language she had chosen to write. She had wished to make a contribution to the Palestine cause, to help the story of Palestine reach the outside world.

On Women’s History:

We asked Jean Said Makdisi: What drew you to explore the history of the women in your family in Teta, Mother and Me?

I have already answered this question above, but wish to add something that I, as a life-long feminist, consider to be of paramount importance to the women’s and feminist movements. I have several times remarked on how little has been written about women and their lives in the established histories of the region, and how little knowledge there existed especially about ordinary women like my mother and grandmother — and myself.  I had concluded in Teta, Mother and Me, and other feminist writing, that in their own way, women had helped create history, and especially culture. Famous women — writers, political activists, daughters of great and wealthy families — were relatively well documented, but I had to work hard to find, and then add to the record based on my research, details about the lives of ordinary women, and their contributions.

Perhaps the most important element in my feminist approach is to find out more about women in the past. We often talk of “tradition” but as we have so few details and know so little systematically of the private past that I often feel we are cheating intellectually when we do. I have been deeply impressed by the scholarly work done in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the US, Britain and other countries about the lives of women, based on the study of official registers, court records, diaries, letters, domestic accounts and so on — many of these unpublished, so we have to knock on doors to access these private archives. I always feel that we have not done our homework as Arab feminists. These others have studied individual women — actresses, ladies of great families, daughters of popes, women in the colonies, nuns, political activists, even prostitutes — and thus provided at least some of the historical background with which to clarify the contemporary situation. We have yet to do this ourselves. There are exceptions of course, and more and more is being done, but we have hardly scratched the surface of our own past.

Once, when I was being interviewed by a Lebanese newsman he put the following question to me: What do you think about “the Arab woman?”(المرأة العربية  . I almost blew up at the poor man. Who is “the Arab woman?” I scolded. Rich? Poor? Middle class? Young? Old? Middle-aged? Rural? Urban? Bedouin? Educated? (and what does that mean anyway?) Illiterate? Married? Single? Divorced? Widowed? Working? Homekeeper? Living at home? Refugee? Lebanese? Saudi? Tunisian? Palestinian? Muslim? Christian? Jew?

Why do we try to simplify and therefore falsify the variety of our experiences, thus simplifying them and making them easier to stereotype? Why not try to understand our past and our present in order to understand ourselves and our requirements better? Why ignore class structures, educational institutions, national and religious laws, national and personal experiences, instead of providing accurate, researched histories which can clarify all this by providing details of individual experiences?

I believe it is absolutely essential that we do our homework, and work hard on the history of Arab women. This is not the task of professional historians alone — although they should guide much of this work — but also researchers from all disciplines who can trace the lives of the women in their own families, providing or creating a new archive.  To know our past better is to understand ourselves better, and to plan for the future better. I hope young feminist scholars and writers will take our movements in this direction.

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