Mai Ghoussoub fled civil war in her native Lebanon and settled in London in 1979. Though English was their third language, she and her friend André Gaspard soon determined to set up a bookshop and publishing house – to create "a roundabout, where languages met, where one could no longer tell where the East starts and where the West ends".
Yet when they opened, "We went through the telephone directory... looking for the al-something, or the Oriental this or that... I'm afraid many of our catalogues may have landed in Chinese restaurants or Thai sex shops."
Saqi Books is now a crucial fixture on the London cultural scene. Ghoussoub gained a reputation as a charismatic sculptor, playwright and human-rights activist. Her superb memoir, Leaving Beirut, is one of the essential books about war, women and the terrible ways that violence feeds on violence.
Now, to commemorate her tragically early death last year, Saqi has issued this rich, if rather patchy, collection of essays and stories. There are vignettes of the great divas of East and West, reflections on lipstick, the dilemmas of exile, the oddities of the English and cooking as performance art.
Much of the book looks back to Beirut. Ghoussoub learnt very young that "the Crusaders were either saints or cruel colonisers, depending on whether the textbooks were in French, from left to right, or in Arabic, from right to left". For women, messages about self-fulfilment and family honour were confusingly mixed. Yet growing up in a city where truth was relative proved an excellent training for a cosmopolitan artist.
In a typically sharp insight, Ghoussoub notes how, for those who have lived through violent conflict, war photographs tell a central lie. "Landscapes of devastation" can possess a strange beauty, but in real life it is accompanied by "the smell of this devastation". Martyrdom is never odourless.
Best of all is an essay that starts with the rumours of a 1996 Israeli plot to flood the Arab world with a chewing gum designed to make women so voracious that men are reduced to exhausted impotence. Yet similar anxieties about female sexuality are put to other political purposes. In an Egyptian hit film from the early 1990s, Mission to Tel Aviv, an irresistible woman seduces and drugs an Israeli officer to obtain vital military secrets. In the strange world of such absurd but noxious fantasies, Mai Ghoussoub is the perfect guide.
Saqi, £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897Reuse content