Book Review: In search of a meaning of life rather than death, or death rather than life

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 30 Nov 2019

As 2019 draws to a close, Ahram Online’s Books section is reviewing some of this year’s well-received titles

Fi Athr Enyyat El-Zayyat (On the Trail of Enayyat El-Zayyat), by Emane Merssal, Cairo: Kotob Khan, 2019.
When life gives in to death after a brief moment of hesitation, they call it suicide. They would possibly refer it to an unfortunate life, loss of love or chronic depression that had taken its course.
However, having incidentally come across Al-Hob wel-Samatt (“Love and Silence”), the “unattended single novel,” by Enayyat El-Zayyat, Emane Merssal is not prepared to accept that the book she read and re-read is just the mystifying manuscript of a woman who chose at some moment back in the early 1960s to part ways with the bewildering questions about her identity or the meaning of life or death – thus crossing over to the unknown.
The long and diligent search starts. It is not at all driven by sheer literary curiosity but rather by an urge inspired by this ambiguous link that obscurely connects one particular reader with one particular author through one particular book.
The moment that Merssal found Al-Hob wel-Samatt, which was published after Merssal herself was born on 30 November 1966, and after El-Zayyat passed away on 3 January 1963, in her mid-20s, was a few decades down the road, in 1993.
Merssal read and re-read the novel, which is more or less an account of Merssal’s perplexing thoughts voiced through the leading protagonist, Nagla, in 1950s Cairo.
It would not be difficult for Merssal to immediately define one of many possible lines that brings together these three women, Enayyat, Naglaa and Emane: it is this deep restlessness, not just with one’s self but more significantly perhaps with one’s thoughts and surroundings.
The long and enduring – at times depressing and painful – search starts, with hardly any tangible clues. It starts at an old Cairo cemetery in a failed 2015 attempt to find the grave of El-Zayyat, as was mentioned in on the death announcement pages in Al-Ahram for the annual commemoration of El-Zayyat’s death.
The announcement dates back to 1967, the year when the Ministry of Culture published Al-Hob wel-Samatt. It is also the year of Egypt’s shattering military defeat.
There was yet another failure that Merssal faced in 2015, upon a visit to Egypt from Canada where she is now based as a professor, researcher and poet with her husband and two children. She failed to meet the 1960s cinema star Nadia Loutfy, a close friend of Merssal’s, as they were both neighbours and schoolmates during their years at one of the Cairo-based German schools. Indeed, El-Zayyat’s suicide coincides with Loutfy’s birthday.
Still, the search continues, from Canada as in Egypt. It inevitably leads to some leads that evolve into a profile of El-Zayyat and of her life/death confusion that she was possibly reflecting on when she wrote: “I am the lost one who is searching for her life…with an existence and a demise that are all intertwined.”
The book is much more than Merssal’s eloquently detailed account of her encounters with those who coincided, one way or the other, with the path of this woman who was prone to sadness, prone to art and prone to love. It is certainly not a literary jigsaw puzzle that Merssal is playing with her reader. And most certainly it is not a masked autobiography of Enayyat El-Zayyat by Merssal.
It is something a lot more complex. It is perhaps a beautiful literary manuscript that walks the reader through the dark shades of the mind and soul of a woman who was trying to live but failed to, and an era of hopes and dreams defied and lost.
While Merssal shares the traces of the trail of El-Zayyat, she walks the reader through a Cairo that is no longer there – “neither the streets nor the walls,” except perhaps for a few old photos and paper cuttings hiding in a box in someone’s storage or scattered across the shelves of one collector or the other.
After all, Merssal might have been tracing Merssal through El-Zayyat. And she might move on to trace Maguida El-Khatib, a unique and beautiful actress of the 1960s, who came to her in a dream as she had a brief nap in a mosque near the deserted grave of El-Zayyat.
Emane Merssal
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