Iman Mersal’s In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat takes the reader on a quest to unearth the reasons behind a young author’s suicide. Mersal is captivated by the author’s only novel, Love and Silence, which she comes across by chance in Sour Al-Azbakiya. She was drawn to the author’s surname, which resembles that of the award-winning novelist Latifa Al-Zayyat. Mersal assumed a relation between the two, but later learned there was none.
Love and Silence was an obscure semi-autobiographical narrative of grieving woman in the 1950s. Inspired by Al-Zayyat’s own grievances, the book illustrates a young woman’s search for a way out of her despair and into a hopeful future. While Al-Zayyat’s depression consumed her and took her life before the age of thirty, she afforded her protagonist a happier ending. Upon learning of the tragic fate of the author, Mersal made it her mission to track down her story.
In the Footsteps begins with Mersal trying to find Al-Zayyat’s family cemetery. She takes on the role of a detective trying to solve a cold case, looking for any lead on a victim suspended in history. It’s clear from such an undertaking that Mersal wasn’t convinced that a woman as young and talented as Enayat Al-Zayyat would choose to commit suicide, because her novel was initially rejected by publishers—the accepted myth which circulated in the publishing world. When her search for the cemetery is unsuccessful, she reaches out to the author’s closest friend, the actress Nadia Lofty.
Lotfy speaks fondly of her friend, highlighting her struggles with depression especially during her long divorce proceedings and custody battles.
These interviews eventually lead Mersal to Enayat’s sister. Atheema Al-Zayyat was glad that Mersal took an interest in her sister, and bitter that she remained forgotten. When discussing the suicide, Atheema Al-Zayyat said “we were young and didn’t understand the meaning of depression” (p. 77). This statement shifts the tone of the book, as Mersal delves into Al-Zayyat’s struggles with her mental health.
Enayat Al-Zayyat came from a prominent family and old money, who were ashamed of her suicide. She was afforded a good education in a private school, as is common among people of her social class. Her fluency in the German language allowed her to acquire a job, which required such linguistic proficiency. She married at a young age, had an abusive marriage and a son, whom she fought to keep after the divorce. Her life is not unique; however, the havoc it wreaked on her mental health was extraordinary.
Al-Zayyat’s earliest experiences with depression can be traced back to her school years. Upon corresponding with Emilia Yves, one of the departed author’s former classmates, Mersal learns that she didn’t attend her school exams in 1948 due to a hysterical breakdown. Al-Zayyat was treated at Behman, Egypt’s first private psychiatric hospital, in 1948 and again in 1962, two months before her suicide. Indicating that her demise was a result of personal turmoil, rather than a professional setback.
By reframing the young author’s death and opening her forgotten case, Mersal sheds light on a stigmatized topic. While it is becoming more acceptable to talk about issues such as depression and anxiety, the ailments of the mind have long been associated with madness or the supernatural and have, therefore, been a source of shame both to the patient and their families. This shame is indicated by the destruction of Al-Zayyat’s diaries at the hands of her family.
A few snippets of these diaries did, however, make their way to Mersal and serve as substantial proof of her depressive state: “my existence is as significant as my non-existence, if I exist or not the world won’t be affected,” writes Al-Zayyat (p. 196). This statement can be seen as precursory evidence of her suicide; a confirmation that her overdose on sleeping pills was intentional. But more so, it illustrates the depth of her despair.
Over the course of the book, Mersal interrupts the flow of her investigation and interviews to give the reader historical context, either about a location or a person she is referencing. While contextualization can provide the reader with some insight into the era the author is exploring, or the significance of certain people to her overall search, Mersal’s use of it interjects her narrative. Furthermore, these historical interruptions at times extended almost the length of an entire chapter and could have been briefer. Had she exercised brevity and weaved the history more seamlessly through the narrative, it would have achieved the desired effect without hindering the flow.
That being said, In the Footsteps highlights Mersal’s research and investigative skills. From the start, she follows the trail of clues tirelessly, picking up any thread that could lead her to the truth behind her subject’s suicide. Through a variety of sources from personal interviews, to articles and diary passages, to official records, the author was able to collect sufficient evidence to piece together the puzzle of Enayat Al-Zayyat.
Her choice of subject was also significant. Not only did she breathe life back into an author, who could have remained in obscurity, thereby introducing her work to a new generation of readers, but she is also contributing to the dialogue on mental health in Egypt.
Enayat Al-Zayyat died on the 5th of January, 1963, believing that she had left this world without a trace. But she was no victim of circumstance, as Mersal points out, or a faceless tragedy destined to be erased by history, instead she cemented her struggles in her own words and left them behind for future generations.
At the end of his film Destiny, director Youssef Chahine left the audience with the following quote: “ideas have wings, no one can stop them from reaching people.” Likewise, without intention, Love and Silence served as Al-Zayyat’s wings, freely finding its way to a new audience.
Through Iman Mersal’s journey into the past, the reader learns the story behind the writer and the reality behind the fiction. Thus, In the Footsteps could be read as a companion text to Al-Zayyat’s time-capsule of a novel, or as a stand-alone study of the young author.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly