INTERVIEW: Iman Mersal - In the tracks of a forgotten past

David Tresilian , Tuesday 20 Jul 2021

Egyptian writer Iman Mersal was awarded this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi in May.


Browsing through the heaps of books for sale on the open-air bookstalls of the Ezbekiyya Book Market in Cairo, Egyptian writer Iman Mersal came across a novel by an unknown author. Entitled Al-hubb wa-al-samt (Love and Silence) and published in 1967 by the state-owned Dar al-katib al-arabi publishers, the novel and its otherwise unknown author Enayat al-Zayyat piqued her interest enough for her to buy the book and to take it home to read it.

When she came across al-Zayyat’s novel in 1993, Mersal had only recently moved to Cairo from her native Mansoura and was working towards a MA and then a PhD in Arabic Literature at Cairo University. However, despite the many changes in her life that subsequently took place, including her relocation to Canada in 1998 where she is now a professor of Arabic literature, she did not forget al-Zayyat’s novel.

Returning to it some ten years later, she took the best part of a decade to find out more about the novel and its author, eventually publishing an account of her research as Fi athar Enayat al-Zayyat (In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat) with the independent Cairo publisher Kotob Khan in 2019. Immediately recognised as a major contribution to life-writing in Arabic, the book went through several editions, striking a chord with readers who may have been ignorant about al-Zayyat and her novel and would have known of Mersal’s work from her earlier poetry collections as well as from her well-received earlier non-fiction book Kayfa taltaem: an al-omoma wa askhbahuha (How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts).

Today, Mersal’s achievement in In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat is being more and more widely recognised. A French translation by veteran translator Richard Jacquemond, also the translator of a selection of Mersal’s poetry, appeared earlier this year from the French publishers Actes Sud (as Sur les traces d’Enayat Zayyat). In May, Mersal was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Literature for In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat at a ceremony in Abu Dhabi, which she attended via Zoom. An English translation, already underway, is planned for as early as next year.

Taking time out from her regular job at the University of Alberta in Canada, Mersal is now working on a new book, tentatively entitled Al-Lakna: al-sawt fi ghair makana (Accent: the Displaced Voice), as a guest of the Institute for Advanced Study at Aix-Marseille University in France. She has also been caught up in a whirlwind of publicity for her book in both its Arabic and French editions, speaking at the Institut du Monde arabe in Paris in early June as part of a book tour and at other venues in France.

Fortunately, Mersal can still find time to discuss her book with ordinary readers, and sitting down with the Weekly after her Paris event in June she explained what had first attracted her to al-Zayyat’s book when she had come across it in Ezbekiyya all those years ago, scarcely knowing then the significance that it would have for her own subsequent writing.


Everyone will have had the experience of coming across a book at one period in their lives that at another might appear uninteresting, she said, and something along these lines had happened to her when she had found a secondhand copy of Al-hubb wa-al-samt in Ezbekiyya. She would often go there when she was living in Cairo, she said, in search of books by Sufis and religious mystics that could help her to write her thesis on the Syrian poet Adonis.

“You would go there, pick up five or six books, and then end up not reading three of them. But this book came to me at the right moment. I was shaping my own intellectual trajectory and my voice as a poet, and this book by a young woman 30 years before me who had tried to describe internal struggle and feelings of isolation really touched me,” Mersal said. It was a book that seemed to speak across the decades to a new generation of readers.

But not every book, however interesting, triggers the kind of extensive search that Mersal then carried out on the book and its author. Al-Zayyat’s only novel, published posthumously four years after her suicide at the age of only 27 in 1963, became for Mersal something of an obsession.

In trying to explain why, she points to the novel’s stubbornness, its refusal to fit in with conventional expectations. “I thought the book would be about the protagonist,” a young woman called Naglaa, perhaps an experiment at self-projection on the part of al-Zayyat herself, “mourning the early death of her brother,” she said, referring to the then conventional representations of women in even literary fiction.

“But Naglaa describes her brother as selfish and resents the ‘investment’ made in him by her family just because he is a boy. This drew my attention, along with the fact that the author was completely unknown and invisible in standard accounts of the canon of Arabic literature by women.”

“On the other hand, in order to write a whole book 20 years later, you have to have other reasons,” even if the desire to know more about a forgotten writer with an unusual talent can serve as an important stimulus. “I have known many talented women writers who have vanished. I have always been fascinated by the kind of talent that cannot survive in our environment,” she said.  

There was also the question of the relationship between al-Zayyat’s circumstances in the early 1960s and Mersal’s in the early 1990s. Al-Zayyat’s attempts at finding an authentic voice for herself in her single novel could perhaps illuminate the challenges faced by Mersal’s generation 30 years later in fashioning literary identities that would allow them to express their individuality and differences from the past.

Following footsteps: Thus began a search for al-Zayyat that involved the examination of public and private archives, a review of the Cairo press in the 1960s and afterwards for any snippets about her, and multiple interviews with surviving friends and family, including the actress Nadia Lutfi, a friend from childhood, and al-Zayyat’s sister Azima al-Zayyat, among others.


Slowly al-Zayyat began to come into focus, her image filling out as new information emerged from interviews or dark corners of the archives. An official version emerged – there was “the well-educated father who held an important post at Cairo University, the mother, the granddaughter of a pasha, the three daughters who went to the German School in Cairo and married one after the other, among them Enayat, the one who ‘was unlucky’.”

However, there were still so many details missing, concealed by “the mask the Egyptian bourgeoise likes to use to conceal what it does not want to make known,” that it was hard to square this image of al-Zayyat, one also found in some of the photographs in Mersal’s book, with the voice that spoke so powerfully in the novel.

In reconstructing al-Zayyat’s circumstances in the early 1960s and the background to her novel, Mersal pays attention to the encouragement that she received, or did not receive, from the literary gatekeepers of the time, the “high priests of literature,” those who decided what was and what was not considered publishable. She notes that when Al-hubb wa-al-samt was finally published in early 1967, only months before defeat in the 1967 War, it contained an introduction by the critic Mustafa Mahmoud that for her could not have been more misleading.

Mahmoud suggests that the way al-Zayyat’s novel should be read, and perhaps also the author’s own story, is that of a young woman who could not find herself because she could not identify with the collective causes then giving shape to individual aspirations. In so doing, he was reiterating the ideas of prominent critics of the time such as Mahmoud Amin al-Alem, also cited in Mersal’s book, who had paradoxically spent time in prison for his political views but had been incorporated into the ideological apparatus on his release.

“That was the dominant formula,” Mersal explained to the Weekly. “It said that a woman’s path to emancipation coincided with national emancipation and the struggle against colonialism and that her identification with these things lent meaning to her personal aspirations and was a way of validating the way she presented herself in her life-writing.”

Literary work that did not conform to this kind of story-telling, or that presented individual lives in other ways, could risk being blackballed by the literary establishment. Either out of youthful naiveite, or, in a less charitable view, because of the author’s relatively privileged social position – a lot of Marxist criticism was being produced at the time – al-Zayyat’s writing could not conform to the standard exemplified by, for example, the Egyptian writer Latifa al-Zayyat’s (no relation) novel The Open Door.

This was published in 1960 at around the same time that Enayet al-Zayyat was writing, and it frankly identifies individual fulfilment with the struggle for national self-determination. One way of seeing the relative success of the two novels – Latifa al-Zayyat’s celebrated as a major work of literature, Enayat al-Zayyat’s rejected and forgotten – is to focus on such ideological differences and the way they frame the relationship between the individual and the collective.

In her comments to the Weekly, Mersal said that “it was important to revisit al-Zayyat’s experience as a young woman writing in Cairo in the 1960s. Her novel is not a great novel, but it has a genuine voice… In the 1990s, there were lots of attacks on the poetry we were writing, most of them based on nationalist viewpoints and saying that our poetry [the poetry of her generation] lacked ‘big ideas’. Revisiting her story gave me the chance to understand what we faced” in focusing on individual experience that did not necessarily fit the needs of grand-scale ideological systems, leftist or nationalist, inherited from the past.

Could this scepticism about the authority of collective story-telling and emphasis on the validity of individual experience be related to a desire to take up a different relationship to the past? Was it a response by present generations to the ways in which that past is sometimes represented? Mersal protests against the idea that in her book she wanted to “rehabilitate” a forgotten writer or insert her into the academic canon. Had she wanted to do the latter, she would have written an academic article, she said. Had she wanted to do the former, she could have written a biography.

Instead, her book was about “reading” the past, she said, in the sense of following up what remains, some of it written, some in the form of oral testimony, some in the shape of physical objects. “What I was doing was presenting somebody who was a ‘nobody’ in the wider cultural consciousness and trying to read her story, or read the past through her story, while keeping her as an individual and not speaking in her name,” Mersal explained.

The conversation turns to the Sheikh Zayed Prize and the recognition of her book abroad. Mersal comments that “I never expected to get an award, since I am a poet, and poetry is invisible when it comes to recognition. But I was happy that my creative non-fiction book about a forgotten women writer should have received the Prize. Awards allow books to travel. The received map of writing and reading in the Arab world has changed, and there is a new readership outside the established centres of Cairo and Beirut.” There is a growing youthful public for fiction and non-fiction in Arabic, and this should be encouraged.

Was she happy to see the success that In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat has had in translation? “One great value in writing the book for me was that it helped me to recover the Cairo I left in 1998, seeing it in a new light. Wandering the streets of the city looking for the house and tomb of Enayat al-Zayyat helped me to remember the city and to get to know it again.”

“Translation wasn’t a source of motivation for me when writing the book, but if it is a success abroad, why not? You offer something to your own culture first, but if it also means something to others, then this is also great,” she commented. 

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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