Book Review: The Wife of the Poet: Profile: Of love and death


The title of this slim and very captivating memoir of Mona Kattan, spouse of late legendary vernacular poet Salah Jahin, is well designed to tell the story of a woman who mostly identifies herself in a context of a loving, albeit sometimes tormenting, relationship.

Published by Al-Karma, in 2023 for that year’s Cairo International Book Fair that celebrated Jahin, these 150+ pages are more about Jahin, actually more as a poet than a husband, rather than about Mona Kattan herself.

Clearly, Kattan makes it very clear, without going into too many details, that it was only her relationship with Jahin that allowed her to reconcile with her own woes, especially those related to her parents’ divorce and her father’s unkind nature.

Kattan is unequivocal about highlighting the healing power of love. However, she is equally very clear about the complex nature of love, especially in her case with Jahin.

Jahin, or “her poet” as she always refers to him in the brief memoir, was 14 years older and married with two children. He was a Muslim Egyptian and she was a Christian Palestinian whose family had fled Palestine upon the 1948 Nakba.

Moreover, Kattan, as she openly said, had her own “issues” and so did “her poet.” However, the argument she seems to be making throughout the memoir is that if love is real then it can always find a way to make things work – with compromises as with sacrifices.

“For them, love was like a garden that needed continuous care and attention,” she wrote. 

Falling in love with Jahin, marrying him, going with him through his ordeals, especially the magnificent pain he had to endure upon the Egyptian military defeat of 1967 – which denied her a proper wedding – and the death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970, going around Cairo with him and through his drawings, were the things that gave Kattan her own identity. Eventually, being in love with and marrying Jahin, were both her source of identity.

Losing Jahin, suddenly, to the consequences of depression was a moment of realization. It was then that she realized that she needed to be with the daughter that he insisted that they should have, despite the many worries she had about bringing up a child in view of the traumas of her own childhood.

Kattan’s memoir is written in a very sensitive language that makes it read like the lyrics of a love song about a man and a woman who were bonded by a striking love that survived all odds, including death.

In her memoir, Kattan said that as a young girl she often asked: what is love? Her memoir is offering the answer that she came to learn first-hand.