Egyptian writer Iman Mersal's latest poetry collection walks 'The Threshold'

Drawn from her four first poetry books, the new selection spans a sweeping set of themes and styles

Egyptian poet Iman Mersal's latest poetry collection has just been published in English. Photo: Randa Shaath
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To read the work of Iman Mersal is to lose oneself in intriguing and beguiling verse, which covers a variety of topics and tones, plays with a range of moods and emotions, and brims with an array of ideas and imagery.

Mersal’s poems are many things — sensuous, cerebral, intimate, angry and disorientating. They provide food for thought and elicit laughter in the dark. Some strike a chord with the reader the first time around. Others are more complex and work their strange magic on the second reading. Some are close to prose, others more lyrical.

“From the first draft, each poem comes with its form, with its distinctive personality, grain of voice and structure,” Mersal tells The National.

A new book, published on Tuesday, comprises gems from Mersal’s first four poetry collections. Translated by Robyn Creswell, The Threshold: Poems doubles up as a best-of compilation for those familiar with the Egyptian poet’s work and a perfect entry point for readers new to her work.

Mersal was born in 1966 in the village of Mit Adlan, in Daqahliyah, a province in the Nile delta. “My family members were mostly educated, and strongly supported education, though none had a particular interest in reading or writing literature,” Mersal says. “But I believe any environment provides literary stimulation, and sources of inspiration such as oral storytelling, singing, adid [elegies] and religious texts.”

'The Threshold' draws together pieces from four of Iman Mersal's poetry collections. Photo: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

As a young woman, Mersal read and admired modern Arabic poetry from the likes of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Adonis and Mahmoud Darwish — poetry, she says, “marked by the questions of identity, post-colonial nationalism, ideologies, social struggle, and above all prophecy”.

However, when Mersal started to write her own poems, she had a different agenda.

“I was searching for my own voice, for a way to express my position as a young female living in Cairo in the 1990s,” she explains.

“Despite the beauty of the older poetry, its language and images, I was — along with other poets from my generation — interested in individuality, in the desire to understand ourselves, our surroundings, our memory.

“I was interested in the complexity of friendship, and in the notion of authority in a very broad sense, not just religious or political. I was making sense of my world through my writing.”

Mersal’s early poems, with their playful oddities and acerbic ironies, received a mixed response.

“They met with rejection from cultural institutions, the established poets, and the guardians of traditions — and, at the same time, with enthusiasm and support from so many individual readers.”

Mersal’s unconventional approach is refreshing. In The Threshold, there are poems on subjects such as migraines, suicide and infidelity. In one poem, Mersal declares that “Love is absolutely the worst thing there is to write about”. In another, she describes a CV as “a ruthless catalogue of sorrows”.

In Worthy of My Friendship, Mersal lists the types of people who meet with her approval: “Rumour mongers with low self-esteem”, and “Pessimists who keep their hands clean” are all “People like me”. In Amina, Mersal writes: “I’ll give you more than half the air in the room / so long as you see me for what I am.” But do we see Mersal in her poems? To what extent are they autobiographical or confessional?

Translated by Robyn Creswell, above, 'The Threshold' doubles up as a best-of compilation for those familiar with Iman Mersal's work and a perfect entry point for new readers. Photo: Annette Hornisch

“If we accept that there is a confession, it is a false confession, a literary device, not a personal autobiography,” she says.

“Writing is an act of selection and deletion, and even when recounting an event or moment from memory, the writer does so from a different moment of awareness. The way it’s remembered has changed.

“The purpose is also different. Such writing is not for purification or regret, not a forthright documentation of a life story. In this sense, the poem is a project of discovering our personal nightmares rather than providing confessions to shock society or break its taboos.”

Two standout poems focus on significant events. There is The Clot, in which she visits her father, who “clings to his coma”, in hospital.

“I went through a few failed attempts to capture the complex relationship I had with my father,” she says. “Slipping one time toward the patriarch in him and leaning another time toward his love to me. I was not convinced by the love-and-sacrifice image of fatherhood either. I wanted to free myself from the seriousness of a young feminist talking about 'daddy'.

“It was important for me to recreate snapshots of my father as a person, as well as my relation to him, freed from all the rhetoric, ideology and stereotypes one unwittingly inherits through environments of language and culture, and which tend to be unthinkingly reproduced in literature.”

There is also the collection’s title poem, The Threshold. “It was published in 1997,” Mersal says, “and marks the end of an era in my life and my relation to Cairo, the moment of leaving the life you know behind. A walk in Cairo, tracing its topography, becomes an elegy, as well as a celebration of the beloved city.”

In 1998, Mersal swapped Cairo for Canada. She lives in Edmonton and teaches Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta.

After moving, she resisted the temptation to write about the country she had left behind. “Weeping over the ruins, longing for the homeland — these have been important sources in Arabic poetry since pre-Islamic times,” she says.

“However, as much as I enjoy reading classical Arabic poetry featuring such themes, I am not inspired to reproduce them. My poetry has, from the beginning, always avoided the traps of sentimentality.”

Did her move to North America give her new topics to write about?

“I can’t tell,” she says. “I think being elsewhere, anywhere, can give a writer not just subject matter but new ways to see her subjects, including herself.”

Iman Mersal's The Threshold: Poems is available now. She will be holding a virtual launch on November 29

Updated: October 18, 2022, 3:46 AM