In 1993, the poet and writer Iman Mersal came across a novel by an author she had never heard of. Love and Silence by Enayat Al Zayyat was about a young Egyptian woman’s quest for meaning and identity. When Mersal finished reading it, she turned back to the first page and began again.
“I was captivated by the novel,” Mersal tells The National. “The language is unique. Sometimes economical, sometimes sentimental, it can feel uncanny, too, as though translated from another language. There are many passages that read like prose poems. I also related to the narrator’s internal journey and her individuality 50 years before me.”
On Wednesday, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Mersal will discuss how her quest to learn more about the overlooked writer's forgotten masterpiece led her to publish an Arabic-language book on Al Zayyat in 2019, titled Fee Athar Enayat Al Zayyat (In the Footsteps of Enayat Al Zayyat). After winning the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for literature in 2021, the title has now been released in English.
An admirable literary salvage operation, the title is an absorbing read and is the result of a painstaking fact-finding mission.
Mersal learnt the basic facts surrounding Love and Silence. After Al Zayyat wrote it, she tried in vain to secure a publisher for it. Eventually, in 1967, it was published – four years after its young author died by suicide. The title enjoyed brief success before it, and Al Zayyat, faded from view and disappeared into obscurity.
“Before even imagining that my research into Enayat would turn into a book, my first question was simple: 'who is Enayat?'” Mersal explains. “Questions about her novel’s absence from the Arab literary canon sent me on this journey.
“But even then, my goal was not just to bring her novel into the canon of Arab literature or Western knowledge of Arab female writers. The book does not celebrate marginalisation, but tries to understand it. Doing so requires understanding as to how the canon was created. The book is my attempt to read the past, with all its individual and collective wounds that shaped us, through Enayat’s story."
Traces of Enayat is no conventional biography. Mersal masterfully blends a variety of disparate elements – from a study of Enayat’s life and accounts of Mersal’s sleuth work, to a depiction of life for women in 1960s Egypt. She draws on interviews with Al Zayyat’s friends and family, visits the homes, schools and sanatoriums she spent time in and scours her candid, often despairing, journals for nuggets of insight.
“It was important for me to tell Enayat’s story without making her representative of something, and without my speaking for her,” Mersal says. “I wanted her to emerge through my journey towards her. The decision to tell the story of researching Enayat opened up many possibilities. Enayat and her life became the engine of the book, but even as the narrative circles closer around the mystery of her life, other characters and stories, present and past, spring up around her.
“I think the book is influenced by the art of ancient Arab biographers called mujaanasa [affinity]. In classical biographies, authors would wander at a whim from the subject at hand, digressing as needed to understand their subject. In Traces, I needed to find a structure that brings together Enayat’s social class, her German education, the birth of psychiatry in Egypt and the cultural institutions from the time of president Gamal Abdel Nasser to the present day.”
Mersal, who now lives in Canada, says that searching for Al Zayyat allowed her to reconnect with Cairo – “its geography and history, and my life as a young writer living there during the 1990s". However, her attempt to build a complete picture of Al Zayyat was fraught with problems.
“The official archive did not recognise her life or her novel,” she says. “For her bourgeois family, facts became secrets. As you see in the book, even a question about the location of her tomb was a private matter. Her family had destroyed most of her papers, including the draft of her second novel about the German Egyptologist Ludwig Keimer. Enayat’s anger and struggle were erased, and all that remains is the good tale that her survivors want to see.”
Despite the challenges she faced, Mersal managed to uncover a wealth of fascinating facts – and one or two sobering truths. One is that she had a son who also died young. The other is the “Greek tragedy” concerning the book’s posthumous publication.
"Three days after Enayat’s suicide," Mersal explains, "her family received a phone call from Al Qawmiyya publishing house telling them they had not rejected Enayat’s novel, but rather her sister Azima’s translation of some German texts.”
It would be another four years before her book was published – revived once again by Mersal's gripping work.
Iman Mersal speaks at Edinburgh Book Festival at Spark Theatre at 10.15am on Wednesday