A chance find in a souq for used books led Egyptian poet Iman Mersal on the self-reflective sleuth trail that became the basis of her novel In the Footsteps of Enayat Al Zayyat, winner of this year's Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the literature category.
That find was Love and Silence by Enayat Al Zayyat. The novel was published in 1967, four years after Al Zayyat committed suicide at the age of 27.
When Mersal first stumbled upon the work in 1993, she was a young poet on the verge of earning her master's degree in Arabic literature from Cairo University. She had not heard of Al Zayyat or Love and Silence. Yet as she began reading the novel, she was struck by its distinct literary style and began questioning why it did not have its due place in the canon of Arabic literature.
She was also absorbed by the mystery surrounding Al Zayyat’s suicide.
"The truth is Love and Silence is a luminary when it comes to novels concerning Arab women," Mersal said, speaking at an online talk hosted by Al Multaqa Literary Salon during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Wednesday.
“It was originally written in 1960. When we compare it with novels by female Arab writers that came before it, it is remarkable in style and substance.”
Mersal saw some of her own questions and anxieties encapsulated within Love and Silence. She saw some of her own struggles as a female Arab writer.
The novel stayed with Mersal even as she left Egypt for the US in 1998, eventually travelling to Canada, where she now works as a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Alberta.
Between the novel's piercing, confessional tone and the circumstances of Al Zayyat's suicide, Mersal saw a great literary puzzle, which she sought to piece together in her own novel, published in December 2019.
Yet Mersal is emphatic when she says her novel is not an academic study of Love and Silence. Rather it documents her chance encounter with Al Zayyat's novel and the whirlwind research into trying to find out more about the elusive author. It is creative non fiction book that searches for an unknown writer while exploring the question of individuality in the political life of Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s.
At first, Mersal could only find fragmentary information about Al Zayyat, including a mention of her friendship with Egyptian actress Nadia Lutfi.
However, that was enough to launch Mersal into a dizzying detective's path that led her to some unexpected places, including Al Zayyat's mausoleum, where she discovered that the aristocratic family had placed the author in the section reserved for their servants because they felt ashamed by her suicide.
Mersal also contacted a number of people who personally knew Al Zayyat, including family members, neighbours and even Lutfi.
The book details several conversations the author had with the actress, who was one of the most prominent figures of the golden age of Egyptian cinema. Through their conversations, Mersal came to find out that Lutfi still had a box of objects associated with Al Zayyat.
Though Mersal came to find out a number of things about the writer from Lutfi, she never discovered what was in the box. A fact, she said, contributed to the novel's final form more than detracting from it.
The difficulty in accessing archival material related to Al Zayyat was part of what Mersal's novel was about, and she said, she did not regret not knowing what the box contained.
“Even if I had the opportunity to look through the box, I wouldn’t be interested in what it contained,” she said. “If I had looked through it, looked through the writings of Al Zayyat, I’d have ended up with a different book.”
In the Footsteps of Enayat Al Zayyat can also be seen as a polemic against the forces that belittled Al Zayyat's literature, namely Egyptian writer Anis Mansour, who in a 1967 article, downplayed her literary contributions, even criticising her grasp of Arabic.
Mersal said Al Zayyat faced several struggles as a writer, woman and mother.
In the end, however, it was Al Zayyat's poor mental health and an "inner fragility" that drove her to suicide.
Working on the novel, Mersal said, was as much a journey of self-discovery as it was a way of getting to know Al Zayyat and her work. By the time she finished her novel, Mersal felt as if she had lost a loved one. However, she was still unsure of how the public would react to the work, fearing it would be shunned for its literary ambiguity.
“I called up a friend in Canada, who is also a writer, and told him I was scared the work was going to be a scandal and that people would say they didn’t know whether it was a biography or a novel.”
In the Footsteps of Enayat Al Zayyat is anything but a scandal.
The novel has secured Mersal – who has written several books of poetry – one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the Arab world, and has catapulted her to international attention and proven her as a formidable novelist.