As a young poet cutting her teeth in Cairo, Iman Mersal randomly picked up a novel she’d never heard of in a discount book market in 1993.
She was immediately struck by the narrator’s voice, and the mystery surrounding a gifted but virtually unknown author who struggled to be an artist during the political turbulence of 1960s Egypt.
“I had never seen the title of the novel—Love and Silence—in any account of the history of Arab novels, or of Arab female writers. And I had to ask, why?” said the U of A professor of Arabic literature, who is on sabbatical this year as Albert Camus Chair for internationally renowned writers at the University of Marseille.
Mersal’s investigation into the book’s late author, Enayat al-Zayyat, eventually came to fruition in a creative non-fiction account of her own, Fi Athar Enayat al-Zayyat (In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat).
Published in 2019, the book has now captured the most prestigious book prize in the Arab world, the 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which comes with a cash prize of about $200,000. Considered the Booker Prize of the Arab world, the honour means Mersal’s book will reach a far wider audience.
The book was already a bestseller in some regions, “but there are parts of the Arab world where it would be hard to find,” she said.
“The prize means readership. It means the book will travel much more easily throughout the Arab world,” she noted, adding that a French translation of the novel has just been published by Actes Sud. Translations to several other languages, including English, are underway.
Mersal is an established translator and poet, with five published volumes of poetry, and another forthcoming. Translations of her work have appeared in the New York Review of Books, the Paris Review and The Nation, among others. Her writing has been published in 22 languages.
Solving a literary mystery
As an emerging poet, however, she was captivated by the life of al-Zayyat and set out to solve the literary mystery.
“I wanted to dig into her individuality in order to understand my own struggle in Cairo as a young woman writer—to get sense of how some of the obstacles she faced in the late ’50s and early ’60s are still there for creative young writers in the Arab world today.”
Among the few scraps of information in the archives were brief references to al-Zayyat’s friendship with the Egyptian film star Nadia Lutfi. But as Mersal continued her search, she was “struck by surprises.”
“Al-Zayyat committed suicide at age 27, four years before her only novel was published. It was released less than three months before Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 (Six-Day) war, and so the novel was forgotten.”
Mersal eventually interviewed Lutfi, as well as many others. Using al-Zayyat’s address, newspaper obituary and a variety of archival sources, Mersal was able to trace some of al-Zayyat’s friends, neighbours and family members who were still alive, sometimes in unexpected places. Al-Zayyat’s closest elementary school friend was a German Jew whose family had arrived in 1930s Egypt after fleeing the Nazis. Mersal located her in New Jersey.
In this way, she was able to piece together much of the author’s life, filling in gaps with poetic flourish.
‘I rediscover my own culture in the classroom’
So what is one of the most renowned writers in the Arabic world doing in Edmonton, where few know who she is?
Landing here in 1999 was only meant to be a brief sojourn while her husband, ethnomusicologist Michael Frishkopf, completed a Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship. But he was soon offered a job, and the couple decided to stay.
She admits it took years to adjust.
“Cairo is my city. I love crowded streets and nightlife. So I had to discover Edmonton in my way.”
Eventually she came to love it, she said, as “the only city that has given me security, time to write and a job that I love.”
“I love teaching Arab culture and language. To teach literature that you’ve been familiar with since youth, and then to view it through the entirely new perspectives of University of Alberta students, is wonderfully refreshing.
“I rediscover my own culture in the classroom, through their eyes. I feel inspired.”