How Sheikh Zayed Book Prize winner Iman Mersal’s novel took her on a whirlwind trip of detective work

A chance discovery in a used book souk led Egyptian poet Iman Mersal on the self-reflective detective trail that became the basis of her novel. In the footsteps of Enayat Al Zayyat, winner of this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Prize in the literature category.

This discovery 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 came across the work in 1993, she was a young poet about to earn her MA in Arabic Literature at Cairo University. She hadn’t heard of Al Zayyat or Love and silence. Yet as she began to read the novel, she was struck by its distinct literary style and began to wonder why it did not have its rightful place in the canon of Arabic literature.

She was also engrossed in the mystery surrounding Al Zayyat’s suicide.

“In the footsteps of Enayat Al Zayyat” by Iman Mersal. Courtesy of Al Kotob Khan

“The truth is Love and silence is a luminary when it comes to novels about Arab women, ”Mersal said at an online conference hosted by Al Multaqa Literary Salon at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Wednesday.

“It was originally written in 1960. When we compare it to the novels of Arab writers who came before it, it is remarkable for its style and substance.”

Mersal has seen some of his own questions and anxieties summed up in Love and silence. She has seen some of her own struggles as an Arab writer.

The novel stayed with Mersal even as she left Egypt for the United States in 1998, eventually making her way to Canada, where she now works as a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Alberta.

Between the piercing and confessional tone of the novel 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 adamant when she says her novel is not an academic study of Love and silence. Rather, he documents his chance encounter with Al Zayyat’s novel and lightning-quick research to try and learn more about the elusive author.

At first, Mersal could only find fragmentary information about the novelist, including a mention of her friendship with Egyptian actress Nadia Lutfi.

However, that was enough to launch Mersal in the path of a dizzying detective who led her to unexpected places, including the mausoleum of Al Zayyat, where she discovered that the aristocratic family had placed the author in the section reserved for their servants. because they were ashamed of it. suicide.

Mersal also contacted a number of people who knew Al Zayyat personally, including family members, neighbors and even Lutfi.

Mersal met Lutfi in December 2019, two months before the actress died. She discovered that Lutfi had been quite close to Al Zayyat and still had a box of items associated with the writer.

However, although Mersal came to find out a number of things from Lutfi, she never found out what was in the box. One fact, she said, contributed to the novel’s final form more than it disturbed her.

Difficulty accessing archival documents related to Al Zayyat was part of the nature of Mersal’s novel, and she said she didn’t regret not knowing what was in the box.

“Even if I had the opportunity to look through the box, I wouldn’t be interested in what was in it,” she said. “If I had read it, read Al Zayyat’s writings, I would 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 have belittled Al Zayyat’s literature, namely the Egyptian writer Anis Mansour, who in a 1967 article downplayed his literary contributions, even criticizing his understanding of Arabic .

Mersal said that Al Zayyat faced several challenges as a writer, wife and mother.

Ultimately, however, it was Al Zayyat’s poor mental health and an “inner frailty” that drove her to suicide.

Working on the novel, Mersal said, was as much a journey of self-discovery as it was a way to get to know Al Zayyat and his work. By the time she finished her novel, Mersal felt like she had lost a loved one. However, she still had no idea how the audience would react to the work, fearing that it would be avoided for its literary ambiguity.

“I called a friend in Canada who is also a writer and told him I was afraid the work was a scandal and people would say they didn’t know if it was ‘a biography or a novel.

In the footsteps of Enayat Al Zayyat is anything but a scandal.

The novel won Mersal – who wrote several books of poetry – one of the most prestigious literary awards in the Arab world, and catapulted her to international attention and proved her as a formidable novelist.

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