A Book Found in a Cairo Market Launched a 30-Year Quest: Who Was the Writer?

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Crouching over piles of books in a market stall in Cairo one day in the fall of 1993, Iman Mersal stumbled upon a slim volume with a gray cover and a catchy title: “Love and Silence.”

Mersal, who was then a graduate student, thought the author might be related to a novelist and prominent anticolonial figure, Latifa al-Zayyat. She bought the book for one Egyptian pound.

What Mersal found instead was an intimate, introspective novel, an essential but largely forgotten work by a female writer in early contemporary Egypt. The voice, Mersal later wrote, was “modern, strange, limpid and beyond categorization.”

The book moved her, she said, and set her on a nearly 30-year journey to learn what she could about the author, a young Egyptian woman called Enayat al-Zayyat who died by suicide in 1963 after overdosing on pills. All she left was a note by her bed for her son, Abbas, that read: “I do love you, it’s just that life is unbearable. Forgive me.” After her death, her writing fell into oblivion.

In “Traces of Enayat,” translated by Robin Moger and to be published on April 2 in the United States by Transit Books, Mersal revives the story of the late writer. The Arabic version, published in 2019, won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award two years later and was a regional success. A mix of literary genres, the book is a subtle and universal exploration of identity.

“A sense of longing for a place and a self that has left you comes through in the pages,” Adam Levy, the book’s U.S. editor, said.

The book feels like a biography, he said, but it is more ambitious, and more interesting, than that. “As you read,” he added, “you start to feel Iman’s presence in it subtly.”

Mersal, who is now 57 and one of the most consequential Egyptian authors of her generation, grew up in Mit Adlan, a village in the delta of the Nile, in northern Egypt. As a child, she loved language and songs, often shutting herself in her room to listen to music, plays and narrated movies on the radio.

She lost her mother at a young age, and wrote her first poem, a critique of Mother’s Day that started with the phrase “against motherhood,” when she was in fifth grade. She wrote it in anger, she said, and read it out loud during a celebration in the school courtyard.

“One of the toughest teachers cried,” said Mersal, who has two sons. “I call myself a writer since.”

Al-Zayyat came of age during a golden era for Egyptian literature, in the 1950s and 1960s, during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. Many influential writers in that era were driven by the urge to transform society. Mersal, too, socialized with writers who wanted to change the world, and joined a feminist publication, “Bint al Ard,” in 1986. But she wasn’t sure what kind of intellectual she wanted to become.

“The literary scene was controlled by the old guard who believed in Arab nationalism or communism, who believed that literature can change the status quo,” she said. “I was thinking about figuring out my own voice. Expressing my relationship with my father, my relationship with Cairo, my city. It was about individuality.”

In 1992, she visited Baghdad to meet with women affected by the Gulf War in Iraq and the brutality of the regime in their own country. It was then that Mersal started questioning her purpose.

“It was transformative. I faced many questions,” said Mersal during an interview from her work studio in Edmonton, Alberta, where she lives. “What does Arab nationalism mean, what does it mean to be a committed writer?”

New perspectives opened up when she discovered “Love and Silence,” another woman’s honest chronicle of suffering and self-discovery. The book, which came out four years after al-Zayyat’s death, tells the story of Najla, a young woman who is grieving the recent loss of her brother and figuring out her place in a fraught political context. The narrator’s unfiltered voice sketches Najla’s attempts at finding herself, failing brutally each time.

Though al-Zayyat’s book had its flaws, Mersal said, it was life-altering. Mersal had been facing depression and searching for meaning in her life, she said. “This book spoke to me in a way no other female writer spoke to me.”

Mersal moved to the United States in 1998 and later to Canada, where she has lived since as an academic, poet, translator and author. Al-Zayyat grew up in a very different world, among the high society of Cairo.

Over the years, Mersal took her time to carefully navigate al-Zayyat’s world. She includes this journey in her book, taking the reader to places few can access, such as a meeting with al-Zayyat’s childhood friend, the iconic Egyptian actress Nadia Lutfi.

Al-Zayyat grew up in a loving family and was particularly close to her father, but struggled with depression most of her life. She had a passion for drawing and painting but stopped studying before she turned 19 to marry a man from an affluent family. The marriage was agonizing, and soon ended in a bitter divorce.

In Mersal’s book, an entry from al-Zayyat’s journal dated 1962 captured her pain. “I don’t mean a thing to anybody. Lost, found, it’s all the same: Here is as good as gone. The world wouldn’t tremble either way. When I walk I leave no tracks, like I walk on water, and I am unseen, invisible.”

What led al-Zayyat to end her life is uncertain. A commercial film and a radio series were made based on her novel. Both disappointed Mersal and al-Zayyat’s niece. They felt that, among other issues, the productions had erased the substance of the novel and focused on elements of the plot.

During her last months, al-Zayyat lived in an apartment that her father built for her on the second floor of their villa in Dokki, then a wealthy residential suburb of Cairo. She wrote on a newly-acquired Optima typewriter, and was committed to getting her book published. At the same time, she was losing custody of her son in court.

After her mother received a call from the publishing house saying that the manuscript had been rejected, al-Zayyat chopped off her hair and locked herself in the apartment. According to Mersal, who spoke to the author’s sister and to her best friend, she was found dead the next day.

It seemed that being part of the upper class limited her possibilities, Mersal explained — as if society had disappointed her so much that death was the only form of protest that remained.

“The idea that a young woman would kill herself — a young woman with a son, a father and a best friend — and all because of a book, was genuinely tragic, but it was also seductive in its tragedy,” Mersal wrote in the book. “I pictured Enayat painstakingly acquiring the rudiments of good Arabic grammar and inflection, then carefully setting down everything she wanted to say in her novel, then refusing the suggestion that she should self-publish.”

Mersal had many questions that she attempted to answer over her long years of obsessive research, but her intent never was to write a biography or a history book, she said.

“Telling the story of searching for Enayat was my way of reading her life and not displaying her life,” she said. “My dream was to tell our story, my story, her story, this interaction between us. The past is not that glorious. It’s the collective and individual wounds of this past.”

When Mersal finished writing the book, she struggled with emptiness and sadness that echoed al-Zayyat’s.

“It felt like a friend died,” she said. “It was a weird feeling of mourning.”

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