The Nihilism of the Archive: On Iman Mersal’s “Traces of Enayat”

Edmée Lepercq reviews Iman Mersal’s “Traces of Enayat.”

The Nihilism of the Archive: On Iman Mersal’s “Traces of Enayat”

Traces of Enayat by Iman Mersal. Transit Books. 214 pages.

IN 1993, EGYPTIAN WRITER and poet Iman Mersal, then 27 years old, came across a thin novel entitled Love and Silence at a secondhand bookshop in Cairo. She bought it for one Egyptian pound. The book, which follows a young woman searching for a sense of self in prerevolutionary Egypt, deeply resonated with Mersal, a graduate student in literature at the time. She was unfamiliar with the author, Enayat al-Zayyat, and unaware of her life story—notably, her suicide in 1963, at age 26, shortly after a publisher rejected her manuscript and she lost a custody battle for her son. Mersal didn’t know that Love and Silence, published posthumously in 1967, had been well received, briefly, before receding from public consciousness.

Over the next three decades, Mersal sought to learn more about Enayat. She persisted even after moving to North America, writing several books, and starting a family. Enayat’s name, she noticed, was often paraded by writers to advance their own ideas regarding mental health and Egyptian women during the 1960s. People seemed to find her story both tragic and seductive: a young woman with friends, beautiful clothes, her own apartment, a son, and a job who (according to them) died by suicide because of a book. In 2010, a writer ended his article on Enayat by calling her “an artist who had no sooner appeared than she disappeared herself, forever! She died without a trace!”—as though Enayat’s tracelessness was a natural consequence of her suicide.

The result of this decades-long inquiry, Mersal’s book (now available from Transit Books in an English translation by Robin Moger) is made up of all the traces Enayat left behind, if one cared to look for them. Thorough and empathetic, Traces of Enayat alternates between dives into deep research and reflections on the author’s project, with brief mentions of Mersal’s life in Canada, her family in Cairo, and the way she balances motherhood and writing.

Mersal describes Enayat’s narrator in Love and Silence as “depressed, insomniac, alienated,” someone who feels “not only born out of time, but that she isn’t functioning as she should.” Enayat’s book begins with the death of the narrator’s brother. When Mersal first read Love and Silence, she expected it to be an elegy to this brother, with the narrator eventually emerging from her grief. Parts of Love and Silence follow this narrative, though the book also surprises as it branches out in different directions, “generating layers, complex and overlapping.” Enayat’s narrator, who we understand is partly autobiographical, keeps trying to find meaning—through employment, romantic love, and political engagement—but always falls back into depression. (A quote Mersal jotted in her own diary: “If I were able, I would erase myself and be reborn, somewhere else, some other time.”) Still, the book ends on a hint of hope, with a scene of the 1952 revolution, when Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy, marking the end of the British military presence in Egypt and the beginning of social reforms. This revolution would change Enayat’s life and usher in the world into which Mersal herself was born.

Like Love and Silence, Traces of Enayat begins with a death: Enayat’s funeral, which her childhood friend Nadia Lutfi (Mersal’s main source) did not attend. The book unfurls from this absence, branching out in different directions. Mersal wanders the alleys of Cairo’s City of the Dead, searching for Enayat’s tomb, and visits the Dokki neighborhood where Enayat last lived. She tours the German Institute, where Enayat worked, looks at files she handled. She interviews Nadia, as well as Enayat’s younger sister Azima and neighbor Misyar. She records conversations, takes notes, and makes diagrams of families and networks of connections. She pores over photographs and letters. Traces of Enayat seeks to understand why Enayat was forgotten, examining the wider societal forces that led to her erasure.

Enayat was never included in the archives of certain magazines or journals, or when she was, her files were destroyed. Her work has been repeatedly omitted from literary anthologies and critical studies of women who write in Arabic. According to Mersal, this is because Love and Silence doesn’t fit into the conventional narrative of women’s literature in Arabic, with its concern for national liberation, to which women’s liberation was allegedly tied. Enayat was not part of any political group, and this impacted her legacy long after her death.

For Mersal, Enayat’s absence from the archives is not random, nor is it an unfortunate effect of the passage of time. Mersal believes instead that it is due to “the nihilism of the archive,” or the lack of interest in material not readily available, which leads critics to repeat what others have already said. In the face of Enayat’s erasure, Mersal seeks what Sue McKemmish has called the “personal archive,” the residue of artists whose lives intersected with major public events and generated documentable layers of experience.

Traces of Enayat often meanders as Mersal explores various aspects of Egyptian life and culture in the 1950s and ’60s. Seven pages are dedicated to the biography of Ludwig Keimer, an Egyptologist Enayat was researching for her second novel. Another section is devoted to the history of a dairy company that ran a shop on the square near Enayat’s home. More successful digressions relate to divorce procedures and the publishing landscape in postrevolutionary Egypt—two systems Enayat struggled to navigate. Traces of Enayat is relentless at times in its notetaking, its stubborn inclusion of every date and name—as though Mersal was cataloging everything, fearful that if she did not write something down, no one else would.

“To trace a person that the institutional archive does not acknowledge or permit to remain among its important files,” Mersal writes, “means entering the personal archive and its shadow maze: unlit, unforthcoming and complex.” Parts of Enayat’s personal archive—her letters, unpublished stories, and diaries—were lost or destroyed, either immediately after her death or over the years, as they passed from one family member to another. What remains is colored by how the family came to terms with Enayat’s suicide. “What they gave me,” Mersal writes, “was the narrative which had been authored in memory after this reconciliation had taken place.”

Before moving to North America in 1998, Mersal left parts of her own archive at her father’s house. After decades, she reopened these boxes during a trip to Cairo:

I arranged my journals and diaries in chronological order, starting with year five, primary, all the way through to 1997. My own private archive, I told myself. The thought made me consider just how long I’d been alive: such a long time, so much longer than I’d ever expected.

Mersal then tells us, almost in passing, of the attacks on writers in the Egyptian press during the 1990s. That decade, in which Mersal first encountered Enayat and recognized herself in Love and Silence, marked a deeply unhappy period in her life, though it’s never clear what caused her distress, and we are never told exactly why she left Egypt.

In the diaries Mersal accessed, Enayat often wrote of her fear of being forgotten. Traces of Enayat is not biography; it avoids laying out a life as a linear series of dates and facts. Instead, there is a sense of a life at both a standstill and a crossroads—not just Enayat’s life but Mersal’s too, and those of all the other women in the book. Each in her own way seeks escape to a utopian future via movies, songs, books, marriage, or politics. Enayat’s friend Nadia became an actress during Egyptian cinema’s Golden Age, a time when films “were a window on love, misfortune, and retribution. There was always retribution, if not from society, then from the skies.” Traces of Enayat frees its subject from the rote interpretation of her life through the lens of her suicide, placing her in conversation with other women who felt similarly trapped and dreamed of new horizons.

LARB Contributor

Edmée Lepercq is a writer based in London.


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