Iman Mersal at Poetry Parnassus

Beautiful (and important) Egyptian poet Iman Mersal was among the Arab authors who participated in the poetrysplosion at London’s Poetry Parnassus at the end of June and beginning of July.

Eighteen-year-old poet Catherine Labiran read Mersal’s work in translation, and later said via email, “I literally saw the poem for the first time 5 minutes before the event and then I went and performed it. I thought that Iman’s Arabic version sounded so beautiful to the audience that it almost didn’t need translation. However, I was happy to make everyone understand just how beautiful the words were that she was saying by translating them into English.”

Mersal also spoke with SJ Fowler for Poetry Parnassus and explained why, when she first moved to Canada, “I did not write a single poem for five years”:

Looking back, I think the reason I didn’t write was that these direct emotional responses are not attractive to me as spaces to write from. Even before leaving Egypt, it was remarked about my poetry that it avoided traps of sentimentality. I read lots of works written from displaced positions (this was not difficult, as North American bookstores are full of them), but I could not connect with most of them. These authors would assume the role of mediator between two cultures, or present and past, or here and there. This type of thing might be useful in post-colonial studies courses, but I felt my experience was elsewhere.

She began writing again, she said, when she realized “that it was impossible to go home.”*

Mersal, on the primary challenge of writing:

The question of position is crucial to writing. If we imagine five poets writing about a rose or a corpse, what will differentiate them will be the positions from which they write. This is what some would call voice. It takes time to find one’s position, and I feel it is the primary challenge of writing.

On poetry and protest:

As for poetry as a voice of protest, this is something I have not been able to relate to throughout my career. Perhaps it is a response to the culture I came from. The big political questions that emerged from the end of the colonial era, the ideological debates that followed it, and of course the Palestinian tragedy, occupied significant space in the Arab literary scene. They did produce great poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, but even there, I believe the poetic in his work is independent of the element of protest.

And on the Arabic prose-poetry movement:

In that historical moment of the early 1990s, in the desolate urban landscape of Cairo, the group of hopeless young poets I belonged to witnessed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the allying of Arab states with America in destroying Iraq, the continuing Palestinian struggle for freedom, the injustice and poverty, the hypocrisy that characterizes societies torn between global capitalism and the customs and traditions forming the core of identity; we experienced doubts about Arab nationalism, about Western democracy and enlightenment as well. This alienation experienced by some young Arab writers, filmmakers and other intellectuals of my generation created a desire to escape the grand rhetoric and historical ideology of Arabic culture in general and poetry in particular. Prose poems, in that context, were one way to oppose the mainstream grand narratives and create our own.


You should really just read the whole interview. Much appreciation to SJ Fowler, the author of four poetry collections and poetry editor of 3 a.m. magazine.

Some of Iman’s poems, translated by the wonderful Khaled Mattawa.

Iman’s blog. 

*This experience shouldn’t be generalized, right? Sometimes, you can go home. Sometimes, you can go home. Soemtimes, you can go home. Sometimes…