Iman Mersal, Stepping Away from Poetry

Celebrated Egyptian poet Iman Mersal, one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Arabic poetry, has shifted her attention — with two recent books — to prose:

By Mahmoud Hosny

Iman Mersal

In the past two years, the Egyptian poet Iman Mersal has published two books. The first was a translation of the American poet Charles Simic’s memoir, A Fly in the Soup (2016), published by Kotob Khan. The second was How to Mend: On Motherhood and Its Ghosts (2017), a small prose book published by the Mophradat Association.

Mersal’s recent movement toward intensive publishing is a change, as she has previously published her books spaced by much wider intervals. But It’s not the only change: It’s also the first time Mersal has published a book unrelated to poetry, following her five poetry collections in the last 23 years (1990-2013).

But with a quieter look, we can see some of the strings between her most recent two books and her work’s perspective on literature, language, and life.

In her Arabic translation of the Simic memoir, the soft outflow of language is deeply tactile. Simic’ irony is notable in the small details of his life, which begins with his childhood during the Second World War in Serbia and then moves to his immigration to Paris and America.

Mersal, who left Cairo for Boston nearly twenty years ago, and after that stayed in Canada, surely can understand the depths of what Simic was trying to say about exile. The mass movement of refugees from Syria, and the complex situation of war there, may seem a horror that is happening for the first time in our modern history. Yet when you read Simic’s memoir, it becomes clear that there is something like a circle of suffering that moves with a nation for a specific time in its history, often because larger countries decide to fight each other away from their own lands.

Mersal’s book on motherhood

The first thing you may feel when reading “How to Mend: On Motherhood and Its Ghosts” is that this is a markedly different perspective on motherhood. It’s a way of thinking that isn’t afraid of Arab and Egyptian traditional belief about the perfection of mothers. Here, we can see the mother as a human who can be selfish or make mistakes, which is something jarring in a culture that believes, “Heaven lies beneath the feet of the mothers.”

But the most delicate thing in Mersal’s first book of prose is how she describes her persistent feelings of guilt. This is not just a feeling within her, or within most mothers who are coming from Arab cultures, but is related to the nature of all mothers who are affected by their various contexts.

When you read Mersal’s poems, you can see a style of writing which emanates from the celebration of daily life and its small details. Whether in Cairo or Canada, or when she writes about the movement between places, or her mother and relationships, nonetheless all of her poems come in an everyday language that is far from complex metaphors or epic themes.

Now, after a translation of Simic’s ironic voice, and a prose book full of complicated feelings around being a mother, can we expect new shadows from both in Mersal’s coming poems?

Mahmoud Hosny is an Egyptian author and critic.

Editor’s note: How to Mend: On Motherhood and Its Ghosts (2017) is forthcoming, in Robin Moger’s translation, from Mophradat.

Also of interest:
Friday Finds: Iman Mersal on Saniya Salih

A Holiday Gift: Ten Poems from Iman Mersal