From Iman Mersal’s ‘Traces of Enayat’: Finding Nadia Lutfi

It’s publication day for the English edition of Iman Mersal’s award-winning Traces of Enayat, translated by Robin Moger and published by And Other Stories. The genre-encompassing book, which was both award-winning and beloved in Arabic, gropes its way through formal and informal historical records as it searches to recover and understand traces of a young woman novelist, Enayat al-Zayyat (1936-63), whose suicide came before the publication of her only novel, Love and Silence. The book, a remarkable work of both research and creative empathy, 

Today, we have — with permission from And Other Stories — an excerpt from Traces where Mersal brings us into the friendship between the movie star Nadia Lutfi, who was al-Zayyat’s closest friend. Tomorrow, we’ll have an excerpt from al-Zayyat’s Love and Silence.

I got hold of Nadia Lutfi’s phone number with the help of a friend, the journalist Mohamed Shoair, but it took me a year to summon up the courage to call her, which I eventually did from Canada on 14 September, 2014. What prompted me to make the call was an interview, ‘Nadia Lutfi tells the secret of Enayat al-Zayyat’s suicide’, which was published by al-Musawwar magazine on 16 May, 1967 – less than two months after the publication of Enayat’s novel.

Image from the Arabic cover of “Traces of Enayat.”

In his introduction, the interviewer Foumil Labib writes:

Nadia Lutfi was keeper of secrets for the woman who wrote Love and Silence, so it is she who best understands the full extent of the tragedy of that pen which was snapped before it could write down everything it had to say.10

Nadia talks about their first encounter:

The face of Enayat al-Zayyat never leaves my thoughts. If she ever leaves my thoughts I can summon her back in seconds. Enayat was a friend from early childhood. I met her at school. From the very first, there were differences. She was self-contained, carried her books with her everywhere, and loathed the shouting, squabbling girls whose leader I was. But when we moved up a year I sat next to her in class and discovered that she loved to draw, just like me. She was good at German, too, which meant I could cheat off her. We brought our friendship home from school. My family lived in Saad Zaghloul Mausoleum Street, and she was close by in Mounira. I was an only child and she became a sister to me, completed me. She was the second of three girls. Of course, her older sister was horrible to her, and she (of course) persecuted her younger sister, and then her older and younger sisters joined forces to encircle her. So she became friends with me: an alliance to counterbalance her sisters’.

They would do their homework together, says Nadia; they would go to the cinema. She says that she nagged Abbas al-Zayyat to let the two families spend their summer holidays together and that he’d agreed. She says that though she left the German School in 1953 to go to an Arabic-language school, Enayat stayed on. That they continued to meet after school.

In 1954, Nadia got married and went to live in Alexandria. Enayat grew tired of school and in 1956 she got married herself. Nadia says that when she was offered the chance to work in cinema she had gone to tell Enayat and her husband, and that the husband’s acceptance of Nadia’s career had delighted her, because she’d worried that he might come between them.

She makes a reference to Enayat giving up painting – that pursuit which no longer engaged all her faculties – and giving herself wholly to writing. She says that Enayat began to experience difficulties with her husband and regretted abandoning her studies to get married. That she was starting to run, trying to catch the last carriage of the train before it left the platform.

She was trying to catch up before it could pass her by, Nadia says, and she did this by continuing to study German, then getting a job at the German Archaeological Institute in Zamalek. She says that following her divorce, Enayat had come face-to-face with harsh reality, and that she, Nadia, had never spoken of this before:

I felt as though a fracture was spreading through her life. Enayat had always held fast to unbelievably pure ideals, and her conscience didn’t let her make light of any break with them, whether it was her failure or someone else’s. She went out to meet life and ran smack into it. Men weren’t the way her kind-hearted father had led her to believe and she was horrified to find that the world was a jungle, that there were some women who would mock anyone or anything in order to make it. It horrified her to find her sisters, her fellow women, so contemptuous of conscience and the soul. [ . . . ] That her son was in a tug-of-war between her and her husband only complicated things.

Nadia can’t remember the names of the writers who read drafts of Love and Silence, but she says that a good number of them were impressed and encouraged Enayat. She says that Enayat submitted it to the publisher, that the publisher took forever getting back to her, and that she was overcome by anxiety.

Then the end, on 3 January, 1964, while Nadia was celebrating her birthday in Alexandria: Enayat’s phone call to say that she wouldn’t be coming and that the publisher had got back to say the novel wasn’t fit for publication. Nadia spent the night feeling resentful because this was the first time Enayat had missed her birthday. Early the next morning Nadia had flown down to Cairo, then what happened had happened, and Nadia had broken down.

Iman Mersal, a poet, writer, academic and translator was born in 1966 in the northern Egyptian Delta and emigrated to Canada in 1999. First published in Arabic in 2019, Traces of Enayat won the prestigious 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award, making Mersal the first woman to win its Literature category. Her most recent poetry collection is The Threshold, shortlisted for the 2023 Griffin Poetry Award.  She also wrote How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (2018), which weaves a new narrative of motherhood through diaries, readings and photographs. Mersal’s work has also appeared in The Paris ReviewThe New York Review of Books and The Nation. She works as an Associate Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Alberta, Canada.

Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic to English and recently moved from Cape Town to Barcelona. His translations of prose and poetry have appeared in Blackbox ManifoldThe White ReviewAsymptoteWords Without Borders and others. He has translated several novels and prose works, most recently Haytham El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep (Seagull) and Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (Two Lines Press).

Read another excerpt at the AOS website.

Listen to Iman Mersal on the Bulaq podcast.

Listen to Iman read from the book (in Arabic):