From Enayat al-Zayyat’s ‘Love and Silence

It’s publication week for Iman Mersal’s award-winning Traces of Enayatwhich appears from And Other Stories in Robin Moger’s deft and considered English translation. Mersal’s genre-encompassing book — an excerpt of which appeared yesterday on ArabLit — meditates extensively on the only completed novel by Egyptian writer Enayat al-Zayyat (1936-1963). It was titled Love and Silence and came out only after her suicide. Here, we have an excerpt from the beginning of the novel.

By Enayat al-Zayyat

 Translated by James Scanlan


I paused at my window, watching the street from behind the pane. It was deserted; the windows of the houses shut and shuttered—no life, no movement. Time stood still; one minute had become hours of boredom.

My time isn’t worth much; I’ve no idea what to do with it.

I’m nothing. I’ve paced the room back and forth. I’ve looked out the window. Several times, I’ve picked up a book in an attempt to continue reading, but fail and close it—failure defeating me like it invariably does. I can’t continue anything since my brother died. I’m eighteen—the prime of youth, they say—but I feel that, all of a sudden, I’ve become old.

Here winter comes again: its winds that shake the lone apricot tree in our garden; its approach that sends chills through my bones, spreads sorrow in my soul. Leaves fall in the garden and pile up on street corners, and a torrent of sad memories cascade with them in my mind. Winter presses a crushing sense of sadness into my heart, floods it with its gloom, and I’m overcome once more with acute feelings of loss, of something so precious having disappeared from my life: my brother. Overcome with feelings of his death, his leaving.

I lost interest in myself when Hesham died. In my life, in everything. He was the reason for my happiness. He was the author of my success, but he left and didn’t wait to see me graduate from my French school. My success no longer has meaning. What’s the point of my success now that he’s gone? Is there a point? Does anything have a point? What use is my life? Any life? Hesham’s gone, far away, leaving loneliness and emptiness to kill me, to take root in the recesses of our house and spawn a fearsome spider that sucks at life and fills my heart with despair.

Looking around me now, I see what we have become: my father, my mother and I. Sadness has made us three strangers—silence has become our conversation. The veneer of warmth that once embraced us has shattered; death has fallen among us, driven us apart. After Hesham died, my father withdrew and created a separate world to live in: by himself, for himself. My mother inclined to silence and became indifferent to speech. Whenever I spoke to her, I felt she was looking through me, like she was seeing someone else in my face, not me. My presence became forced and my life suddenly lost all meaning.

Hesham was the will behind my success, behind my love for everything. I often thought of him as a magician, a miracle worker. I see an image of him now on the parallel bars. I loved watching him like that: a shimmering spirit not confined by a body. His voice still echoes in my ears—reverberations of what he said when I asked why he loves the sport.

“It’s a game of will,” he’d said without interrupting his swing. “It gives me control of my body like philosophy gives me control of my mind.” He laughed and added, “Control is the key to success.”

How did he die? He died doing the sport he loved—the sport that was his means of control and that became his killer.

He was training at the club when he lost balance, lost control of himself for a few seconds, fell with the full weight of his body on his head, and died.

I was met with silence when I entered the villa that day. Abdu, the sufragi, opened the door for me, and there were traces of tears in his eyes. He didn’t greet me like he usually did, and there was no traditional smile on his lips. His face was solemn, mournful.

An ill omen, I felt, because Abdu was a mirror of Hesham: I’d know what state or mood Hesham was in just from looking at Abdu’s face when I came in the door.

His sadness that day spelled some great injustice, but I didn’t ask him. I ran up the stairs and into Hesham’s room. There he was, lying in his bed, my father and mother at his feet. I studied their faces—there were no tears in their eyes. No sadness either. For sadness comes from a lifetime of pain but, in that moment, it seemed to me as if their sadness had no beginning, had always been so.

I approached his bed slowly and my hand stretched out against my will and drew the cover from his face. My mother let out a howl and my father went and removed her from the room. In all their tears, they forgot about me.

I looked at Hesham’s face and couldn’t believe that he, Hesham, could die. From his face he could just be sleeping, only no breath fluttered in his chest. It seemed to me then that breathing was of no consequence to Hesham, that he could get up right away and run and laugh, that he was stronger than any other mortal being and didn’t need something cheap like air in order to live. I reached out a hand and touched his face. Maybe he’d open his eyes at my touch—I’m his sister, Nagla. He remained still, cold as ice. A blueness was creeping into his lips and quietly seeping out across his whole face.

For the first time, I was struck with a fear of him, then a sense of shame at myself for being scared of my brother when his soul had been snatched away. I felt I was spying on the essence of somebody I didn’t know but who avoided looking at me. I couldn’t bear this thought—that I had, in the end, accepted Hesham’s death. I threw myself onto his body and hugged him in hysteria, trying to revive him with my cries.

Then the door opened, and someone came in and carried him out. As I fainted, I heard the grating voice of my mother’s sister. She was scolding my father for leaving me alone in the room. I heard nothing after that.

The house filled with relatives and friends. My sister, Noha, came from England, where her husband works in the embassy. Everyone came offering condolences. The house filled with eyes: staring at me, imposing themselves, penetrating my depths. I felt naked, that the eyes were spying on my private mind—imposing—reading my thoughts. I could feel my individuality being degraded and lost in the throng of searching eyes.

I locked myself in my room to be alone with my grief and cry. I cried for days and nights and my soul withered away. I couldn’t stand the slightest noise. I began to live only in silence and behind closed doors. The sound of a door opening or closing terrified me.

Then I regained composure and started to observe the person standing in front of me—usually, it was the spectre of my aunt come to check on me: “Don’t shut yourself up in your room, Nagla. You’ll cry yourself to death.” I wouldn’t reply because I genuinely wanted to die. Her irritating voice would ring out in the room, cling to my ears, refuse to go away. It took a while before the drone would fade from my ears and silence would return.

It was eventually time for everyone to go and leave us in our desolation. My sister went back to her family. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t feel she was upset enough about Hesham. I became distant from her then because our sadness didn’t connect us. And I’d come to love my sadness as an extension of my love for Hesham.

My childhood friend and schoolmate Nadia came to stay with me for some time. I needed her more than anyone. It was easy with her: I didn’t feel embarrassed baring my thoughts; wasn’t ashamed of being afraid or sad. The years had forged a firm bond of friendship between us, so that I considered Nadia nearer to my heart than Noha.

We were closer than sisters. We’d spent our childhoods together; grown up together, played together. Our hearts had unfurled at the same age. To that sweet, restless sensation of femininity sweeping over us, to those blurred, indefinable desires enticing us. Fantasies of first loves, of Prince Charmings. The first kisses, the depression, the fear of separation. The sobs, tears, and childish giggles. The precarious changes that took our bodies and recast their features. We lived and suffered together in the rush of these emotions, entwined as if our lives were of one feeling.

Nadia didn’t leave me alone with my sadness. She’d take me to her house, draw me out of myself. Life would impose itself there, and I’d forget Hesham for a while. Then I’d return home and berate myself for so indulging in life that Hesham had slipped from my mind. My brother’s name became synonymous with an abiding suspicion I had about death: I imagined it as this unknown land whose shores are shrouded in secrecy; to find those shores means you’re never coming back.

I lay on the bed, full of worry. The clock ticking in the dead of night was a whisper for the still steady passage of time.

Today is the nineteenth of November, 1950; it’s dawn, and I’m lying in the dark with my heart full of dread—full of questions: is that really the date? Does the clock really say three in the morning?

My brother died that year. Other relatives died, too; died in accidents or from old age or illnesses. To my eye, accidents are such weak excuses for the body to cease functioning, for the soul to pass to another world.

Why do we exist? Live then die? When I was small, I asked these questions without daring to look for answers in the mouths of others. Years have gone by, and I still ask the same questions, but with the difference now that I know the others don’t know the answers either.

My childhood was pleasant—although I wonder if I truly lived those years. It’s like some imaginary time, a fairy tale.

No end of other, future days will accumulate, coming after the day I’m living now until it too is some distant fairy-tale day, and then I will doubt I ever lived it at all.

A cock crows in the dark, the sound permeating my innocent ears, and I fancy it’s calling only for me. I’m just a soul in a female body lying on a bed in the still of the night, like billions of others.

My individuality is swelling, isolating me inside myself, cutting me off from everyone. At times, I find myself looking out from inside through the window of my eye at the people and places around me. Not interacting with them. It’s as if I’m disconnected: from them, from my existence, having emerged from inside myself to watch and listen. It’s as if I don’t have a body that moves, a body that lives.

At times, I feel I’ve already lived my life. Why then am I here again?

I feel set apart from other people. At times, I question whether I’m alive, whether I exist.

I’ll leave my living corpse floating on the surface of the night—to carry me to tomorrow, and to other, former days.

Enayat al-Zayyat (1936-1963) was the author of one novel, Love and Silence, which was published after her suicide. She is vividly imagined in Iman Mersal’s Traces of Enayat, tr. Robin Moger.

James Scanlan is an an Arabic-to-English translator from the UK based in Egypt. You can watch him read from an excerpt of his translation of Muhamad A Jamal’s Flying in a video produced for the Bila Hudood festival in 2021. He won the 2022 ArabLit Story Prize.