Iman Mersal on the mysteries of a marginalized, near-forgotten class of Egyptian literature.
Love and Silence . . .
I came across Love and Silence in 1993, during a hunt for a cheap copy of The Collected Miracles of the Saints, al-Nabhani’s dictionary of holy men. ‘One pound,’ said the bookseller by the Azbakeya wall in Cairo, and though I’d never heard of it before, I bought it on the spot.
From her name I instantly assumed that the author must be the younger sister of the activist and writer Latifa al-Zayyat.
The United Arab Republic – Ministry of Culture
Love and Silence – An Egyptian Novel
Dar al-Katib al-Arabi (ah 1386 / ad 1967)
Introduction by Mustafa Mahmoud
The novel opens in Cairo, as the narrator describes her state of mind following her brother’s death in November 1950:
And again I was overcome by the piercing realization that, with his death and departure, this incredibly precious thing had vanished from my life: that I had lost my brother.
Hisham has died in an accident on the parallel bars, a discipline of which he says, It gives me control over my body. Hisham’s absence is a fount, the spring from which the narrative flows, branching into a tangle of internal reflections, among them the narrator’s account of her depression and her meditations on the meaning of a life lived in the presence of death:
And I looked into his face, unable to believe that Hisham could be dead, that this face would forever be a sleeper’s. A sleeper without breath in his chest. Yet at the same time, the lack of breath seemed meaningless, like he could get to his feet, and run about, and laugh; that he was stronger than anyone, than everyone, and didn’t need something as insubstantial as breath to live. And I reached out my hands and ran them over his face, maybe so he might feel them and open his eyes to me – me, his sister, Najla. But the face stayed still and frozen. I thought I saw a blue steal into his lips, then seep slowly outwards across his features, and for the first time I found myself afraid of him, and ashamed of myself for my fear; for fearing my brother now that his soul was gone. I felt as though I was spying on someone I didn’t know. Then I saw him, or imagined I saw him, turn his face from me, and the sight was insupportable, because for the first time I had accepted his death.
The reader learns of the narrator’s grief and her brother’s death before they know what to call her. During the course of an earlier scene in which her perspective is intercut with those of the other characters around her, and up until this unbroken train of thought as she stands over her brother’s corpse, she never tells us her name. Hisham’s death is presented as a first step to understanding:
In my mind, brooding on death and dwelling on my brother’s name grew interchangeable. I thought of him as a territory, its shores uncharted, ringed by mystery. Whoever discovers these shores never returns.
I expected the book to develop into an elegy for the dead brother, or to take us through the narrator’s gradual emergence from grief. And so it does, briefly, but at the same time, and imperceptibly, it generates layers, complex and overlapping: every bid to escape her state of mourning becomes entangled with a fresh challenge and prompts a return to the cocoon of that inner voice.
For instance, against the wishes of her family, Najla takes a job, but quickly finds herself unhappy and questioning the worth of what she does. She wonders about her family and her place amid its cold, bourgeois detachment when she realizes that her bedroom contains more tokens of love affairs and friendships than anything that links her to her parents.
Then there is the evolution of her political awareness: a process that begins when she meets a writer and revolutionary called Ahmed. She starts to adopt his views on colonialism, poverty, and the corruption of the royal family, and then looks deeper into the selfishness of her own social class and the responsibility it bears for the ills of the status quo. Here, Najla makes her most forceful break with the gravities of Hisham’s death, when she realizes that her brother – a pampered, bourgeois university student – had been deeply self-centred and trivial:
Had I really loved him, or was I merely expected to, like everyone else in the family? How did such a simple, obvious truth pass me by? Only now do I see that I had never been more than Hisham’s lackey; what happiness I knew was only spillover from his greater store, and all the joys of home life were because of him and for his sake.
We are repeatedly taken beyond the tragedy of Hisham’s death, beyond remembrance and wrestling with loss, into a taxonomy of the different routes to freedom – employment, love, political consciousness – but each attempt carries within it the inevitability of her return to a cycle of depression and isolation. It is as though there is something wrong with Najla, a flaw she carries with her as she shuttles back and forth, in and out of life, and which poisons everything she tries.
The novel ends in a great confusion. In fact, it’s as though there are four distinct endings set alongside one another in the space of a few pages:
1: Ahmed, the revolutionary lover who encouraged her fledgling political consciousness, falls ill and goes abroad to begin treatment. Najla learns to make peace with the world and to live with herself, and, through the support she gives to Ahmed in his illness, she learns to give.
2: Ahmed returns from his treatment abroad and their relationship peters out. Najla starts to enjoy her own company. She takes walks through the places where they used to meet and realizes that a man should be a part of a woman’s life, not life itself. She applies to the College of Fine Arts – and buys a set of new curtains.
3: Ahmed travels abroad for a second round of treatment, and dies. We are now faced with the possibility of a second wave of mourning, but Najla goes to university all the same: she wants to paint, for her life to have meaning.
4: the final ending takes up less than a single page. A brief description of the 1952 revolution, presented as the happy ending our narrator deserves after her long and painful journey.
All these endings work as conclusions to Najla’s journey, but the first three are plausible extensions of her quest for identity, and for all that they involve Ahmed’s illness (and the end of her relationship with him and his death), they also offer closure, because Najla is permitted to create new possibilities for her future. The fourth is genuinely problematic, not just because the solution it provides comes from outside the narrative, and not because it is indistinguishable from the clichéd conclusions of many novels written in the aftermath of 1952, but because of its language. The language is a puzzle. It feels as though the author has begun her journey with the whisper of an inner voice – like someone peering through the window of her bedroom at the bleak emptiness of the streets outside – and that she has retained this voice throughout, for all that it is shaped and changed by experience and engagement with other people, only for it to suddenly vanish, its place taken by something sonorous and depersonalized.
For the last ten lines it is the masses that speak, and the book’s very last sentence is its worst:
The clank of the tank tracks shook the ground, and as I stood there, smiling, the new day began to dawn.
The lack of clarity is a curiosity, too. Are these multiple endings intended as a satirical comment on the very idea of a conclusion, or had their young and inexperienced author, caught between these options, decided that she would leave it to her readers to resolve an ending for her?
It wasn’t what happened in the novel that made me fall in love with it. Even in 1993, callow as I was, I knew that a good novel is more than the sum of its incidents. Nor was I drawn to it because of its social or feminist ‘consciousness’, or the simple historical fact that it had been written by a young woman in the 1960s. As a matter of fact, at that time in my life, in conversation with friends and fellow writers, I would frequently mock the idea of describing a novel as ‘conscious’ or praising a work of literature simply because it ‘reflected reality’ or championed a particular social class, or issue, or nation. And we reserved our profoundest mockery for any defence of ‘higher values’ in incompetent literature.
Back then, I was the same as all my friends. We read ‘high literature’ (defined by consensus), but we also read randomly, hunting out whatever appealed to us around the margins of this definition. My passions included C. P. Cavafy, Wadih Saadeh, Yehia Haqqi, Régis Debray, Samir Amin, Tzvetan Todorov, Eduardo Galeano, Milan Kundera, Louis Awad and more, and I would argue for my choices with a partisan’s fervour:
‘How can you even mention al-Aqqad alongside Taha Hussein?’
‘Critics need to read Abdelfattah Kilito.’
‘Sepúlveda’s The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is better than One Hundred Years of Solitude.’
‘So the Ministry of Culture can invite Darwish and Adonis, but not Sargon Boulus?’
A young woman writer had to personally celebrate the books that ‘touched’ her, as though she needed to define herself by appending her discoveries to the canon.
I added Love and Silence to the great chain.
The language in Love and Silence is both fresh and refreshing. Sometimes cold, sometimes sentimental, it can feel uncanny, too, as though translated.
Occasionally you sense the ponderous influence of contemporary romance novels, but elsewhere it is modern, strange, limpid and beyond categorization. It is clearly a first work, but its tonal inconsistencies are held together by virtue of the author’s talent. In a single paragraph, the reader might encounter a wide sample of registers, the spectrum of the author’s language choices:
Out of the still calm of sleep I pulled myself into motion, wandered across the room and, standing by the window, brushed my discontent into the street. I sat down – looked out – paged through the book of life. My heart was heavy and to my eyes everything seemed old. People were damp yellow leaves and I was unmoved by them, by their faces, by the soft covers of their clothes. I felt at once imprisoned by this life and pulled towards new horizons. I wanted to pull this self clear, gummy with the sap of its surroundings; to tear free into a wider world. The clear skies of my country bored me. I wanted others, dark and muddied and threatening, capable of stirring fear and astonishment. I wanted my feet to know a different land.
As soon as I finished a first reading of Love and Silence, I turned back and began again. In my notebook, I copied out passages, small stand-alone texts like lights to illuminate my emotional state:
I am in exile from myself. Who can issue a pardon for my soul, so that it might return, might know the body as its own small true homeland? [. . .] If I were able, I would erase myself and be reborn, somewhere else, some other time. Another time. Another time . . .
Sometimes a piece of writing can shake your very being. This doesn’t mean it has to be unprecedented in the history of literature or the best thing you’ve ever
read. It is fate, delivering a message to help you make sense of whatever you’re going through . . .
Sometimes a piece of writing can shake your very being. This doesn’t mean it has to be unprecedented in the history of literature or the best thing you’ve ever read. It is fate, delivering a message to help you make sense of whatever you’re going through – and at the exact moment you most need it, whether you realize it or not. We are grateful, not only to ‘great’ literature, but to all writing that plays a significant role in how we understand ourselves in a particular moment. When we turn to contemplate our lives, it is these works that let us see.
Love and Silence is a novel about death. Not Hisham’s death, nor the death of her lover, Ahmed, but the quotidian death against which Najla goes to war within herself. Her life becomes unbearable, her every escape attempt falling back into routine and ennui, from taking the job she had hoped would be her gateway to the world, to the love and freedom that leaves her unmoored and at a loss. Najla is depressed, insomniac, alienated. She feels not only born out of time, but that she isn’t functioning as she should. There is a bedspread missing a final stitch, a canvas unfinished on the easel: she never finishes what she’s started. Ahmed helps Najla confront her paralysis. With teasing affection he dedicates his book to:
The reader who doesn’t read, the painter who doesn’t paint.
Najla has no idea how to live without keeping herself under observation. What is captivating about the novel is the author’s desire to document this internal journey and the language in which she does it. It is a personal journey, a quest for meaning, and the novel’s themes – employment, love, the politics of class and country and colonialism – and her naïve rejoicing over the 1952 revolution that we encounter in its final paragraph are all thresholds that lie outside herself and that she must cross. The voice shows us more when it speaks out of the interior darkness.
My conviction that Enayat was Latifa al-Zayyat’s younger sister remained unchallenged. It even grew stronger: I began to imagine that I could see the influence of the elder sister on her sibling.
Latifa was born in 1923 and Enayat, though I didn’t know her date of birth, must have been around ten years younger. While Latifa was making her name as a leader of the Higher Committee of Students and Workers in 1946 – the senior members of her family fretting over her behaviour and her future – the teenage Enayat was torn between her love of Cairo’s members’ clubs, its singers and cinema, and her desire to become a daring political leader like her sister.
In 1952, Latifa married the playwright Rashad Rushdi. For more than a decade thereafter she stepped away from the struggle. But Enayat grew bolder and declared that she was a poet. Her poems weren’t much, just thoughts jotted down without any attention paid to technique and craft, but though Latifa wasn’t keen on them, Rushdi supported her. He even made the girl a present of his copy of Nizar Qabbani’s collection, You Are Mine. When Latifa’s The Open Door was published in 1960, followed three years later by the film, Enayat decided that she had something new to say about discontent and depression and death, and the only way she could ever say these things in a debut novel would be by doing what was expected of any self-respecting author: she must link her personal story to public concerns. It would be decades before any talented woman author in Egypt was able to tell her story without reflexively asserting an equivalence with wider societal issues, because The Open Door was so dominant a model.
A convincing story. But in her memoirs, The Search: Personal Papers (1992), though Latifa talks a lot about her two brothers and the men in her life, she only mentions, very fleetingly, a single sister called Safiya. So Enayat had to be reassigned: a younger cousin.
In December 1997, I submitted my MA thesis on Adonis, and the novelist Radwa Ashour asked me to provide her with the Sufi sources I’d used in my research. I brought a box of books over to Radwa’s house and drank tea with her and her husband, the poet Mourid Barghouti, and as we sat, I unpacked the books. Nearly all were old and yellowed, with the green cover of al-Nabhani’s Collected Miracles shining brightly among them. I asked her if she’d heard of a novelist by the name of Enayat al-Zayyat, and was she a relative of Latifa’s? And Radwa said that, unless I knew better, she didn’t believe they were related at all. She added that she had heard Enayat’s father was from the al-Zayyat family in Mansoura and that her mother had possibly been German.
The introduction to Love and Silence had been written by Dr Mustafa Mahmoud. Truth be told it isn’t any kind of introduction at all, either to the novel or its author, but rather a mere four and a half pages which begin:
I was leafing through a strange book, reading its dreamlike sentences and trying to picture the woman who had written it. It dripped with delicacy and sweetness.
Then, after having offered a selection of what he judges to be the novel’s most delicate turns of phrase, he concludes his introduction with four lines of his own:
This elegant book, Love and Silence, is the first and last that its gifted author, Enayat al-Zayyat, ever wrote, for she died a young woman, still in her twenties. The agonies of her brilliant heart and her own tortured humanity were too much for her to bear. May God multiply blessings on her pure spirit and her elevated art.
Better we don’t spend too long on Mustafa Mahmoud’s depiction of the author. To this day, Arab authors continue to betray their personal convictions through the language they use. The only way for a woman to write well is delicately and sweetly.
But the introduction raises other questions: how did she die? When? Why does Love and Silence remain outside the canons of contemporary literature and women’s writing in Arabic? Is it perhaps because, coming out just seven years after The Open Door, readers could not appreciate its unique qualities? Or was it that it was published in 1967, the year of Egypt’s defeat by Israel, and no one read it at all? Unlike Latifa, Enayat was never affiliated with the Egyptian Left. Did the Left use its cultural influence to exclude her from consideration?
And then, why was Mustafa Mahmoud chosen to write the introduction? Had Enayat asked him to do it before she died? Did the publisher genuinely believe he was the literary celebrity best placed to understand and present her work?
To this day, Arab authors continue to betray their personal convictions through the language they use. The only way for a woman to write well is delicately and sweetly.
Although Mustafa Mahmoud (1921–2009) was indeed a literary figure of some repute in the 1960s, he has never been near any list of great Arabic literature. Prior to this, I hadn’t read a word he’d written. My knowledge of him began and ended with Science and Faith, a television programme he hosted, and the mosque that bears his name in Arab League Street. But for Enayat’s sake, I read what I could of his pre-1967 work.
His short stories, like ‘Eating Bread’ and ‘The Smell of Blood’, seemed to me more like synopses of full-length novels, and were heavily didactic too, as though he’d never encountered the prose of writers like Yehia Haqqi, Yusuf Idris or Naguib Mahfouz. I read the popular essays, which were probably the source of his fame, all about God and man and the Devil and the riddle of death. I even went so far as to read his novel The Impossible (1960) in search of any intersection between his fictional universe and Enayat’s.
The protagonist of The Impossible, Hilmi, has an overbearing father, but when the father dies, our hero starts gambling on the stock exchange and going out to nightclubs. He is seduced by Fatima, a lawyer and friend of his wife, but soon tires of their relationship and starts another affair with his neighbour’s wife, Nani. He cannot decide whether to sell off his father’s land in the south, or use it to grow onions. Hilmi may be a paper-thin creation – as are all the characters in The Impossible – but the narrative weaves in shreds of philosophical and existential readings which lend it the illusion of depth.
Mustafa Mahmoud was about as far as one could get from Love and Silence and its language.
There’s a kind of intense curiosity that possesses us when we encounter an author who is truly unknown – a branch cut from the tree with no date of birth or death in evidence – or when their writing offers no clues to the wider life of their generation, to their close friends or literary influences.
Writers are solitary creatures, sure, but they work with a language that others also use, and it is impossible to conceive of any writing that takes place in complete isolation. So who did Enayat read? Mustafa Mahmoud? And, of her contemporaries, who read her drafts, or sat with her to discuss ideas about craft? Did she know any writers who were active at the time, or was she on the margins of the historical moment that shaped them all?
Before Enayat’s ghost began to pursue me in earnest, before I gave myself over entirely to retracing her steps, I was still no more than a reader, someone looking to fit this unknown woman into my literary family tree. When I first started thinking about Love and Silence I had turned to my readings of Foucault and his theory of the archive. I assumed that understanding Enayat’s book would mean analyzing the text’s discursive formation – the historical a priori that, collectively, make the existence of its words possible – along with the types of dissolution that lay behind its unusual publishing trajectory, its reception and its subsequent marginalization in Arabic literary culture. It was the society of texts generated by women Arab writers prior to the publication of Love and Silence in 1967 that would intersect with and shed light on this novel as a historical moment. In other words, I had to read dozens of stories and novels from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The literary value of some of these books has expired with the social or political function for which they were produced. With others, their significance is preserved in academic surveys and inventories that document the literary output of women from the start of the Nahda, the so-called Arab Renaissance of the late nineteenth century, even though the only people who still read them are academics. Then there are those that cling shyly on at the margins of the literary mainstream; of these, very few continue to be read and to exert power and influence.
I took it as axiomatic that Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door represents what Edward Said terms the determining imprint, the influence individual books can have on an otherwise anonymous collective body of texts whose unity is created by the fact of their inter-reference. But Enayat’s voice, the whisper that never speaks to the masses, the hesitant, melancholy, unconfident murmur, like weeping heard on the other side of a wall, this voice which seems to have come adrift from poetry and which poetry alone might have been able to rescue – this voice seems out of place in the community of texts to which The Open Door belongs. More than that, impossibly, it seems to be entirely obscure, as if it had no influence on what was written afterwards, as if it had never been heard.
On 18 March 1967, the eminent critic Anis Mansour wrote an article in the Cairo-based newspaper al-Akhbar. The title of the article is ‘Yet Her Book Was Published Years After Her Death’ and it opens as follows:
She showed us her modest literary output – a collection of articles, a collection of short stories, and some essays on books she was reading – and waited for me to give my opinion on what she had written and what she had read. She used to go to her father and get him to buy her books by the hundred and shut herself away to think in silence. Then, from nowhere, she decided to write a novel, her only novel, which was published just yesterday with the title Love and Silence. I never dreamed that when I gave her my support she would rush to death, taking with her all the gifts and fineness of feeling she possessed. She gave me an early draft of this first novel written in lead pencil, and I told her to go ahead and finish it without regard to proper grammar and spelling: These are little things, easily corrected! Write! Write! She completed the book in late 1961 and sent it to al-Qawmiyya, the publishers. And at al-Qawmiyya the novel encountered desk after desk, then desk drawer after desk drawer, before preceding its author to the dusty grave of the archive’s shelves. Then it was plucked from this dust, tasted gingerly by lemon-sour lips, and a decision taken that it was not fit to publish. Empty, cruel heads nodded sagely, and finally, eventually, agreed that it should be returned. And so the novel came home.
Mansour devotes the greater part of his article to an overview of the novel’s plot and excerpts, but here and there, amongst it all, he presents us with what seem to be facts about Enayat:
• That he sent her his notes on the draft novel and that she rejected them. He promised to send her novel and other writings on to his contacts, but never met her again.
• That he heard from her friend, the actress Nadia Lutfi, that Enayat had completed the novel and was working at the German Institute, and was very happy there. Although he couldn’t remember just when this conversation with Nadia Lutfi had taken place, he states with some conviction that she had completed the novel in late 1961.
• That Enayat struggled with Arabic: her schooling had been in German.
• That as part of a delegation of writers that went to Yemen in 1963, he had to share a room with Yusuf Sibai. The room was extremely hot, and Mansour quoted a line from Enayat’s novel as the perfect description of the stifling atmosphere – everything halted, all meaning froze, each minute transformed into an eternal jail cell – only to discover that Sibai knew her too, and had read her writing and promised to get her published. It was Sibai who told him she was dead.
• That Enayat’s father, Abbas al-Zayyat, had told him that she’d refused to self-publish the novel. Al-Qawmiyya’s rejection had come as a violent shock. It had silenced her completely and she had stopped speaking or reading or writing. Her family had felt that she was settling her account with the world.
• That she had taken twenty sleeping pills and that when her family found her on 5 January 1963, she had been dead for twenty-four hours.
• That she had left three sheets of paper beside the bed. One bore the words, My darling son, Abbas, farewell. I do love you, it’s just that life is unbearable. Forgive me.
The article was treasure. I read it over and over, as though at any moment I might uncover yet another secret buried between its lines. The idea that a young woman would kill herself – a young woman with a son, a father and a best friend – and all because of a book, was genuinely tragic, but it was also seductive in its tragedy. I pictured Enayat painstakingly acquiring the rudiments of good Arabic grammar and inflection, then carefully setting down everything she wanted to say in her novel, then refusing the suggestion that she should self-publish.
Enayat resembled her narrator, Najla, but Najla’s pursuit of an identity through work and love and politics had ended in hope, in the July revolution and the tanks rolling through the streets as the new day began to dawn. Enayat’s journey through writing had ended in despair, rejected by a publishing house that was itself a creation of the revolution. I saw Enayat as the protagonist of her own private psychodrama, in which writing was her identity and the only way she might find meaning. The rejection of the novel had meant identity thrown into doubt and meaning lost.
I wondered: did Anis Mansour feel guilty at all? Then I reminded myself that she never gave him her novel once she’d completed it, that she hadn’t asked him to help her publish it, nor sought his help after al-Qawmiyya had rejected her.
This was her decision, then: not to turn to him again.
But following her death, Mansour would offer up Enayat to his readership repeatedly, recirculating these same facts in article after article, sometimes adding details, sometimes amending what he’d said before.
For instance, in 2006 he wrote a piece in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper – ‘Love and Silence: O Grief!’ – in which he tells us that he first met Enayat in the company of up-and-coming star Nadia Lutfi in the home of Mrs Wigdan El Barbary, owner of the largest equestrian stables in Egypt. Nadia and Enayat had been whispering to one another in German, and when they realized that Mansour spoke it too, the conversation became general. He states that Enayat gave him some short stories, and that he published them; that he didn’t like their sense of futility, of the hopelessness of life. He repeats the claim that he suggested some changes to the novel, but that she had turned them down:
I proposed one change, that she make the opening of the novel its conclusion, then suggested that she give her protagonists the chance to speak for themselves, and not press her own words onto their tongues and into their ears, and so stand in the way of their journey. It was as though she was reluctant to grant her characters the freedom which eluded her. I told her, If I’d written this story, I would have said this, and removed that, and added this, but don’t do what I tell you. After all, I’m not you, and you aren’t me. Your dress wouldn’t work as my suit, and my suit wouldn’t suit as a swimming costume.
Then he states that she had handed him some rough drafts of her short stories, and that when he revisited them after her death he decided there would be no point in publishing them after all.
In 2010, he added two new details to the story in ‘Stations’, his weekly column in Al-Ahram. The first was that he had published some of her stories in Al-Jeel magazine in 1960, while the second explained why Mustafa Mahmoud wrote the introduction to her novel:
I heard that she had passed the novel to Dr Mustafa Mahmoud. He took his own view: it seems that he regarded it, not in terms of craft or philosophy, but like a surgeon. Had he been too harsh when he gave her his advice? Surely she was in no need of more anxiety and sleepless nights while she waited for him to write to her with his assessment of the novel, while she waited for him to write his introduction?
Enayat seems to haunt Mansour, who continues to summon her memory in a range of different contexts. For instance, he references her in his discussion of young women writers who emerged in the 1950s, whom he saw as moving women’s literature away from ‘delicacy’ and starting to show their ‘claws’:
The windows were flung open to a bracing new breeze, to fresh scents, to cries of the crowd and revolution, to a literature with claws that tore Love and Evil and Life into ribbons and scratched the face of Man the Provider, man who denies woman her freedom.
He remembers her again in the course of his account of the murder of Afghan poet Nadia Anjuman by her husband:
My friendship with Enayat al-Zayyat was long and profound. I read everything she wrote, and myself published her only novel, her last sad cry. I still have her handwritten manuscript . . .
In which way, through Mansour’s retelling, Enayat becomes an archetype, the figure he gestures to whenever he wants to discuss women’s writing, or suicide, or murder, or any of the strange and marvellous things he may have witnessed in the course of his life. A prolific columnist writing with such glib facility about a dead woman none of his readers have heard of. So fascinated is he by her story that he always has something to say about it, even though his actual view remains unchanged. However, in death their relationship evolves: from that of a young woman writer soliciting a literary star for his opinions, to one of profound friendship.
From what he writes, we learn that Mansour read Love and Silence in 1960, then suggested changes to the manuscript, which the author turned down. He made no attempt to publish the book after her suicide even though the manuscript, handwritten in lead pencil, was in his possession. And though he tells us that he knew her father, the provost of Cairo University, he never seems to have asked him if there was a second, edited manuscript in existence. He had her short stories, but thought there would be no point in publishing them, because the writer had silenced herself.
And we learn that Yusuf Sibai had also read the novel and had promised to help her get it published.
As for Mustafa Mahmoud: according to Mansour he read the novel and then Enayat waited for him to write an introduction, but he never did.
So Mansour’s use of the first-person plural – She showed us her modest literary output – could be seen as referring not only to himself, but to Sibai and Mahmoud as well. Why, I asked myself, had Enayat shown her novel to three of the most widely read and distributed authors of the day, and those furthest removed from her own literary sensibilities? If it was a question of fame, then why not take it to Ihsan Abdel Quddous, who outsold everyone? Was it admiration for what they wrote that prompted her to turn to them? Perhaps a belief that they promoted young authors? Or was her connection to Arabic-language literary culture so tenuous that she simply didn’t know anyone else?
Anis Mansour and Mustafa Mahmoud worked in journalism and shared an interest in philosophy. Their books were published by Dar Al Maaref. Mustafa Mahmoud didn’t like the novel, and showed no interest in it or its author during her life, but after her suicide he wrote the introduction. Maybe he had softened; maybe in death the surgeon’s scalpel cut less deep.
The novels of Yusuf Sibai – a military man of letters, who had been appointed secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Oversight of the Arts, Literature and Social Sciences in 1956 – would first be serialized in newspapers and magazines, then in the blink of an eye they would appear in volumes published by al-Khanji or Dar al-Fikr al-Arabi before making their way seamlessly onto the silver screen.
What stroke of fortune brought Enayat into contact with these literary stars? I tried to picture myself in her situation, exactly thirty years on, ‘showing my literary output’ to three men like these three and waiting for their ‘support’.
Except, by 1990, there were no stars of their calibre, and no readership like that which they’d enjoyed.
I looked in Al-Jeel. There were no stories by Enayat al-Zayyat, not in 1960, and not before or afterwards, either. I noticed that every time Mansour mentioned Enayat, he followed it with a sentence that hinted as much. Take this, from 2006:
Enayat placed a full stop at the end of the sentence: a zero at the end of a life that meant so much more than zero, but she was gone without ever finding this out!
Or this, from 2010, where he ended an article by declaring her an artist who had no sooner appeared than she disappeared herself, forever! She died without trace!
Of course I felt angry. Not so much because Mansour placed the responsibility for Enayat’s disappearance on herself and framed her tracelessness as its natural consequence, but because of the ease with which he repeatedly asserted it. In any case, I was happy that Enayat hadn’t gone back to him after he had promised to ‘introduce her and her work’ to his readers.