Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 February 2010
Issue No. 985
Culture
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

This Is Not Literature, My Love

Iman Mersal, These Are Not Oranges, My Love: Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2008

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Iman Mersal

Iman Mersal, These Are Not Oranges, My Love: Selected Poems , translated by Khaled Mattawa, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 2008

The wall is further than it needs to be
and there is nothing to support me.
An ordinary fall
and bumping into edges
that change places in the dark...
How could I let myself
be so lonely before thirty?

(A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons, 1995)

You are on your way home to Faisal from downtown Cairo, to the flat where this fall might actually have happened: "There is no alarm clock/ and there are empty cups under the table"; there are corpses, too, apparently: casualties of the dangerous games you've been playing with your mind. It is very late at night. Your companion, who is due to exit at a later stop, offers to walk you to your building. You know it will be a scary walk, you need the company; but you say no. He has been your friend long enough to realise arguing is pointless; anyway, he is probably too mellow a character to insist.

Faisal in the early 1990s is a sort of Islamist favela : a giant molehill of partly built-up streets, unplanned and untended, hideous amalgams of exposed red brick and concrete growing laterally out of what must be the world's narrowest road. Residents may not be as violent as their Brazilian counterparts, but there is a similar drug-addled hopelessness about them. The majority are lower middle-class immigrants from the Nile Delta just like you; except that they are not intellectual socialites in the making. While you struggle with your poems, they are rediscovering Islam along corrupt Wahhabi lines. All around you conservatism reduces to meddling, religious observance to noise pollution, modesty to headscarves if not face veils. You live here because the rent is affordable, because murderous drivers operate a cheap "microbus" service to town around the clock, because many of your friends live in the vicinity. (A curious fact about the Egyptian poetry movement of the Nineties is that many of its champions, e.g. the late poet Osama El-Daynasouri, the now Madrid-based poet Ahmad Yamani, and the poet Ahmad Taha, who was the founding editor of its principal mouthpiece, Al-Garad or "The Locusts", lived in Faisal.)

But late at night the unlit streets look menacing. You are light-headed, maybe a little drunk or under the influence -- and your self- awareness as a bare-headed 20-something-old woman who lives alone, a breaker of the code, now takes the form of impending doom. In the dark, angry memories dance with flashbacks from a bad trip; they nearly paralyse you. Walking on, you sense a presence, a voice, what looks like the glint of a knife. A bald puppy is suddenly pawing at your knee; its parents, hyena-like, watch intently as you pass. Then another pack is barking hysterically...

The walk to your flat takes five minutes exactly, but the humid stillness and your played-with mind make it feel like eternal wading in adrenaline. How much easier it would be if you accepted the offer of company -- it would have been no trouble to your friend -- and how silly the heroism of rejecting it! The next day, you laugh at yourself, at the heroism and at the fear. But like a politician refusing to break with the party line, you do not rescind your stance.

***

Being walked home, like being bought a drink, is a womanly concession. You do not make any. Since settling in Cairo as a graduate student, most of your time is spent with men: at the workplace, at the literary gathering, at the ahwah or coffeehouse, at the bar. All are patriarchal spaces, more or less; all take in few if any women. Men have preyed on you, too, folding exploitative agendas into kindnesses. Your real friends, the mellower, the closer, know that special treatment upsets you.

You hate the role of victim. So even when it brings you sincere sympathy or solidarity -- from women feminists, for example -- you still refuse to play it.

The notion that only you own your body comes with the ideological territory: as a budding Marxist, back in the Delta town of Mansoura, you learned to resist the status quo. You know that religion and morality can be ways of turning people into objects or currencies. You also know that women are equal to men. But even as you literally act out that knowledge, you can see the illiberal potential of "gender" or "class" struggle, the way people abuse grand narratives. You may be convinced by the cause -- in some sense, you embody it -- but there are visceral impulses that make more sense to you than fighting on its behalf. You are not promiscuous, for example (not because it is immoral but because you are too busy changing the world). Rationally it is the bourgeois aspect of promiscuity that should turn you off, but what keeps you chaste is the fact that loveless encounters have left you empty and inexplicably bereft. Self-indulgence is less noble than productivity, but as a scholar, a left-wing literary magazine editor, a teacher of Arabic, not a wannabe poet but a wannabe great poet, it is your almost antisocial ambition, a geeky sense of drive -- self-indulgence of a different order? -- that makes you work hard.

Slowly you're summoning up the courage to admit that, though the class prejudice and misogyny you suffer have a broader context, it is your suffering of them that counts; in a world of disembodied values individual experience is more meaningful. It will take you many years to embrace the woman's core hidden inside you, your interest in softer and more feminine things, what love might look like if not for history. Still, on top of the move here from Mansoura, a mental immigration has occurred.

True, in recent years you've had a boyfriend, a fiancé; you were even briefly married. But you haven't yetlearned to live as part of a couple or family. Notwithstanding estrangement from womanhood, this may have to do with your mother dying when you were eight: the desperate gregariousness of a fundamentally lonely person, which suspends or delays one-on-one contact. It may have to do with your sensibility; a writer's career rarely chimes with domestic life. But probably, more than any other thing, your unsentimental singleness has to do with the drive to be financially- socially-politically-existentially, totally independent. You'd rather go hungry than accept perfectly well-meaning help from your father or uncle. In a given situation, you'd rather be terrified than rely momentarily on a (male) friend.

That is why, at your Faisal stop tonight, you get off alone.

***

It is possible to approach the work of Iman Mersal (b.1966) from a standpoint of literary criticism. It is not advisable, but possible. The fact that she has maintained a strong presence on the literary scene for the last 15 years encourages an assessment of what might be called her contribution, although it seems to me that she is far more interesting as someone who engages with the meaning and purpose of the poem -- the only definition she proffers being "that which cannot be said otherwise... which, when it is good, changes us once it's written" -- almost as if her writing is merely a byproduct of living with a certain kind of self awareness, a lasting, systematically protected connection with solitude or pain.

Arabic poetry has tended to emphasise rhetoric at the expense of meaning, which makes its quality hard to judge, particularly in another language. This is true even of the recent developments Mersal belongs with, which purposely eschew the by now more or less hackneyed eloquence of free-verse masters like Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab (1926-1964), Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) or Adonis (b.1930), who had their heyday against a backdrop of (often left-wing) nationalist politics through the Sixties. The surface beauty and relative lack of substance in Arabic verse -- including much free verse -- had made it read like repetitive drivel once taken out of context; and the comparative ease with which more recent work written in prose makes the journey to English, for example, was initially, ludicrously, a sign that it might not be as good. Ironically (though this does not show as much in translation) the Nineties' prose poetry, produced in an atmosphere of post-Soviet disillusion and discontent with the rise of Islamism, has proven just as prone to rhetorical emptiness, derivation, monotony.

Fresh attempts to subvert "poetic" language, showcased in Cairo's two low-key but truly epochal literary journals of the period, Al-Garad and Al-Kitaba Al-Ukhra, have been widely imitated. In their early poems, for example, Ahmad Yamani (b.1970) and Yasser Abdel-Latif (b.1969) -- in markedly different ways -- devised an "aesthetics of the ugly" (critic Gabir Asfour's expression, I think) which they have since gone beyond. But the rhetorical registers they came up with have showed up in others' "prose poetry" so often that, despite their originality, they already read like platitudes. It is this that makes Mersal's appearance in English alongside Fernando Pessoa and Umberto Saba a vindication for that small, heterogeneous group who forged the new poetic discourse (as opposed to a much larger group of beneficiaries).

***

Since the publication of A Dark Alley Suitable for Dance Lessons to remarkable local acclaim in 1995, my friend Iman's poems have been variously drawn on, mimicked or paraphrased. If it were the case that Arabic prose poetry reads well in English regardless of quality -- or if publication with a reputable house were just a matter of female representation, as it often is with Arabic literature in translation -- the Sheep Meadow Press would not favour her over the numerous better connected poetesses dealing with the same subjects in the same style (whether or not they consciously plagiarised her).

Still, what isn't clear in another language is that, while you can confidently speak of the Mersalesque as a distinct (and, yes, great ) gift to the development of Arabic poetry -- a way of using words to deal with personal difficulties that are or seem to be relevant to a lot of people besides yourself (one which, however unintentionally, I for one will readily admit to assimilating) -- by now you can also speak of the Mersalesque, and the Mersalesque of A Dark Alley in particular, as something of a literary cliché.

The Marxist casting a wry glance at the link between her politics and her sex life, the Father- or God-bashing voice in (as yet unconscious) affinity with Sylvia Plath; the irreverent ahwah- goer, angst- and ennui-ridden, humorous but clinically suicidal; the grassroots hyper-social being who ignores her detractors while character-assassinating her close friends: my friend Iman introduced all of this to Arabic poetry. But since she did so, perhaps inevitably, all of this has been done and redone to shreds, with only the least original voices, ironically, conforming to Locust stereotypes ("the Nineties Generation" is routinely bundled under labels like Everyday Poetics and Writing of the Body, the latter so meaningless when applied to Iman it tends, more than others, to incense her).

In fact, by 1997, when her next book came out, my friend Iman had in many ways left the Mersalesque behind. Some elements of the Nineties' discourse will inevitably persist: eagerness to shock the middle-class reader, for example, is still occasionally in evidence even now. But the young belle "dressed as a sixteenth-century French princess" (as the amorphous "I" in my friend Iman's poems begins, implausibly, to imagine itself in dreams: an abiding and enigmatic image) has already razed one or two conceptions of how to live. It is as if Iman kills one self so that another can mourn it, yet miraculously, as it seems -- not a shade of nostalgia in the ensuing elegy.

***

A University of Alberta assistant professor in Edmonton, Canada, is remembering her lover of the late Nineties -- "the young novelist" we will see in the leukemia ward in his death throes before 30, before what she implies in A Dark Alley should be the official age of loneliness -- when suddenly he is supplanted by the image of another, a pianist she is walking next to in Boston : the man she lives with now, whom she has married and had a child by (later she will have another child). The images roll as if in an antique peepshow she is trying out at her clean, un-Third World-like, non-smoking office. There, a student whose voice she is drawn to touches "the head of a Cleopatra strung up on a chain around her neck", a pendant bought for her by the same dead lover, the young novelist, and immediately (later she will find out the same student has actually killed himself), the assistant professor is asking questions:

The soul rises to the sky,

and they say the body is mortal.

Where does the voice go? [...]
Why did I not write about you?
Because I never loved you, is that why I cannot
believe your death?
Because I love you and so it is fair that you die?
Because you do not deserve my elegy [...]
Because I am not worthy of elegizing you as long
as I am alive?
Because the pianist in the upstairs room is hitting the black keys?

(Alternative Geography, 2006)

***

Mersal's first book, Ittisafat or "Characterisations", published in 1990, was written in free verse; the stylistic departure of A Dark Alley was already a bold step: With the debate at its height on whether or not Arabic poetry could or should be written in prose, she had to overcome resistance to take it. Yet within two years, she is once again migrating, imperceptibly but surely, into newer territory. In the mostly longer texts of Walking As Long As Possible -- in some ways Mersal's own favourite, though it was not received with the same enthusiasm as A Dark Alley -- the "I" seems to be mulling over "shocking" ideas and images -- confessions of infidelity, morbid fixations, nihilistic retorts -- that were more articulately constructed but somehow less inward-looking, less "experimental", in the previous book:

My friends' pores are open to writing new poems
about the freedom of dying without warning,
and about the relief that fills us
when learning that someone
we did not have time to love
has died.

(Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)

Not having time to love: it may be presumptuous to think that, when she writes this, the poetess means it in a literal way. She is fond of dismissing her interest in metaphor, to her mind no more significant to what poetry is than the metric structures she rid herself of early on. Again and again the child geek returns, with all the insurgent energy of the munadilah, theactivist committed to the Struggle and the Poor, now directed not at the campus demonstration or the communist-Islamist scuffle at the Mansoura Literature Club but at the apartment door, the office desk, the bed in the bedroom. Exhibitionism tempered by almost sapient observation breaks the boundaries of the world, destroys it, but holds on plaintively to the ruins. Perhaps there is no wisdom in the Struggle (that much Comrade Iman already knew), none but the most hollow wisdom in the heroism of refusing to be walked home; but old habits die hard. By the time she returns to writing (or publishing: I think she was writing all along, she just happens to be pathologically timorous about showing her work), Professor Mersal seems to be saying there is not much wisdom in marriage or motherhood either. At the closest she has come to a true break with solitude and pain, something very like herself is betraying her again. And again, in "Sex", for example, she is, with a magnificent effortlessness, channelling the weight of that thing into words:

The world wears a nightgown cut above the knee,
and for a whole night the world doesn't check
the time
as if it has nothing to wait for.
The old tragedy
will end here to start behind another window.

(Alternative Geography, 1997)
[translation partly altered based on the original Arabic]

***

To her distress, when Alternative Geography appeared, critics on the whole failed to notice just how far Mersal had come. But already, in Walking, you can see language taking on (literal) depth as the impulses become more explicit; only, since they are also more humorous and wrapped up in miniature epics of the self, it is their mystery that comes through.

In "To Cross Between Two Rooms", an elegy for a Mother never so named, the Father-God is openly mocked in a way He has not been before, but the passage is surrounded by so much else -- the insect-extermination session with which the poem opens, leaving the speaker "the only living soul in the house", apparitions of "the scrawny woman" who lived (or died) with Him, His job as a schoolteacher correcting the grammar of the proletariat -- that it strikes an ambiguous, not a shocking chord:

When the house next door burns down

it means He has exhaled a blessing upon it.

His caress of the scrawny woman

led to her death from the joy in His fingers.

His perfection... His glory... His omnipotence...

I know all His old attributes.

(Walking As Long As Possible, 1997)

Mersal is no longer scandalising her newly discovered individual self, whether or not "to hide behind it" (as she says in one Dark Alley poem). In austere but never discordant tones, she is humming a dolorous song of periodic self destruction, collecting the debris rather than celebrating beginnings. She is paying homage to a treadmill of solitude in which she seems paradoxically comfortable while neither Friend nor Lover can give solace. Much later, in Alternative Geography, her most recent book, that treadmill takes her to a striking moment in which -- now an immigrant in an asylum room in Edmonton after some kind of breakdown -- Mersal sees herself as a museum piece:

Why did she come to the New World,
this mummy, this subject of spectacle
sleeping in her full ornament of gray gauze,
an imaginary life in a museum display case?

(Alternative Geography, 2006)

I read and reread this question. The more I think about Mersal's immigration, the more I am convinced it cannot be said otherwise.

***

Introducing These Are Not Oranges, My Love, Mersal's translator the poet Khaled Mattaw says the nine-year gap between Walking and Alternative Geography "saw her through marriage, relocation to North America, and parenthood". While the gap did make time for all this, I suspect what it actually saw her through was the painful construction of a world and a self unlike anything she had known prior to her departure in 1999. Less significantly for her writing than for her sense of identity -- a state of being I like to imagine, with un-Mersalesque whimsy, as the troubled surface of a Delta village canal -- this new world included not only snow-marked native Americans, émigrés and refugees, literary celebrities, good-looking Frenchmen, even Slovenian poets but also, at the centre -- and contentiously for a large part of the Faisal-like world she left behind -- Jews: an absurd contention, but contention enough.

The day she first presented her doctoral thesis on images of America in Arab travel writing -- it happened to coincide with the invasion of Baghdad in April 2003; and Cairo University, where she chose to work, was abuzz with Arab nationalist sentiment -- Mersal walked home crying. Such was the hostility she met with for not railing -- off-point, from the academic perspective -- against the crimes of the Greater Devil (as Khomeini called the US, comparing it with the Lesser Devil of Israel). After North America, she could no longer speak that language. Specifically, she could not crassly take the moral high ground in the usual, more or less racist tones of fellow grassroots hyper-social beings. Just why should the cost in loss of personal sympathy and understanding still be high enough for tears? There were unrelated dislocations, of course: moments of absolute alienation with her new life; one abortive attempt at returning to live in Egypt; an unpredictable and untimely death; the elderly therapist with whom she valued her "exercises in solitude" enough to call one poem "Dr Levy". Perhaps Mersal invested more this time, perhaps she cannot bring down the life she is now living as resolutely as she did her previous lives?

I suspect she has embarked on the task.

***

For a while it seems a person is gone. I don't mean just "a person": a figure, a presence, the idea of a friend who exists in a particular way at a particular place or time. When that returns, it is still recognisable, but different enough to make recognition a creative process, not quite an effort of will but definitely an exercise of trust. Something like this cycle defines the work of Iman Mersal, which as a result seems a little apart from the small eternities we call Literature, those stylised subjects of spectacle that, aiming for immortality, end up immodestly omnipresent. When at a difficult moment, Iman Mersal said "I have something to say to the world," the statement might have sounded narcissistic. In her voice it rung true. The rule is that you need to hear it as much as she needs to say it, and have as much difficulty coming to terms with the fact. That is the game Iman Mersal is playing, less with writing than with life. She speaks to people, not to language, not to "gender", not to history. What she says is what she is, and for this she must continue to become. Being someone else is a wish she never tires of expressing. She won't succeeds, but her writing is the attempt: the game she plays with herself in order to give meaning to something or someone.

The notion of Writing as Game is making the rounds of Cairo literary circles. Many young novelists point out that, instead of expressing the political commitments and grand narratives of the Sixties, what they are doing is enjoying the game of literature, the sport of testing out ideas and emotions and seeing what happens. They speak of their work, of course: what they do on the computer screen or the page, not how they exist apart from them. I doubt if they realise this game can also be played with life itself, or that, when it is, it produces writing of an entirely different kind.

Reviewed by Youssef Rakha

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