“Threshold” is an old word for a simple thing: a horizontal floor strip, a doorsill, to mark the boundary of an entryway. Out of such simple things are the deepest metaphors made, often overdetermined or contradictory, imbued with preternatural power. A line of poetry, too, is a threshold, signaling its formality, tapping into uncanny origins: just as verse is made up of “feet,” the etymology of “threshold” contains the old Germanic word for “to tread.”
The Egyptian poet Iman Mersal’s title poem, “The Threshold,” occurs halfway through her first book for English speakers, translated by Robyn Creswell. It is a reminiscence of her youth in 1990s Cairo metaphorically compressed into one night of high jinks, where as part of a band of disaffected, outsider poets, she crossed the city from its opera house in a high-rent district, to a street of dive bars, then to the cemetery, arguing about politics and literature:
I was separated from the others by a parade of camels
emerging from the Arab League.
When we found each other again
we offered our cigarettes to a security guard
who didn’t know the name of the building he guarded
and finally arrived at a bar in the heart of the city
having broadened our horizons and earned a few scratches.
We had to sit there four years,
so we read Samir Amin
and Egyptianized Henry Miller
and Kundera gave us new ways to justify infidelity.
“We had to sit there four years”—Mersal’s Cairo is a place of carnivalesque crowds but also the utter stasis of cafés, where the unemployed and redundant intellectuals loiter. “The Threshold” is a hail and farewell. In the very next poem she is getting married—and is pregnant. She leaves Cairo for Canada with her ethnomusicologist husband and eventually becomes a professor of Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta. “When I left Egypt for the first time,” Mersal told an interviewer some years ago, “a great aunt who had never left my home province sent me off with an Egyptian expression: ‘May it be a happy threshold.’” Mersal added that the threshold needn’t be happy—or sad. It is simply the only position from which to write.
It is one thing to be exiled, to be of that distinguished lineage evoked wherever heroic dissidents apostrophize Dante or Ovid. Mersal left Egypt of her own choosing, and she is a woman. The banality of her position as a comfortable academic and mother, keeping one eye on her homeland from afar, gives rise to mordancy and ambivalence, as in “CV”:
A ruthless catalog of sorrows:
years in front of the screen, diplomas before jobs,
and languages—all that torture—now ranged under Languages….
A life overstuffed with accomplishments,
scrubbed free of dirt:
proof that the one who lived it
has cut all ties to the earth.
In “Why Did She Come?” the emigrant is the quintessential Egyptian museum piece, the mummy:
Why did she come to the New World? This mummy, this curiosity,
lying in state in her dusty linen…
You left your poor enemies on another continent
and feel ashamed whenever you think of them.
Nothing makes you angry anymore.
It’s hard to meet a classical Communist here,
where clocks hang in government offices
rather than pictures of the president.
Perhaps these days of sedation are the real nightmare.
Nothing here deserves your rebellion.
You are content and you are dead.
The mummy is isolated on the threshold between life and death, unable to rot and join the life cycle of compost. This is Mersal’s most self-lacerating statement about the émigré’s betrayal of family and history and language. But rather than sedating her poetry, immigration and its compromises proved a spur. They have given her the material that her wit, her indirection (and misdirection), her mischief, have whetted into sharp points.
To be an Arab poet is to be heir to a distinguished tradition going back to pre-Islamic times, predating the earliest Anglo-Saxon poems. (The personae of the dramatic monologues from both traditions, battle-scarred warriors and vagabonds, are strikingly similar.) Poetry is still held in such high esteem in the Middle East that an American Idol–like televised competition called Million’s Poet has been broadcast since 1993; the hefty cash prize is flaunted in its title. The most popular verse form is a metered monorhyme, the qasida, and the ruba’i is the four-line stanza familiar in our language from Edward FitzGerald’s translation The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Rhyme itself—little used by ancient Greek or Roman poets—was an innovation brought to the notice of medieval troubadour poets via the Andalusian songs of Moorish Spain. English and European poetry was influenced by Arabic verse, and no cultural form has meant more to Arabs.
Fidelity to tradition can also mean that forms become conservative and staid; when Arabic poetry wanted to become modern in 1960s Beirut—then a literary capital—it did so by shaking off the tyranny of hemistichs (the half-line before or after a caesura in certain formal verse) and monorhyme: borrowing from the French, the Arabic prose poem was born. This is the form on which Mersal built her oeuvre, finding in it personal freedom, as she told an interviewer in 2012:
In that historical moment of the early 1990s, in the desolate urban landscape of Cairo, the group of hopeless young poets I belonged to witnessed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the allying of Arab states with America in destroying Iraq, the continuing Palestinian struggle for freedom, the injustice and poverty, the hypocrisy that characterizes societies torn between global capitalism and the customs and traditions forming the core of identity; we experienced doubts about Arab nationalism, about Western democracy and enlightenment as well. This alienation experienced by some young Arab writers, filmmakers and other intellectuals of my generation created a desire to escape the grand rhetoric and historical ideology of Arabic culture in general and poetry in particular. Prose poems, in that context, were one way to oppose the mainstream grand narratives and create our own.
It’s not easy to escape “grand rhetoric” in Arabic poetry. What constitutes written language for poets is a hothouse idiom far removed from the vernacular dialects that themselves may be mutually unintelligible: the Moroccan and the Syrian have their own tongues. Fusha, or literary Arabic, is supposed to unify the tribe, but as Mersal describes, not every poet wants to participate in this ostensibly communal project.
Mersal’s style is instead understated, ironic, colloquial. Her penchant for the homely detail and unease with “grand narratives” converge in an early work, “Amina.” The poem gives the barest of backgrounds: the narrator is sharing a hotel room with “my perfect friend,” a woman older than her mother. “You order beers on the telephone/with the confidence of a woman/who speaks three languages,” she writes. Creswell gives a little more information in his introduction: the friend in question is Amina Rachid, “the granddaughter of an Egyptian prime minister and an underground leftist in her youth, who had studied at the Sorbonne and become a professor of French at Cairo University.” They are part of a delegation of feminists traveling to Baghdad in 1992. Rather than write a poem about solidarity, the young poet trembles: “How do you always intimidate/without intending to?” In the end: “I ponder your toothbrush,/wet and familiar.”
This queasy toothbrush establishes Mersal’s penchant for inverting power dynamics: though subordinate, she’s the cutting observer who knows no one is “scrubbed free of dirt.” Her opening poem, immediately preceding “Amina,” warns us: “I’m pretty sure/my self-exposures/are for me to hide behind.” So much of her lyric strength is derived from being the small, overlooked woman in a world built for masculine conquest. She makes a subversive virtue of being sidelined.
And the woman who is used to being sidelined is alert to her position. Infidelity and betrayal become linked metonymically with the poet who would leave her people behind. But first, it is simply an expression of threshold-crossing—a moment of daring in a stagnant society where women especially are under surveillance, as in these lines from “A Visit”:
We walk toward disaster with our eyes open
and no hesitation.
With a strength born of fear we pluck
the thorn that rankled our friendship,
confident that translated novels
provide aesthetic justification
These may be the Kundera novels referenced in “The Threshold,” or it may be Lawrence Durrell (“Have you read Justine?/You should, sweetie!”), or maybe Orhan Pamuk, whose Museum of Innocence is decidedly uninnocent reading on an overseas flight. Cavafy too haunts these poems of passion; Cairo romantically flickers into Alexandria, as in the Durrell reference or the vertiginous transition from the daylit world to a single dark room:
We’ll arrange a happy coincidence
and each will be convinced
that a mysterious wind blew their clothes off
that their limbs
did no more than satisfy
the instinct to entwine.
We’ll arrange a coincidence,
because scruples are a luxury of the strong,
and we’ll refrain from gloating
with the aplomb of assassins
who arrive at the scene of the crime
and feel no need to make pleasantries.
Literature then is a pander, just as Dante’s Francesca warned us in the glorious fifth canto of the Inferno. It places the poet herself in two illicit positions, the panderer’s and the fornicator’s, each hiding behind the other in another iteration of the poet’s axiom: “My self-exposures/are for me to hide behind.” That last metaphor is an explosive one too for an Arab woman: love is a fifth column providing cover for terrorists who act like bystanders.
But affairs are like poems: the delirium of neither lasts for long. Disenchantment inevitably follows. In “Respect for Marx,” the narrator ponders lingerie in a shop window:
A respect for Karl Marx
is the one thing my lovers had in common.
I allowed all of them, though to differing extents,
to paw at the cotton dolls
hidden in my body.
I’ll never forgive him.
A poem titled simply “Love” ironizes the great subject of Arabic poetry: “If you happen to be an Arab poet/you must have written something about it by now./You must have been lost for many years/in the desert of infatuation…” Mersal is being cheeky as usual. By the end:
Love makes us authentic and narcissistic,
narcissistic in our authenticity and authentic in our narcissism, and so on.
There’s no such thing as enough
until the arrival of he who said
contentment is an inexhaustible treasure
as if to set the senses’ temperature at zero degrees
while he walks off into the desert
whistling something mystical like I am you and you are me.
Perhaps it takes a woman to say this, after centuries of love as drunken ecstasy in the verses of male poets whose imperative is ultimately to move on (to the next intoxication, the next poem). But Mersal is the one who moves on, after all, leaving her old lovers behind in Cairo and crossing the threshold of middle age with new acerbity, as in “Sound Counsel for Girls and Boys Over Forty:”
The expert went on to say that it wasn’t merely by such symptoms that we distinguish between the sexes. His investigations had determined that after forty a man becomes proud of the number of women he’s brought to orgasm, while women regret how many times they’ve had to fake one. Naturally, a woman talks very little about such things, for she is as dark and secretive as a well, while a man who talks of them will light up like a boulevard with delight.
What I relish, especially in the later poems, is the misdirection built into Mersal’s dramatic monologues. What begins as an apparent disquisition by the author ends up in someone else’s more assertive voice, as in the poem above, or “The Employee,” another poem about negotiations between the sexes, this time in the voice of a “colleague at work”:
She said to him, When a woman says I’m a little drunk,
this is actually a warning that she might collapse at any moment.
And when she tells you of a lost happiness
she means that you’re responsible for giving it back to her
on a silver platter, like those knights in the stories of caliphs
who return home with the heads of enemies on their spears.
“I am you and you are me” is a different sort of proposition for this poet, who may also be remembering Rimbaud’s axiom, written before his flight into North Africa: Je est un autre.
In what may be my favorite poem, “Up in the Air,” the speaker addresses the stranger on whose shoulder she laid her head on a transatlantic flight: “The flight attendant must have thought we were honeymooners…” The man is kind: “You carefully sipped your wine so as not to disturb/a woman whose name you didn’t know.” In the end, the housewife and mother who inventories all the domestic labor that went into preparing for this business trip—hence her exhaustion once in her seat—writes this poem to thank her unknown seatmate for letting her lean on him and not once getting up to go to the bathroom. But here’s the catch: “I might not have actually been asleep.” The speaker turns out to have (maybe) played out a fantasy of intimacy, both innocent and devious, at the man’s expense. Who’s playing whom—or what? It’s all “up in the air.”
It must be clear by now that Mersal doesn’t offer herself as a representative of her country, culture, or religion, and her feminism manifests not as a creed but as a tone, a disposition toward life and love. Her voice is so inviting, so familiar, so confiding that it’s even easy to forget that these are translations: Creswell renders her as a perfect contemporary. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say she’s now as much a Canadian poet as she is an Egyptian one. “Was it you,” she writes to a friend across the world, “who first said We live the same moment in different time zones?”
Readers curious about Mersal’s perspective on feminism and womanhood will want to seek out How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts, a series of autobiographical essays—and one diary extract—published by Kayfa ta, a small press in Egypt, in collaboration with Sternberg Press in Berlin. In it she lays out her ambivalence about the part that motherhood plays in a woman’s life, how that ambivalence is mirrored and amplified by society and its institutions. Her own mother died, from complications related to childbirth, when Mersal was only seven. She herself has two sons; one of them became severely ill at the age of twelve. These facts belong with the other items that don’t make it onto her CV, or even her poem about her CV. Does this mean that crossing the threshold of motherhood puts some kinds of self-exposure beyond the reach of the muse? Possibly so (sometimes, at least), and yet to read The Threshold is to be heartened by poem after poem that exhibits the whole woman—heart and mind, candor and cunning: Iman Mersal, irreducible to social roles.
December 22, 2022
Naipaul’s Unreal Africa
A Theology of the Present Moment
Making It Big