Iman Mersal


Iman Mersal
(إيمان مرسال) was born November 30, 1966 in Mit ‘Adlan, a small village in the northern Egyptian Delta. Her first poems were published in local poetry magazines while she was still a student in high school. Subsequently, she attended the University of Mansura, graduating in 1988 with honors in Arabic literature.

From 1985 to 1992, she co-edited the independent feminist magazine, Bint al-Ard (Daughter of the Earth), which published the creative work of young female writers, as well as non-fiction articles on feminism and Islam. From 1988 until 1998, she lived in Cairo writing, editing, studying, and teaching Arabic literature.

Mersal’s first book of poetry, Ittisafat (Characterizations, Dar al-Ghad, Cairo) debuted in 1990. A stellar collection of measured verse, Ittisafat was enthusiastically reviewed by the renowned novelist and literary critic Edward Kharrat in the London-based al-Hayat (September 1, 1991). Following its publication, she stopped writing for several years. Her second book Mamarr Mu‘tim Yasluh li Ta‘allum al-Raqs (A Dark Passageway Is Suitable for Learning to Dance, Dar Sharqiyat al-Qahira, Cairo, 1995) took a new direction, forming part of an avant-garde poetic movement. Mersal and other poets of the “90s generation,” adopted new genre that came to be known as qasidat al-nathr or prose poem.

The new form freed them from the grandiose rhetoric and large ideological focus of modern Arabic poetry, enabling them to explore the details of daily life. Because of resistance from the mainstream, the nascent movement found its home in independent magazines—often small and struggling—including al-Garrad (The Locusts) and al-Kitaba al-Ukhra (The Other Writing).

Despite the controversy surrounding the publication of Mamarr Mu‘tim Yasluh li Ta‘allum al-Raqs and the claims that it veered too sharply away from the conventions of Arabic poetry, it achieved wide critical acclaim, as shown in numerous reviews in Egypt, Lebanon, England, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and elsewhere. The collection was also named Best Book of Poetry of 1995, as selected by fellow writers through polls conducted in several Egyptian periodicals including Akhbar al-Adab, and Nisf al-Dunya.

By the time Mersal released her much anticipated third volume of poetry, al-Mashy Atwal Waqt Mumkin (Walking as Long as Possible, Dar Sharqiyat al-Qahira, Cairo, 1997), the poetic climate had changed. A receptive audience no longer debated whether or not Mersal’s poems were legitimate but rather focused on her development as a writer as can be seen from the numerous articles and reviews published in many different countries.

During this period, Mersal also pursued a Master’s degree at Cairo University exploring mystical intertextuality in the poetry of Adonis, and graduating with highest honors in 1998.

Mersal’s fourth collection Alternative Geography (2006) marks a new phase in her work; she explores the experience of displacement, being outside of oneself either at home or away from it, without invoking expected issues of nostalgia or identity.

Mersal relocated to Boston, Massachussetts, USA in 1998 and from there to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada where she now resides with her husband, an ethnomusicologist, and their two young sons. She teaches Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta. Her interests in other forms have widened and led in 2005 to a collaboration with filmmaker Shabnam Sukhdev on Stranger in her Own Skin which based on Iman's poetry and the her experience of diaspora. Her current work is inflected by questions of diasporic identities, an interest also reflected in her PhD thesis with Cairo University—the image of America in Arabic travel books. Mersal is an active member of a global community of poets and participates regularly in international readings.

Selected poems from Mersal’s ouevre have been translated into numerous languages, including English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, and Italian. A complete collection translated into English by Khaled Mattawa is forthcoming from Sheep Meadow in 2008.

(From website)

Publications: (Arabic)

  • 2006. Jughrafiya Badila (Alternative Geography). Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat.
  • 2004. Mamarr mu‘tim yasluh lita‘allum al-raqs (A Dark Passageway is Suitable for Learning to Dance), second edition, Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat.
  • 1997. al-Mashy Atwal Waqt Mumkin (Walking As Long As Possible). Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat.
  • 1995. Mamarr mu‘tim yasluh lita‘allum al-raqs (A Dark Passageway is Suitable for Learning to Dance), first edition. Cairo: Dar Sharqiyat.
  • 1990. Ittisafat (Characterizations). Cairo: Dar al-Ghad.

(Translated from English to Arabic):

  • 2007. Bira fi Nadi al-Bilyardu. Translation of Beer in the Snooker Club, by Waguih Ghali (originally published in London). Iman Mersal, co-translator. Cairo: al-Majlis al-A`la li al-Thaqafa.

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