In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat – Michigan Quarterly Review

In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayyat

Winner of the Laurence Goldstein Prize in Poetry

This poem responds to Iman Mersal’s “Traces of Enayat” (Al Kotob Khan, 2019), which uncovers the life and death of the Egyptian writer Enayat Al-Zayyat (1936-1963), whose only novel was published posthumously. The italicized text on the left has been translated—at times loosely—from Mersal’s account of her excavation of Al-Zayyat’s short life. The italicized text on the right has been translated, also loosely, from Mersal’s excerpts of Al-Zayyat’s diaries. “Traces of Enayat” by Iman Mersal will be published in 2023, in Robin Moger’s translation, by And Other Stories.

The sun was in the sky’s liver
when I found the novelist
who wrote one book,
then killed herself.

The sun was in the sky’s liver
when I found the novelist
who wrote one book,
then killed herself.

The sun was in the sky’s liver
when I found the novelist
who wrote one book,
then killed herself.

Sleeping, I swell

with a motherless son—

until the walls around him

stiffen to stone.

The sun was in the sky’s liver
when I found the novelist
who wrote one book,
then killed herself.

I am as still as stone.

Around my ankles

unyoked wigs

of long black hair.

To get here, I walked years
through the City of the Dead,
where the living turn garlic gold
in old oil; let the flowers
grow dry.

I picture the dead

rising at dusk

to make my bed, ask:

What is the name

you gave your son?


The last time the neighbors see
Enayat, it is mid-winter;
her hair is shorter.

But the cut is strange—
unusually short.

I panic as I realize

I forgot to feed

the two cats

in my dream.

For years I scoured slim
boxes to fill in the hours
before her death.

Her despair was yellow,

the color

of sand.

Dressed in a thin white shirt
I considered replacing
with a darker blouse,
I autopsied maps
of the city in the ‘60s—
autopsied her diaries.

The field of death is silent,

the land insensate;

a chill runs through

the bodies of roses.

One of them grows

an abscess so large

she becomes it. Yellow

in the center.

She has no word

for hunger

so she dreams

a mattress

of loose teeth.

She takes the wrong door.

It opens onto a desert

so barren, it is empty

even of the mirage.

As if it were the duty of language
to craft distance between agony
and its subject, Enayat
often journaled in the third person.

Looking back, she sees

the door had been sealed.

No—it has vanished.

she (pron.)

is a movable portal,

often on hinges,

for opening

a different passage

into the same enclosure.


The night was a cavity
she fell through hopelessly.


Sometimes she pulled me
close, sometimes her silence
was a scarecrow I pulled on
with no trouble at all. 

The blood stain

 of a gazelle’s head

 on an ironed white shirt

wakes me up wet.

One year, she did not let me write
a single word. I read, I cooked,
I spent my evenings
by my son’s side—
like a real mother.

Every cup of coffee
a small tempest in my hands.

It is on water

that I walk.

The blood stain

of a toddler’s

 red doll.

I listen to them dull.

This house has become a

ribcage, with no heart

beating inside it.

The night was a cavity
I fell through hopelessly.

I am the house

with two hearts.

I have no ceiling

or walls.


It is a January day
when Enayat walks over
to the neighbors’—
her black hair barely
touching her shoulders.

For years, I imagined a man’s hands
pruning Enayat’s hair
earlier that morning,
at the salon I found by her house
in the old maps of Dokki.

But she never went
to the hair salon that day.


Some nights

I am the mother

of an old woman

who does not know

my name.

In my palms

her long black hair

lies as limp

as a single

scissor blade. 

Whose reflection

stares back

from the blade?


Hours before her death, Enayat
accosts the mirror hung
in her sparsely furnished flat.

O anxiety…Come

encircle me.

Come, smear your bile

on my mouth—stain

my world with it—but

do not leave me

to my stasis.

You will understand this moment
better than anyone else.

The moment a woman decides
the only way to change herself,
is to take a part of it away.


Maybe some of us die

as we live—livid

in the first person.


We stand outside

life like a door.


The deserts we are in

all share a wall.


It is on water that we walk.


Our footsteps leave no trace.


When we leave the dream

the sky spills a river

of bile.


Blades of acacia hiss

their silver-green.

SARA ELKAMEL is a poet and journalist currently based in Cairo. She holds an MA in Arts Journalism from Columbia University and an MFA in Poetry from New York University. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Yale Review, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, Best New Poets in 2020 and 2022, and elsewhere. She is the author of the chapbook Field of No Justice (African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books, 2021).

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