Iman Mersal

My poetry is born out of a desire to better understand myself and to explore the darkness of daily life.

One of the major figures of contemporary Egyptian poetry, Iman Mersal is the author of an intimate, feminist body of work that by turns explores love, friendship and grief. Her internationally acclaimed texts have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Updated on 12/04/2021

2 min

Born in 1966 in Dakahlia Governorate, Egypt, Iman Mersal published her first pieces in local journals when she was at secondary school. Convinced that she had found her calling in language, she enrolled in the University of Mansoura for a degree in Arabic. In parallel in 1986, the author launched a feminist journal: Bint al-ard (Daughters of the Land). Having received her degree, she moved to Cairo to study a master’s in literature. There the artist frequented circles of young poets and in 1990 published her first anthology, Ittisafat (Characterisations), followed by a second five years later and a third in 1997. Mersal left Egypt the following year for the United States and then Canada, where she teaches Arabic literature as well as continuing to write; she has published three more anthologies in her adopted country, all characterised by a confident female perspective, in contrast with androcentric Egyptian literature.

Mersal grew up in an Egypt beset by major sociopolitical upheavals, in particular the collapse of the Soviet Union and former president Hosni Mubarak’s fight against Islamist opposition. National poetry at the time was ideological, aiming to espouse “great causes”. In this literary landscape, Mersal spoke out with a singular voice, that of a woman with an astonishingly prosaic body of work. Often autobiographical, her early texts recount years of study surrounded by friends, be it in Un corridor sombre adapté à l’apprentissage de la danse (A Dark Passageway is Suitable for Learning to Dance, 1995) or Marche aussi longtemps que possible (Walking As Long As Possible, 1997). After emigrating to Canada, Mersal’s poetry went on to explore the subjective experience of leaving.

Unshackling herself from a certain tradition of Egyptian poetry aspiring to societal renewal, Mersal strived to produce literature without borders and based on shared experiences: trips with friends, being wrenched from one’s homeland, the absence of a loved one... This approach has won over readers beyond Egypt, with Mersal’s work translated many times. As for French, Mersal is one of the first Egyptian poets to have an anthology published (Des Choses m’ont échappé / Some things escaped me, 2018).

  • 1986


    Mersal launches the feminist journal Bint al-Ard (Daughter of the Land).

  • 1990


    A first anthology of poetry, Ittisafat (Characterisations) is published.

  • 2004


    Mamarr mu'tim yasluh lita'allum al-raqs (A Dark Passageway is Suitable for Learning to Dance) is published.

  • 2018


    Editions Actes Sud publishes Des Choses m’ont échappé (Some things have escaped me), an anthology of poems by Iman Mersal.

The Institut français and the poet

Iman Mersal participated in the 2021 Night of ideas. 

An annual meeting devoted to the free movement of ideas and knowledge, the Night of Ideas is coordinated by the Institut français.

Find out more about the Night of ideas

L'institut français, LAB