By Faten Ahmad*
Every war novel must at some point confront a central contradiction. Only the truth has any real value, but the truth about war is that it contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom and meaninglessness. To write honestly about war, you should make readers feel they have endured those things as well. Yet no sane novelist wants to inflict that much discomfort on the audience. And so we read novels (and watch movies) filled with the kind of bravery and drama that make war look at least entertaining, if not admirable. Many of those works are tremendous artistic achievements. But they’re not war.
Elsanour, who was honored at the Cairo International Book Fair 2020 as the best writer of crime fiction for 2020, after his first detective novel “Louise Membership” won the admiration of many readers, which came differently from classic police novels.
Regarding Elsanour’s last novel, “I Can’t Breathe,” is about a the war that took place in Syria and the Syrians’ refuge in the different countries around them, such as Turkey, Egypt and other countries. According to the author, Al Halabi — a highly professional Syrian doctor — continued through the war’s period to treat the wounded and injured in Syria after he smuggled his wife and daughter Amal to Turkey, while his youngest son Asaad died by war bullets. As for his other son Ziad, he decided to stay with his father in Syria. He had a beautiful dream and he found an old currency that was used between Egypt and Syria between 1955 and until 1961, and the dream of uniting the Arabs again began his hope, which he wants to bequeath to future generations through his child Ziad.
The story is told from the point of view of Firas Al Halabi, who He is the protagonist of the novel, and he was persuaded to write his own book by his Nigerian friend Musa — who met him on the plane going to the United States — to translate his book into many languages and send it to his daughter Amal in Turkey after his previously wife Rana married a Turkish man after she mistakenly knew the news of the death of her husband, Firas Al Halabi, so Amal acquired a father other than Firas Al Halabi, and also she didn’t recognize her real father, Firas, or even speak in Arabic.
Elsanour’s “I Can’t Breathe” novel, remain the core of his work to date. It is a powerful meditation on the way that victims of racism and wars hopes and fortunes were (and still are) constrained by to be free from racism and death. Firas Al Halabi, Syrian physician, is a man whose ingenuity and dexterity far surpass the circumscribed opportunities available to him. Despite this, he suffered many tragedies that forced him to send part of his family to seek refuge in Turkey, while the rest of them died from the effects of the war in Syria, and the other died with him in Egypt due to Corona pandemic infection. In the middle of 2020, he and his Nigerian friend moved to live in the United States of America, then they discover the great racism and unjustified violence against blacks that caused the death of many blacks victims along with the white supporters and protesters, among who died was his friend, the Nigerian doctor, who died due to racism.
While “I Can’t Breathe” is set in the early 2020 year, the questions it raises are deeply resonant today. Among them “What if African Americans” responded to the profound violence leveled against them with vengeance instead of non-violence? And what if the president or the government did not succeed in reducing tension between everyone at the time of the spread of the Corona pandemic?
“I Can’t Breathe” reminds readers that people are not always as they seem and that buried just below the surface of obsequiousness may be a thick layer of malice and an unquenched thirst for revenge. We do not need a new planet to live in safety with new rules above it that protect humanity from the wrong laws that we have previously set. Rather, we can exploit many deserted areas, develop our planet and protect it from racism, hatred and wars, so that everyone can live in peace and tranquillity with each other.
“I Can’t Breathe” underscores the necessity of revisiting the violence that has been done to African Americans and the ways that language falls short of fully capturing its magnitude. Firas Al Halabi interweaves the macabre backstories that drive each of the Black characters up north, rendering the dark side of the Great Migration. The novel also explores whether anyone is truly who they seem to be, and moreover, whether people can truly know themselves and their intentions. Elsanour’s characters and their stories suggest that we are both less and more terrible than we think, and that our view of events directly correlates to our role in them.
Elsanour crafts unforgettable characters and masterfully builds suspense. The author also deftly deploys the frame story, putting the present narrative in conversation with the violent events of the childhood of the sons of Al Halabi in front of the Orontes River in Syria and the story of the ancient currency that linked both Egypt and Syria when they united in the United Arab Republic from 1958 until 1961 and Syria separated after that. Al Halabi’s intense reaction to the fictional retelling of his primal loss reminds readers that history belongs to those who control its narrative, and that fiction can be as powerful, and in some cases even more influential, than fact. While there is much to enjoy in “I Can’t Breathe”, the ending goes off the rails a bit, with too many minor characters and plot points introduced too swiftly. Among the fascinating characters who go underexplored are The elder man Abu Shihab, who supported his friend Al Halabi a lot and opened his restaurant in partnership with Al Halabi in Egypt until he died from the Corona infection, he and Al Halabi’s son.
The big shock lies in the phone call between Al Halabi in Egypt and his wife in Turkey after he learned that she had married another man (after learning of his false death in the war)and that his daughter Amal no longer recognized him, and that her primary language became Turkish and not Arabic, which made Al Halabi regret a great deal after his daughter Amal lost her origins. And her language is Arabic, and she no longer knows her real father, and Al Halabi was satisfied with confining that great sadness in his heart and not revealing that secret to anyone until his family congratulated him on living in safety and peace in Turkey.
“I Can’t Breathe” is a magnificent achievement, a one-volume history that should find favor among readers thoroughly immersed in issues of wars, asylum, poverty and racism, especially in the Middle East, Africa and even the United States and those approaching the subject for the first time. As the years thin the ranks of those who fought in the war, Elsanour’s balanced and elegantly written prose should help ensure that the bloodshed, bravery, poverty and racism of that tragic conflict aren’t forgotten in Covid-19 pandemic time.
*Faten Ahmad is a professor, writer, book reviewer, and health counselor. Her fiction has been published in Egypt, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, Your Favorite Book, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms