Elsanour’s novel is a powerful meditation on the way that victims of racism & wars hopes and fortunes were (and still are) constrained to be free from racism and death. Feras 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 Coronavirus 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 black victims along with the white supporters and protesters, among who died was his friend, the Nigerian doctor, who died due to racism.
Moses Uche, a good-hearted Nigerian physician who loves to read, and writes a lot. Al Halabi met with him on the plane that was going to the United States, and the story of strong friendship between them began until they ended up due to excessive racism in the United States recently.
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 nonviolence? 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 tranquility 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. Feras 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.
On the other hand, Al Halabi wished that wars and racism would end that world, and everyone would return to live in safety and tranquility with each other without immigration, asylum, or travel to another planet, and to accommodate each other without the hatred that stems from an illusion that we ourselves have created.
I Can’t Breathe will resonate with readers who are interested in African and Arabs history and literature, and with those who want to interrogate the emblematic American myths of progress and individual uplift. The novel weighs questions that are central to human experience: how to live in trauma’s long shadow, the value and perils of vengeance, and the (im)possibility of ever fully knowing both others and ourselves.
Adam is an author and assistant professor of English. She is very interested in world literature, fantasy and horror novels. She also has two books on Egyptian literature as well as a short story collection.