English translation by Lina Mounzer
My long night began at the end of that blistering summer’s day, or let’s say that exhausting and heavy day, around 10:30pm, when the town was plunged into an abyss of silence and fog. The metallic shutter of the wide-open window above me, trellised and crowned by a majestic jasmine tree, looked as though it had been suddenly stoppered of its own accord, or by some mysterious action, with a thick, strange, and invisible membrane.
We’d arrived in the town two sweltering days earlier. In truth I no longer remember the details of our arrival or any details about those two first days except for the oppressive heat. But I remember all the minutes of that third day, as though they were inscribed in lines of light on a black screen inside my head. The town’s life, at least in the old center where we were staying, was enfolded in a nearly static scene, only the light changing, transforming, intermingling, deepening, and swaying over the hours, depending on the movement of the clouds and the activity of the wind. The day passed like this almost in its entirety, through the changing of the light, until it faded and went out altogether. The view from the window on the third day, as I lay down on the couch beneath the sill, remained unvarying all day until darkness came, and then only shifting in light and shadow, reminiscent of the way background scenery and mood change in a play. The lifeless scene that had prevailed and overwhelmed since morning was now dark, here and there interspersed with some small, or miniaturized living details, which served only to increase the sense of silence and darkness, such as the wan light of the streetlamp, like a pale halo floating above the other side of the alley at window-level, or the savage hordes of mosquitoes and small gray moths swarming around the light, emanating a continuous buzz like the keening of the electricity’s soul as it died, or the exhausted moans of the light on the verge of sputtering out.
The branches of the jasmine tree extend over the narrow alleyway, grasping onto a line strung to the pole of the streetlamp. Projected onto the gray wall of the neighbor’s house on the other side of the alley, the shadows of the branches entwined with a spectral staircase, which in reality (or rather during the day, which was probably the farthest thing from reality) led to the roof of the house opposite, but now, at this time of night, rose out of the thick darkness, cloaked in it. And in that moment, which remains engraved deep in my memory, the breezes that had been active in the early evening, playing in the leaves and branches of the jasmine tree, carrying the fragrance of its flowers to every corner of the alley, also died down abruptly, again like the change of scenery in a play, where the passing of hours or even days is evoked in a matter of seconds. It became even stiller, the air filled with a ferocious humidity, as though a heavy cloud had fallen from on high, taking over the entire space, slowly expanding into every corner, its spreading ends pressing in on everything in the place.
And I, being one of those things, felt that pressure concentrated on my chest and in all the airways permeating it, as well as on my neck and nose, which quickly became a dysfunctional organ, its role either abandoned or forgotten, and I too lost my ability to control it or taking advantage of its physiological functions, as its holes, without introduction or warning, became two gutters out of which flowed a salty, acrid liquid, gushing from some unknown source inside my head.
My breath immediately caught, becoming broken and ragged in accordance with the blockage in my nose and its salty flow. And between each one of those intermittent breaths there spread a vast, dark field of nightmares and visions, as well as harsh bouts of coughing like a death rattle, and a deep wheezing in my chest that worsened with each breath.
And I don’t know how or why my breaths, in that moment, became more like numbers. Numbers that started small with the insistence of each breath, then slowly expanded to the rhythm of the effort it required of me to pull in what oxygen was available in the humid, oppressive air around me. I began automatically counting those numbered breaths, visible in the dark, just to make sure they would occur. And so for example, as I breathed in I would say to myself, “this is the seventh breath.” Then I’d push it out of my congested, constricted chest, which gurgled and wheezed loudly, and send it toward the window that was blocked by the transparent membrane. But that breath I’d sent out, so hard-won, would collide with the film on the window and make its way back to me, trying to suffocate me. And so I’d sit down anxiously, trying to conserve all my efforts in order to fight off the suffocation, leaning my back against three pillows I’d stacked one atop the other, preparing myself to take breath number eight. And this one would be even harder won than the one before. And as I’d fight yet again, struggling to pull in some bit of air and then push it out of my lungs, I’d begin thinking already of how difficult the ninth breath would be, and this was accompanied by a visionary, tortured doubt about the possibility of its lack of fulfillment, or rather, my own inability to fulfill it, my efforts having reached their last breath, and my breaths the final possible number they could reach given my deteriorating condition as the night pushed on.
The clock had already struck 10:30pm by then, and the minutes continued their weighty plodding onward, number by successive number, crushing everything in their way, myself included. That was the first asthma attack I’d ever experienced in my life, the first announcement of that strange and moody impairment that had been heretofore hidden inside my being. And when my brother, who’d been asleep on another couch in the same room woke up, he hurried to the kitchen and brought me back a bottle of water so I could drink.
My brother opened the bottle, full to the brim with water, and brought it close to my mouth. I looked into the opening, feeling as though I were standing on the edge of a deep, dark well, on the verge of falling in and drowning. I pushed the bottle away from my open mouth, which was working to pull in some oxygen, and went on counting the breaths I was struggling to draw into my lungs, or to shove forcefully in. My brother retreated back into the darkness, not turning on any lights, probably, as I intuited, for fear of drawing in the mosquitoes and other flying insects. But he returned soon enough with my mother in tow, both of them dressed to leave. Swiftly and wordlessly, they pulled me up from the couch, and my brother helped me put on my shoes and placed a cotton scarf around my sweat-soaked neck, and handed me a shirt to wear. When I stood up next to the couch where I’d been lying, the room spun and I felt nauseated, almost losing my balance. But I managed to catch myself, putting on the shirt and leaving the house with my mother and brother, making our way by the light of the streetlamp, which illuminated the alley with its asphyxiated light. We went toward our car, parked on a street perpendicular to our narrow alley that didn’t permit the entrance of cars. They helped me into the backseat, where I continued my battle against suffocation, the numbers that accompanied each ragged breath crowding my mind’s eye.
My brother managed to start the car after three failed attempts and then we were off. The darkness was absolute and the humidity harsh and the atmosphere oppressive after a searing hot day. The car’s headlights cut into the darkness, penetrating the humidity, appearing before us like the two wan beacons of a boat advancing upon a still, evaporating sea. When I tried to follow those pale beams with my eyes on the road, my breaths would grow even more constricted and ragged, and I’d lean my head back on the leather seat and take up my battle and my anxious counting of my breaths anew. I was pouring with sweat, my extremities beginning to numb with cold, but my brother signaled that I shouldn’t open the window. We crossed through the empty town square and there was no one on the roads and no people in the alleyways. About ten minutes later, as we were on the road leading to the eastern edge of town, the electricity cut, and all the few lights that had been on in the houses as well as the streetlamps went out. That only served to increase my shortness of breath, as it felt like the air itself was closing in on us, enveloping everything in its path in a soundless mass of darkness.
My brother turned the car into a dirt road climbing eastward, and we came to the top of the hill on the edge of the town where a group of massive, ancient eucalyptus trees towered over the landscape below. The headlights of our car, climbing up the dirt road, came level with the tops of the trees and their silhouettes, and it seemed to me that we had arrived at the very edge of the world itself, or come to its end, or even its beginning. My brother advanced the car onward toward the outer limit of trees, driving some ways into the eucalyptus grove itself. As we pulled in, the sound of the tires rolling over the leaves underfoot came to us melodious and soft. My mother signaled for my brother to stop the car and turn off the engine, and she told me to open my window. I did so, adjusting my position in the backseat, leaning my head against the sill of the wide-open window, breathing the air. The first few breaths I took in the eucalyptus grove were still difficult, but little by little I began to feel the cloud of humidity receding, or dissipating between the tree leaves that danced in the dark, frothing tunefully on the night air.
My mother stepped out of the car with a large canvas bag in her hand and began gathering eucalyptus leaves from the lower branches and placing them in the bag. My brother also left the car, keeping the headlights on, and signaled for me to come out as well. I did, and we advanced together through the beams of light that penetrated into the grove, that remained stretched out and elongated before us, and we walked onward resolutely as though we had a clear goal before us. With our every swift step my breathing, too, began to reinvigorate, quickening to the rhythm of our pace and the rustling of the leaves underfoot. We walked about a hundred meters beneath the lush eucalyptus trees until we reached the edge of the hill that overlooked the other hillsides in the distance and all the little towns dotting the landscape here and there. There were no lights on anywhere on the hillsides, the towns either asleep or without electricity, and the world was vast and black before us, without beginning or end. My mother, having filled up her bag with eucalyptus leaves, stood near the car, waiting for us. And as we returned to the car ourselves, it was like we had just landed after a long drifting down in our parachutes from space. Standing there at the edge of the grove, before the hillsides plunged in darkness, entwined with the sky and the distant, fog-wreathed stars and the humid clouds, we felt something I considered to be a vast and immersive sense of the wide cosmos. As we climbed into the car, we were, in my imagination at least, like people embarking on a ship or capsule, meant to carry them back to earthly life.
My entire being had been filled with that immense sense of space as I stood there at the edge of the grove, and I experienced a feeling of comfort and openness. When we got back home it was past midnight, and the darkness had deepened and the electricity was still out. My brother parked the car at the mouth of the alley, once more leaving the headlights on, and told my mother and I to go ahead of him to the house, whose entrance, as well as the path leading to it, was illuminated by the headlights. My mother and I walked through the twin beams of light, reflected onto the front of the house, and went inside to wait for my brother. When he arrived, my mother quickly went to put a huge pot filled with water on the portable gas stove in the kitchen, shaking out some eucalyptus leaves from her bag into the water. My brother covered my head with a huge white towel and took my hand, leading me to the pot, which began to boil, emitting a loud whistle and thick steam. I stood over the pot, my face engulfed in the steam of the eucalyptus water, the towel tented over my head. I breathed and breathed, inhaling and exhaling, as my brother instructed. Every now and then I tried to wiggle away, wanting to shorten the time. Heavy, wearisome time. But my brother undertook the task of keeping his eye on his watch, insisting that I hold fast and keep breathing in the eucalyptus, my face in the hot steam, which rose and wreathed my face, my closed eyes and my neck, penetrating into my blocked nose and mingling with its salty liquid flow. The minutes were very long, more than seven, and they passed with difficulty. They joined their steamy warmth to my face, those expanded minutes that I began counting second by second, their numbers added to all the other numbers that marked that long night. When I returned afterward to the couch under the windowsill to try and sleep, the streetlamp outside having been extinguished, and the swarm of insects having exhausted themselves and disappeared, I remember the drowsiness stealing over me little by little, like a numbness beginning in my extremities and advancing across my body, keeping pace with the dawning light and the soft breezes that seeped in through the window. That transparent film that had blocked the window seemed as though it was gently retreating as the curtain of darkness began to lift.
That’s how asthma came into my body, through a scene that remains, until today, vivid and dominant, not just in my memory, but in my entire being. From that moment, at 10:30pm on that night, there was laid the foundation for the personal history of my body, from that point on vacillating between visions, fantasies, and feelings, and the physiological facts of felt biological materiality. A scene at the center of which is my wristwatch, its ticking grown monstrous, its face more and more crowded with enormous numbers with every passing breath.
I generally found myself undecided about what to make of it, unable to understand the reason behind its insistence upon my imagination or the utility of my continued readiness to return to it over the course of so many years, and so I began treating it exactly as the indecision dictated, ignorant of how to make use of it or place it into a comprehensible context with a specific aim where it might mean something to someone other than me, and in turn ascend into the sphere of writing and the contemplation of words.
What does all this mean? I asked myself this repeatedly, especially that the general recollections of this scene arrived as part of a still life image, without any real external events and within a reality superfluous to it, in a dull little town surrounded by other dull little towns, in which all life subsides as soon as darkness descends.
What’s the meaning of that specific time, fixed on a black screen in my memory, lit up in giant numbers, starting with the time marking the beginning of the attack, 22:30, and finishing with the time it ended as I breathed in the first dawn breezes at 5:15?
What’s the meaning of the window wide open above my head, but blocked with a membrane undetectable to everyone but me, with no one sensing its weight but me?
What’s the meaning of that narrow alleyway, barely two meters at its widest and at some points narrowing to one meter, and the fact that these two numbers have also joined that retrospective screen in my memory, mingling with the numbers controlling my successive breaths?
And what is the meaning of that wan, dying light atop the electrical pole, and the swarms of flying insects and their buzzing sound so much like a mournful keening? And that journey, cutting through the heart of the darkness behind two faint beams of light on a still, evaporating sea, bearing me to a place where the earth connected with space and gave me back the ability to take in some stubborn breaths? A journey that ended above a boiling pot of water, emanating steam and minutes that I counted second by second!
In the face of my confused ignorance, I tried persistently to co-exist with that remembered scene in secret, and to return it to the realm of darkness to which it belonged and from where it had come in the first place. I also tried to repress it, to stuff it down into the storehouse of the self where so many other things resided, things I found no meaning in sharing or no pretext for bringing out into the open. I considered the matter as one relegated to a place behind-the-scenes, fixed in memory, a purely personal matter, to do with an impairment of the body, organized in accordance with my own private sense of time and my own understanding of it. My manner of interacting with it benefits me and me alone, and only insofar as it adds to my experience of how to deal with asthma attacks, how to induce both body and soul to overcome and deceive them. Because that’s what asthma is, a private plague that takes root in the self from the first attack and lives there forevermore. And every encounter with it, regardless of the number of available treatments, inevitably rests on what the sufferer learned from that very first attack. It is a cunning plague, a plague in disguise, appearing and disappearing, solid and ephemeral, existing somewhere between obsession and delusion, between a physiological crisis grounded in the materiality of the body and the function of all its organs. It is a covert illness, masked like a bandit, requiring, in turn, circumventions, illusions, experimentations with positions and postures, and changes of atmosphere in order to be trapped, or repressed, or delayed, or forgotten. A treacherous visitor residing in the body, setting up his ambushes by force and trickery.
The asthma sufferer crosses deserts and mountains, traverses rough seas atop a rickety boat, before finally arriving at safe shores. And there, at the end, on the shores of safety, there’s a horse awaiting him, and the asthma sufferer has an extreme allergy to the coat, skin, and breath of that horse, so that merely approaching and touching it might bring on a staggering attack, killing him in twenty minutes.
I am now on that safe shore, wary of the presence of that deadly horse. I am still counting numbers. One month, two months, three, four. I am now standing at that juncture of time, where the first dawn breezes seep through the window, permeating that strange, transparent membrane, which has been tautening, receding, slackening and fluctuating for the last three or four months. The hot steam and the smell of eucalyptus are back, searing my memory. For the entire world now has had its windows blocked, its big cities and small towns and remote areas shut down, all of it become that dull, oppressively still town. I wander through my familiar, remembered scene, between 10:30pm and 5:15am, in that small alleyway that’s two meters at its widest and barely a meter at its narrowest. The streetlamp shines its pale light, and the cloud of insects swarms anew, emitting its mournful keening. I inspect my remembered scene down to its minutest detail, juncture after juncture and number after number. All of it a personal history, with its secret, hidden flaws, its simple and superfluous details, its minimalist mystery, which contains everything. It is now the history of the world, written in breath. Written in respirators, in their numbers, in those afflicted with shortness of breath, in their numbers, in the advance and retreat of those numbers. A history that didn’t begin in this moment and won’t end tomorrow. But it lives permanently in my lungs and at the center of my memory, taking me back to a clear, limited, monotonous time, defined by numbers in order to relieve its weight and meaning. Simple, transient, primary numbers that can be transcended. I wander through this scene, weaving through its details. The transparent membrane that blocked the window seems to be gently withdrawing as the curtain of darkness lifts. But it might return at any moment. The “clouds are long” above me as I look back, severe and anxious, and I am still breathing… until this very moment.
 Referring to a book by Fadi Abu Khalil, entitled Long Clouds I Remember.
Fadi Tofeili is a Lebanese writer, poet, editor, and translator. He studied interior architecture in the fine arts school in the Lebanese university (1993-1998). Between 2004 and 2007, he lived in the Netherlands, where he resumed his studies following MA program in American Studies in the University of Amsterdam, and graduated with a thesis focusing on American missionaries and their deeds in Beirut and the Lebanon in 19th century.
He has worked as a journalist since 1995 and published his writings in the weekly literary supplement of Annahar newspaper (Al Mulhak), Assafir newspaper, and Al Hayat newspaper. From 1999 till 2010, he worked in Al Mustaqbal newspaper, and was one of the main writers and editors in the weekly cultural supplement Nawafez. In 2012 he co-founded Portal 9, the first bilingual (Arabic & English) journal of stories and critical writing about the city, and was its editor-in-chief until it has ceased to publish in 2016.
Fadi has published four books of poetry and translated many literary and mythological works. His book A Trace to Trail: Neighborhood Narratives of City and Place was published in 2014 by Ashkal Alwan (the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts). Currently and since 2017, he lives and writes in the Netherlands. He is a member in the steering committee of Buddy to Buddy (www.buddytobuddy.nl) organization, which links new comers to the Netherlands with Dutch people, culture, and system.