Cell Block Five

Issue section: 

Fadhil al-Azzawi, AUC Press, £10.99

Aziz sits in a Baghdad café. Suddenly police are all around him. They bundle him off to prison. All the while he's proclaiming his innocence. Aziz ends up in Cell Block Five - a ward for political prisoners - without having committed any political crime or any other crime. At first he's distraught and keeps trying to regain his freedom - there has been a mix-up with his name and surely the authorities will soon realise their mistake and let him loose.

Time goes on, however, and Aziz remains a Cell Block Five inmate. Daydreams are at first his only solace. He wants to be an outsider and not care about what is going on inside the prison walls. But life seems to become more real on the inside than on the outside where Aziz drudged on working in an office. In Cell Block Five Aziz finally has to take a stance. He has to listen to the other inmates. And he has to realise the absurdity of a system that won't release him simply because it would be an embarrassment to the police who have caught the wrong man, a man without a file and with the wrong name.

On the inside Aziz sees the tortured become the torturers and the trusted become informers. The other inmates as well as the police torture him. Although all of this takes place in a dream-like story with poetic undertones, it is clear that Aziz's experiences are close to the heart of Fadhil al-Azzawi, the author.

Al-Azzawi, who was born in Kirkuk, studied English at Baghdad University and was a member of the poets' Kirkuk Group in the 1960s, was jailed in Iraq for three years before fleeing the Baathist regime for East Germany in 1977. He wrote Cell Block Five, the first Iraqi prison novel, in 1971 and the book was published outside Iraq the following year and even made into a film in Syria. Now for the first time English readers can discover Cell Block Five, translated by William M Hutchins who also translated Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, among other Arabic-language works.

This short, compact novel is sincere. It tells of a Kafkaesque situation and inhumane behaviour in humane, even beautiful, language.