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from the May 2007 issue

from Cell Block Five

It took me some long months to realize that I was incarcerated. My dreams had suddenly ended. Like Zoroaster I awoke from a lengthy slumber to discover rudely and bitterly that justice does not always favor innocence. Indeed, it occasionally takes the other side and adds to the number of victims and martyrs. In the final analysis this meant one thing for me: I might rot away inside this penitentiary without anyone noticing my existence. It seemed to me that they might not release me even if they discovered their error regarding me. I felt that I was totally forgotten.

Sitting beside me in the cell, Salam told me, "Whenever one of us is released, that is considered a political case, and this applies to you as well."

"But I'm not political."

"What you believe doesn't matter. What's important is what they believe."

Salam was obviously correct. He obviously understood the truth of the situation we live in. I protested, "But what kind of world is this! It's a world filled with errors and crimes."

I sensed that my words had stirred Salam. His face, which was burdened with the cares of more than fifty-three years, became flushed. Then he patted me on the shoulder tenderly and said, "Let's walk in the yard a bit."

When he rose, I thought: how thin he is! He resembled Giacometti's statues, which I had read about in an article-one that amazed me-in an old magazine I had found in the hall. All the same, he gave the impression of being fuller of both vitality and force than anyone else. He stood like a towering tree that provided shade to all those standing on a wobbly earth. Along with the others I was waving my shirt over my head in the night, lifting it high for the ships that passed me as my voice changed to a dry scream on the small island that was Cell Block Five (six meters by twenty-one). There was, however, no one to climb to the crow's nest to scan the suffering of a creature that did not wish to give up happiness. I had believed throughout my life that true happiness, even transitory happiness, constituted justice in this world. Any joy, no matter how slight, approximated justice.

"A search for justice, where there is fierce combat with the enemies, is considered a surrender to history. The only justice possible is for us to win this war."

"I'm not a soldier in this war, which I've never even considered. I've imagined for a long time that people devise these wars so they can have causes to discuss. As for me, I've grown accustomed to telling myself: Everyone is right. They must all have their reasons that lead them to launch these wars."

"That's true to some degree. Everyone has his reasons, but we must understand these reasons."

"They are convinced."

"When we erase the causes, the convictions disappear. For this dream to be realized, your incarceration remains as necessary as the fall of any other accidental victim. You're like a glass tumbler that hits the hard ground and breaks. We're concerned about the glass, since it was useful in its own way, but we don't brood about justice then."

A rather old net, which was turning gray, was fastened to two wooden posts that divided the yard into two unequal sections. On either side of the uneven dirt court, a few inmates wearing pajama bottoms and sleeveless undershirts and others simply clad in their underwear-including one bare-chested young man-were tossing the ball back and forth over the net. The noise they made caused our cell block to be heard in the other ones and perhaps even on the side streets near the penitentiary.

At the edges of this temporary court a number of men pursuing individual hobbies were spread out. It was an exceptionally fine day. The sun had descended behind the wall located to the right of the entrance. The gentle breeze fragrant with the scent of the trees continued to blow. Mustafa was seated directly below the radio's speaker. This old man, with a wild appearance and a hard-to-read expression, was fashioning a handbag from tiny colored beads. His hands moved mechanically as he sat alone on a sheet spread on the ground. He smiled from time to time at the poor players and made loud comments that were ignored. At the same time the songs from the radio caused him to wag his white beard to the right and left as if he were a skiff heading for a cliff.

The amateur players shouted zealously. In front of the latrines at the far end of the yard, some men hovered while waiting their turn. Meanwhile the new tea server was making the rounds of the inmates, who were scattered throughout the yard and the cells. In the blue sky, white clouds were breaking up, assuming different shapes. Beneath the clouds, beside the wall, a cheerful guard encouraged the players on the sly, since the administration would not have appreciated his affectionate chuckles. For my part I was seated on the hard ground near the wooden posts, just at the center, watching players spring at each other like convivial wild animals in the woods. At intervals I heard the wail of the huge buses coming to a stop at their stations. I was overcome by the bizarre notion that I was at a perpetual celebration. I noticed that Salam was standing at some distance from the players, looking furious. Sparks flew from his eyes. I realized that something was wrong. My suspicions proved well-founded, because Salam suddenly began screaming angrily as everyone turned his way: "Stop playing!"

He rushed at one of the players and dragged him off the court. "Who gave you permission to play?"

Yusuf, who was twenty-three, asked, trembling, "What's the matter?"

"We don't allow cowards to play with our comrades."

"I'm not a coward!"

"Shut up or I'll send you to the swamp!"

Yusuf broke into tears and withdrew, disappearing into one of the cells. I rose and followed him, feeling miserable. How could a victim turn into a torturer? The youth was sitting in a corner of the room calmly and angrily. He might just as well have been a corpse straight from a cemetery. I sat down close to him and said, "I'm sorry about what happened. Salam committed an offense for which I'll never forgive him."

Yusuf looked at me and said, "You mustn't think about the matter. It doesn't concern you."

"It does too concern me."

"You'll be ostracized then."

"That doesn't matter."

"Fine. Then you need to know the truth. Salam wanted to humiliate me because of an opinion I expressed in court. Like many others, I may receive a severe judgment against me. I'm not afraid, not even of death. All it amounts to is that I wanted to be true to myself and my ideas. The judge asked me whether I support assassination as a political tool. Instead of replying with the formula that the leadership imposed on us-I have no opinion on this subject and know nothing about it-I made it clear that I oppose crimes and that every crime, no matter what rationale justifies it, must be condemned. I was not afraid. I wished to say what I believe is right."

The tea server entered, glared at me spitefully, and then said, "Salam has summoned you. He wants to talk to you."

I thought I wouldn't go, but Yusuf told me, "Go on."

"I can't bear to see his face."

"That would be dangerous for you. Go on and don't defend me."

When I stood up, he gazed at me and smiled, saying, "Please."

Salam told me: "I'm as sad as you are about what happened, but it was necessary. We need to be steadfast; otherwise we're finished. Our strength resides in the courageous stands we take, and we can never be too harsh."

What could I say? Other men were sitting near Salam. They had their eyes on me. They must be thinking something. Had I too committed a crime that deserved to be punished? But what was that to me? I was the inmate who had committed no offense. I wasn't one of them, even though I was housed with them. It was all the same to me whether I was with them or in some other location so long as my freedom was attached to the end of a rope of unknown length.

I said a bit boldly, "I don't want to meddle in your affairs, but as a person who understands little about politics I felt that public denunciation was a harsh punishment that could push him to an even worse position."

Salam smiled mockingly, "We don't care if we lose the cowards. All we want from you is to stay away from him and avoid him. Everyone will break with him. No one will speak to him. We want him to feel our total contempt for the position he adopted in court. If he changes his opinion in the coming session, then our treatment of him might change."

"You're asking him for something impossible. Should he tell the court: *ŠñSorry, I misstated my opinion the last time with respect to politically motivated murders. I don't condemn them, because I have no opinion about them.' This is really crazy but also harsh, very harsh."

Salam responded coldly, "We all proceed harshly. Weren't you brought to prison from a café without ever committing a crime? The matter's not about personal opinions. The last thing that interests them is the answer and its meaning. They simply want to humiliate anyone the fates lead to their courts. We must confront their harshness with even greater harshness."

The night was beautiful but not for Yusuf: a decision had been reached to send him to the swamp, a dilapidated cell that had been left deserted until inmates transformed it into a prison within a prison. The door was opened only three times a day and food was provided to the captives through a small hole in the door. No one was allowed to converse with them. To this room by the latrines were sent people whom other inmates normally called traitors and scum. Yusuf did not protest when they moved him there. Carrying his bedding on his shoulders he took his possessions as silently as a calm sea. I was standing near the swamp room when Yusuf passed by me. I really wanted to smile at him from a distance and encourage him, but he totally ignored me and joined his other colleagues who had been condemned to the swamp. The swamp cell was a secret to no one. It was an accepted fact of life, even by the prison's administrators, who preferred not to intervene in the inmates' private affairs, provided that order and calm prevailed. They actually preferred to keep a safe distance from anything that would rile the inmates, who constituted a society apart with its own systems, tribunals, and administration. Here ended the external world, which was no longer anything more than a dream comparable to the dreams of those contemplating a trip to Paris, London, or any other distant city.

That evening Isam, the tea server, came to me once he finished his work and told me: "They're angry at you."

Isam's comment upset me and I studied him. Closing the door on my other thoughts I asked, "Who?"

"The others."

"But why? What have I done?"

"They don't know anything about you. They say you may be a police plant. Nevertheless you continue to interfere in their affairs."

"That's utter nonsense."

"You followed Yusuf after he was ostracized and then consoled him."

"You spied on me. You all were playing ball with him yourselves moments before."

"That was a trap we set for him. We wanted to humiliate him in front of everyone."

I felt like cursing him but chose to remain silent. Fine, I'm not one of them. Perhaps I don't even have a right to express my opinion. Even so, I felt that all this should change. It hurt me to see one victim torturing another. All that had to change. I had to work to put an end to it. But how? I thought that misery might be man's destiny everywhere, but the heavens weren't responsible for it. It was our own doing-the blame belonged to all human beings throughout history.

All night long I wept silently on my two blankets, blankets that did not keep bumps in the cell's floor from poking into various points of my body. I no longer cared about anything, not even about being released. I grieved for all human beings with a deadly grief. I sank ever deeper into an infinite stupor, a stupor of the human heart.

From Cell Block 5. First published 1972 Ittihad al-Kuttab al-Arab, Damascus; revised edition published 2000 by al-Kamel Verlag, Köln, Germany. Copyright 2000 by Fadhil al-Azzawi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by William M. Hutchins. All rights reserved.

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