Saturday, December 22, 2012

Iraqi novelist and poet Fadhil Al-Azzawi in conversation at Arab British Centre in London

 Fadhil Al-Azzawi

When the acclaimed 72-year-old Iraqi novelist, poet, critic and journalist Fadhil Al-Azzawi dropped by the Arab British Centre in London earlier this month to meet a group of individuals interested in hearing  about his work and life, among the topics discussed was his classic prison novel al-Qal'a al-khamisa.  The novel begins with the wrongful arrest of its first-person narrator, who is rounded up with political activists after of a confusion over his name. The English translation by William M Hutchins was published under the title Cell Block Five in 2008 by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, and by Arabia Books in London. It was warmly reviewed by, among others, The Complete Review.

the enduring relevance of the prison novel Cell Block Five

Cell Block Five - Al-Azzawi's second book - draws on the two years he spent as a political prisoner after the 1963 coup in Iraq. In the novel "I wrote about my experience as a victim in prison. I tried to speak about my cellmates, about torture, about police, about dictatorship. I consider it one of the leading Arab books about  prison." Censors banned the book from publication in Iraq and it was first published in Damascus in 1972. Al-Azzawi pointed out that his prison novel appeared well before publication of Saudi writer Abdelrahman Munif's famous 1977 novel Sharq Al-Motawasset (East of the Mediterranean) which tells of an activist tortured in prison.
 Bilal al-Sabouni

Syrian film director Bilal al-Sabouni made Cell Block Five into a 1979 film, the English title of which is the literal translation of the novel's title,  The Fifth Castle. The film won the silver award at the Damascus Film Festival in 1979. Al-Azzawi said the film was shown at many festivals and on TV, and won various prizes. But he does not have a copy of the film himself. There was much interest among those who met Al-Azzawi at the Arab British Centre in finding out how they could see the film in its entirety. The video clip below, from the website of the Syrian Culture Ministry's National Film Organisation, shows the film's opening scenes.

a clip from the film The Fifth Castle 

Al-Azzawi's prison novel has a universal significance. The horrendous accounts that have emerged of torture in Arab countries including Syria during the past two years of uprisings and revolutions have given Cell Block Five a fresh relevance.

a judge of Saif Ghobash Banipal Arabic literary translation prize 

It was at the invitation of Banipal magazine of modern Arab literature that Al-Azzawi visited the Arab British Centre in which the magazine is based. Banipal's publisher and co-founder Margaret Obank chaired the discussion meeting with him. Al-Azzawi was in London in his capacity as one of the four judges of the 2012 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation . This year 22 titles translated into English by 17 translators were submitted for the prize; for the first time in the prize's six-year history the titles of the entries were released.

During their meeting in London the judges decided on the winner, with an official announcement due in the second week of January. The prize will be formally awarded on Monday 4 February at King's Place in London during the annual awards ceremony for the translation prizes administered by the Society of Authors. Al-Azzawi's co-judges are British poet and critic Ruth Padel, British novelist Esther Freud, and Arabic translator John Peate.

The 2011 prize was won by Libyan translator, poet and scholar Khaled Mattawa for his translation of Adonis: Selected Poems (Yale University Press). It is a sign of Al-Azzawi's standing within Arabic literature that he has previously been chair of the judges for another major international Arab literature prize - the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF- often known as the Arabic Booker).

Al-Azzawi is a leading figure in contemporary Arab literature, and when he talks about his his eventful life and work he recreates an exciting chapter in Arabic literary history from the 1960s in which he has played  a significant role in experimentalism and the avant garde. Al-Azzawi is delightful company: he has a kind of eternal youthfulness of spirit combined with humour and the wisdom of age and experience.

Born in the northern Iraq oil city of Kirkuk in 1940, Al-Azzawi has a degrees in English literature from Baghdad University and a postgraduate degree in journalism from Leipzig University. He is the author of many poetry collections, six novels, a book of short stories, numerous articles, and critical works. He is also a translator from English and German to Arabic.

Miracle Maker

In addition to Cell Block Five two other translated works by  Al-Azzawi were on sale at the Arab British Centre event. One was the novel The Last of the Angels - reviewed, with Cell Block Five, by James Dalglish in Banipal - translated by William M Hutchins. The other was the poetry collection Miracle Maker: The Selected Poems of Fadhil al-Azzawi (BOA Editions, 2003) translated by Khaled Mattawa. Miracle Maker includes poems from Al-Azzawi's six previous collections. In a review for Banipal, Richard McKane described Miracle Maker as "a wonderful book of poems, poems of defiance, of prophecy, a rewriting of tales in modern fables."

Obank noted that as a founding contributing editor of Banipal, Al-Azzawi has made many contributions to the magazine: she had printed out a list of them. His contributions include a memoir published in Banipal 23 under the title I Lived a Magical Feast . In this memoir he depicts his  literary life while growing up in Kirkuk.

Obank read a section from Khaled Mattawa's  introduction to Miracle Maker. He comes from a "multiethnic, multisectarian, multilingual city in northern Iraq." There were many different languages: Turkoman and Assyrian, Arabic and Kurdish and Turkish.

"After the 1963 coup in Iraq Fadhil al-Azzawi was among the thousands of intellectuals and political activists thrown into the notorious Al-Hilla prison. The facility became quickly over-crowded and the administrators decided to make the gallows room their sorting house. And  many stories began to circulate about the fate of prisoners who were ushered into that ominous room and it was whispered that it had been the recent site of execution of 20 men and women. Fadhil was 24 at the time and recounts a quiet sense of panic that began to spread among the prisoners."

Al-Azzawi has written on the various torturers and tortures that he and his fellow prisoners endured while the torturer sang and told jokes while doing what they did. Mattawa writes that Al-Azzawi's disturbing  memories of imprisonment drive a good share of his poetic investigation: "The torturer is as pitiful as his victim, and the line between heroism and delusion is thinner than we are willing to admit."

Obank said: "We are talking with Fadhil and Khaled Mattawa, the translator, to see how we can get Banipal Books to produce a book of Fadhil's works for the UK market."


 moving between poetry and prose

Obank noted that for Al-Azzawi, "writing prose is to you as important as writing poetry".Al-Azzawi said: "I'm known in the Arab world as a poet, but I write also novels, short stories, articles, critique: for me what is important is the text." If there is something he wants to write about, "I write it in this form or that form."

He said: "My first published book, in 1969, was a book between poetry and prose called by the very strange title The Beautiful Creatures of Fadhil al-Azzawi. It is a well-known book in the Arab world, a sort of meta-fiction. I speak about myself, the hero speaks about me, criticises me. Some academics wrote research on this book and they consider it one of the avant garde works in modern Arab literature". Al-Azzawi said he "tried to reflect the idea of modernity with the Arabic heritage, and to give it a certain form and to create a book which is different to other books." 

Al-Azzawi spoke on the links between the genres in which  he writes, and which he combines in his first novel and other novels. "In The Last of the Angels for example I think you can find a lot of poetic moments. Not poetry as genre, but the soul of poetry. The whole novel is built poetically. And in my poems you can find stories - I try to speak about persons, about myself. I have said and written that in every  poem is a story." He added: "I like all these genres."

The Palestinian novelist Rabai al-Madhoun (his novel The Lady from Tel Aviv is due out in translation by Elliott Colla from Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing - BQFP - in 2013) said he had read The Beautiful Creatures of Fadhil al-Azzawi in Baghdad when he was 26 or 27 years old and "I think it was   a turning point in Arabic writing. I like it very much" He wanted to know how Al-Azzawi moves from prose to poetry. Al-Madhoun gave the example of the Jordanian poet Ajmad Nasser who has recently turned to novel writing, and the Palestinian-Jordanian Ibrahim Nasrallah, and "many others who turned suddenly from poetry to novel. What made you move to that side, and where do you find yourself exactly?"

the playful child inside every artist

Al-Azzawi replied by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writing he very much likes. "Nietzsche wrote once that in every artist is a child that wants to play. The playing child within the artist is for me very important and I think the whole of modernity is built on the idea of playing in art.

"Playing in art opens all the horizons for you as an artist.  I am not like Amjad Nasser or others who were known as poets. As I said, from the  beginning my first book The Beautiful Creatures of Fadhil Al-Azzawi, was something between prose and poetry and I try to unite them.

"My second book was also a novel. But at the same time I wrote poems and  I was I think known at that time, maybe more than now, as a poet in the Arab world. The most important magazines in the Arab world published my poems - very long poems - for example Adonis published many of my long poems." And Elias Khoury had at that time written an article about one of his poems which was considered particularly important. So he was well known in Arab countries as a poet, but at the same time had published two novels. In 1970-71 it was very important for him to write about dictatorship and prison in Cell Block Five, but "at the same time I never stopped publishing my poems. I published them everywhere, in all the magazines, and people considered me a poet more than a novelist."

Fadhil talked about the circumstances which led  him to move to  Germany in 1976. He was well known, but intellectuals and writers were under huge pressure to follow the Baath Party line. He was invited by the artist Dia al-Azzawi (who moved in 1976 to London where he has lived ever since) to read his poetry to the society of arts. At the poetry reading "there were more than 700 people in the garden of the society". He read a long poem, "I am the cry which throat will free me", which was banned in Iraq but which he had sent secretly to his friend the Syrian poet Adonis who had published it. The audience was very interested in the poem, but "on the second day the police came to my office and took me off in chains to investigate me."

escape to East Germany

Some intellectuals within the regime including the minister of culture, Shafiq al-Kamali (the writer, poet and Baath Party activist, who would be executed by Saddam in 1984) lobbied on behalf of Al-Azzawi and secured his freedom. But he knew that to be a free writer he would have to leave Iraq, and looked for a way out. At the time there was a contract between the union of Iraqi journalists and its counterpart in the German Democratic Republic under which he was awarded a scholarship to enrol at Leipzig University to do a PhD. So rather than finding refuge in London or Paris, as he had hoped, he found himself in East Germany. He joked that he had gone to East Germany because he wanted to be a free writer,  "and now you can ask me, how are you going to be a free writer in such a country!" The East Germans, pressured by the Iraqi embassy, tried to send him back  "many times". When he finished his studies he was told to leave the country and he went to Cyprus for a year before managing to arrange to work as a foreign journalist in East and West Germany. And then in 1989 the Berlin wall came down.  At that time he wrote in Arabic and was published in Beirut, Cairo, in Syria. His books continued to be published, but not in German: he had nothing to do with the German language and did not give readings in Germany. Now he is invited to read at universities and festivals in Germany.

As a journalist working in Germany he wrote for the Arab press "not only about Germany but about Europe, about England, about France. I was in many countries, I travelled and wrote it". His journalism included cultural and literary subjects, interviews with writers and articles about cities. He stopped working as a journalist around 20 years ago.

Asked if he thought of collecting his articles and interviews he said: "That is a dream but it is impossible. Do you know how many articles and interviews I made in my life? Thousands." He also wrote hundreds of articles in Iraq where he worked for some years as a cultural editor.

Obank asked him about his participation in the International Istanbul Poetry Festival in May 2011 when he was one of 40 poets from 17 countries. Al-Azzawi said the festival was fantastic, and that his poems were read in Arabic, English and German. Growing up in Kirkuk Al-Azzawi, who has Turkoman roots, learnt to speak Turkish, as his hosts at the poetry festival in Istanbul were delighted to discover. He read some of his poems in Turkish and was interviewed on Turkish TV.

Obank also asked him about his visit to London in 1970. He said he had met Adonis in Paris and had arranged to meet  him a few days later in London.  "He came and we spent many days together. The BBC did an interview with me. I met [the Sudanese writer] Tayeb Salih there, and many Iraqis and Arabs." he also met his friend the Iraqi poet and critic Salah Niaza whom he had known in Baghdad. Al-Azzawi added that Baath Party people back in Iraq alleged that the British government had paid for him to travel to London.

currently working on five books

Fadhl Al-Azzawi continues to be a productive writer. Banipal 44 earlier this year published a chapter from the English translation of his novel Comedy of Ghosts which was first published in Arabic by Dar al-Jama, Cologne, in 1996. Asked what he is writing now, he said he is working on several books. One is  The Man Who Sees in the Darkness.  Another is a new poetry collection: "many of the poems are written, but I have to write more." He is also writing what he described as "the novel of my life, about my life. I want this novel to be my best work, the best I can do. It is about my life but also about the whole world: it is a big theme, not a memoir."

In addition he is working on a memoir, dealing with the moments in his life when he faced death. "I have already written part of it." And he is writing a travel book about his many visits to different countries in the Arab World, in Europe, in Latin America and so on. He published part of this in, under the title "Everything is Different in Cartagena." In it he writes of his visit to the Colombian city where Gabriel García Márquez lived for part of his life.

When asked about his writing habits, Al-Azzawi said: "You won't believe me, I am full-time writer 24 hours a day. Even when I go to sleep: once, it was a very strange experience for me, I wrote a poem in my sleep. And I tried to remember every line."

Fadhil has lost substantial amounts of his writing in the course of his life. While in prison he managed to smuggle poems out via family members and other who visited him. He published many of his poems in this way, without it being said he was in prison. But when he was released from prison he left behind writings in the form of memoirs, short stories and poems and on returning to pick them up some weeks later he was told that someone had taken them. "It doesn't really matter; I've lost many times my works." When he left Kirkuk for his university studies in Baghdad he told his mother to burn many of his poems. "You have to renew yourself," he explained.

He also destroys some of his texts himself in order to create another text. He has done this for example done this with The Beautiful Creatures of Fadhil al-Azzawi. Years after his book The Last Dinosaur was published he wrote another, as yet unpublished, version of it. When he translated poems from the book The Eastern Tree he changed them in order to try and improve them. Why do we think when we write a text that it is "holy" and cannot be changed, he asked. "Only the Qur'an is holy." You can change a text and why not - it is after all your text.

During Al-Azzawi's appearance at the Arab British Centre he read in Arabic and in English translation his poem The Lion and the Apostle from Miracle Maker. Margaret Obank read the poem Toasts from the same collection.
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

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