Freeing the minds behind the bars of Lebanon’s most notorious prison

5 Dec

Drama therapy gives convicted criminals opportunity to discover, communicate their identities
By Dalila Mahdawi

ROUMIEH: In a large room hazy with cigarette smoke, 45 actors and musicians wait for their play director, Zeina Daccache, to arrive and begin rehearsals. Painted on the wall is a quote from Abraham Lincoln, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” There is nothing particularly remarkable about such a scenario, but it is the setting that is extraordinary. The men waiting have been found guilty of drug dealing, rape, manslaughter or theft and are all serving sentences in Roumieh Central Prison.

A drama therapist who worked previously with drug addicts and bereaved mothers following the summer 2006 war, Daccache had a dream to bring theater to Lebanon’s biggest and most notorious men’s prison. Today, with funding from the European Union (EU) to l’Association pour la Defense des Droits et des Libertes (ADDL) and in the framework of the Afkar II program managed by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform, her dream is being realized.

After three months of auditions in 2007, Daccache’s cast members began rehearsals for “12 Angry Lebanese,” adapted from the 1950s Reginald Rose play, “12 Angry Men.” Some of the prisoners play jury members deciding the fate of a 19-year-old accused of patricide, while others have together written and composed songs about prison, human rights, capital punishment and justice. Some deliver illuminating non-fictional monologues about their lives before prison or about their crimes.

The idea of the play, said Daccache, was to give the men a platform where “they could communicate identities other than that of the convicted criminal.”

Prisoner Atef agreed: “Each person has multiple identities. Maybe when people watch our play, they will see the good things in us and what we are capable of.”

Although only a fraction of Roumieh’s prisoners were involved in “12 Angry Lebanese,” Daccache emphasized the unifying force of the play.

“We have Nigerians, Iraqis, Bangladeshi, Palestinians, Egyptians and Syrians acting, as well as Lebanese,” said Daccache. “These 45 men collectively bring the voices of the 4,000 prisoners in Roumieh together.”

When Daccache finally arrives, she is greeted with a joyous uproar from her actors. She has clearly made a good impression on them, for they hang on her every word and respect her instructions. With the play set to begin performances in February, there is not much time left to rehearse, and Daccache, or Abu Ali (Father of Ali) as her actors have affectionately nicknamed her, immediately begins to organize the cast. In one corner of the guarded room, talented musicians and singers launch into the first song of the play, a tranquil guitar and oud melody. Those acting as the jurors rehearse in the center of the room, stopping every now and then to take in Daccache’s comments and re-read their lines.

Although drama therapy programs exist in the prisons of many Western countries, Daccache’s program at Roumieh is currently the only one in Lebanon. Watching the rehearsals, it is clear she is providing a vital platform for her cast members to educate and express themselves.

According to inmate Jamal, when the prison guards announced that auditions for a play were to be held, “over 150 people tried out, simply for the sake of getting out of their cells.”

But those who made the cast quickly became engaged in their roles. Other than some activities organized by nongovernmental organizations and computer and English classes taught by the prisoners themselves, there are very few activities for Roumieh’s 4,000 prisoners.

Many of the prisoners could not read or write before the play, said Daccache, who has helped them learn to read their lines. Three classrooms are reportedly currently under construction, however, and many are hoping Daccache’s program will secure enough funding to continue after February.

“Zeina sets our minds free,” said Jamal. “She makes us feel as though we are not in prison. When we start rehearsing, we forget our surroundings and concentrate on working together and giving our best.”

Justin, a Nigerian prisoner, said Daccache was the first person who had visited him in prison. “Before her, no one would come to see us. I know we are prisoners, but we would like more organizations to come and work with us,” he said, adding that Daccache’s presence had revealed talents in the prisoners no one knew existed.

Daccache is also conducting a study on whether her prisoner-actors are benefiting from the drama therapy program. So far, initial results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Speaking to the prisoners, the impact that the program on them is having is obvious.

“I used to always have nightmares about when and how they would kill me,” said one prisoner facing the death penalty. “Since Zeina came, I don’t think about it anymore.”

“One year ago I still thought like a criminal,” said another inmate. “Now I don’t want people like Zeina to come and find me in prison for a new crime ever again. I’ve learned many things that perhaps if I’d learned at a younger age, would have prevented me from ending up here. I can set targets and reach them.”

Some of the cast members indicated they were even thinking about acting careers when they finished their sentences.

Despite the program’s overwhelming success, Daccache said that getting it up and running had proved difficult.

“This is the product of meeting after meeting,” she said. “Without the cooperation of [General Prosecutor] Said Mirza, Judge Joyce Tabet, [Internal Security Forces (ISF) Police Chief] Antoine Chacour, [Director General of the ISF] Ashraf Rifi, all the police on the ground, the Lebanese Conservatoire and the ISF Orchestra, none of this would have ever happened.” Daccache said she hoped she would find the necessary funding to continue the project.

As Daccache prepared to leave at the end of rehearsals, there was a discernable feeling of optimism in the air. Working with Daccache, said one prisoner, had taught him to accept advice and criticism, something that would have infuriated him in the past.

“We are here to express that we are human beings,” he said. “We have made many mistakes in our lives but we are still human beings.”

For information about the conditions to see the play, call 03162573.

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