|By Dalila Mahdawi
BEIRUT, Oct 17, 2010 (IPS) – Straddling the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea is Roumieh, Lebanon’s largest and most notorious high-security men’s prison. Crowded into its dank and depressing concrete cells are those convicted as religious extremists, murderers, mobsters and spies.
Roumieh’s reputation for fostering further criminal activity precedes it — it is often said that from behind the barbed wire walls and filthy courtyards, petty thieves emerge as bigger and better informed leaders of the underworld.
The prison, which was built to accommodate 1,500 inmates but holds closer to 4,000, gives off an air of utter despondency. But life in Roumieh is slowly changing, thanks to the efforts of a single woman.
Last year Zeina Daccache, already a well-known comedian on the Lebanese television show Basmet al-Watan, began running drama therapy sessions inside Roumieh after establishing The Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy (CATHARSIS). Drama therapy programmes exist in many other parts of the world, but CATHARSIS is the first organisation of its kind in the Middle East.
After volunteering with distinguished drama therapist Armando Punzo in Italy’s Volterra prison, Daccache said she became convinced of the life- changing power of the performing arts.
“Theatre is a luxury in the situation we are in,” Daccache told IPS, referring to Lebanon’s troubled economic and political situation. But through it, “we can discover and develop other identities that are more constructive than simply the identity of a ‘criminal’.”
Following months of frustrating bureaucratic red tape and auditions with hundreds of inmates, Dacchache cast 45 prisoners to star in an adaption of the 1950s play from the U.S., ’12 Angry Men’. In the play, written by Reginald Rose, 12 jury members must decide whether to sentence to death an 18- year-old accused of patricide. While 11 members dismiss the accused as guilty, one man believes he is innocent, and slowly persuades his colleagues to change their opinions.
The choice of play, which touches upon the themes of forgiveness, self- development, stigma and hope, was no accident. “Nobody notices him, nobody listens to him, nobody seeks his advice,” says prisoner-turned-actor Wissam* during the play. His line refers to the fictional boy on trial, but the parallels with his feelings about his own position in society are striking. “It’s a very sad thing to mean nothing.”
To the original text, Daccache added monologues, songs and dance routines created by the prisoners that detail their life experiences. Jibran, nearing the end of a prison term for rape, said he feared he would be shunned by Lebanese society upon release. While he may technically be freed, a “prison with no walls” awaits him, he said as tears streamed down his face.
Daccache renamed the play ’12 Angry Lebanese’, but those taking part included Lebanese, Nigerians, Syrians, Egyptians and Palestinians. In his monologue, Bangadeshi prisoner Hussein described the racism he faced in Lebanese society, and how that racism also manifested itself behind bars. “Outside I am a slave and inside I am a slave,” he said.
When staged in February 2009, ’12 Angry Lebanese’ received critical acclaim, with many of Lebanon’s top government, military and security officials coming to watch it in Roumieh.
Almost one year on, a documentary detailing the experiences of the prisoners who played a part has just been released. ’12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary’ is currently touring international film festivals, and has already picked up several awards, including first prize at the Dox Box International Documentary Film Festival in Syria and two top prizes at the Dubai International Film Festival.
Daccache said she made the film to challenge stereotypes of the kind of people prisoners are. “Every night I come home to messages from people who were touched by the film, who for the first time saw criminals as human beings,” she said. “The film kind of gave them a chance to sneak into Roumieh.”
Daccache also wanted to highlight the need for reform within Lebanon’s prison system, where there are virtually no rehabilitation programmes running, and to promote drama therapy as an indispensable tool for tackling recidivism.
In an early scene of the documentary, Daccache probes cast members about their past. Many are reluctant to share with the others, but as the sessions progress, the men start to open up.
“Sometimes it’s easier to act out your issues than to talk about them,” said Daccache. “The space we use for rehearsals is a space of freedom for the prisoners. Once they are there they are really free because they can express themselves, they can dance, shout, sing, act, use their imagination.” Even though the men are still physically confined within the prisons walls, “imagination has no borders.”
Many of the prisoners-turned-actors credit Daccache with helping them overcome personal difficulties, improve their communication and interpersonal skills and to set goals for themselves. One man was so keen to participate in the sessions that he learnt to read.
“Before the project I still thought like a criminal,” Ziyad told IPS. “Now I don’t want people like Zeina to come and find me in prison again. I’ve learnt many things that perhaps if I’d learnt at a younger age, would have prevented me from ending up here.”
Another of the notable successes of ’12 Angry Lebanese’ is that it has helped put into force a law offering reduced sentences for good behaviour. The law was created in 2000 but never enforced; two months after the staging of the play, which talked about the need for its implementation, Lebanon’s Justice Ministry began approving reduced sentences.
The 12 Angry Lebanese project has been so successful that Daccache has launched another production in Roumieh, although she’s reluctant to divulge what it is. In addition, Daccache, who also runs drama therapy programmes with women affected by conflict and people suffering from addiction problems, plans to bring theatre to a number of Lebanon’s other prisons.
“When I started this project, I never thought there would be sustainability,” she said. “But you can’t just stop — permanence is what really makes it beneficial to the inmates.”
* Some names have been changed.