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Women Prisoners Play the Liberation Role

19 Aug

Women in Baabda prison attending one of Daccache's workshops (CREDIT: CATHARSIS)

By Dalila Mahdawi

BAABDA WOMEN’S PRISON, Lebanon, Aug 18, 2011 (IPS) – To a soundtrack of almost constant pounding of fists against iron doors, drama therapist Zeina Daccache is trying to capture the attention of a group of women prisoners. Many of the 45 women are suffering from drug withdrawal and alternately appear agitated, upset, energised and detached. Others chat loudly, take long puffs off cigarettes, or pace the room.

But it doesn’t take long for Daccache, who is also a well-regarded comedian on Lebanese television, to bring calm to the chaotic scene. After a few warm-up games intended to break the ice, she has several of the women relating their life stories and future ambitions, envisioning a world beyond the confines of bolted doors and barred windows.

Daccache has come to Baabda as part of her goal to bring drama therapy inside Lebanese prisons. Her organisation, the Lebanese Centre for Drama Therapy (CATHARSIS), is the only one of its kind in the Arab world and one of very few offering rehabilitation services to those behind bars.

Following an adaptation and award-winning documentary of the 1950s U.S. play ‘12 Angry Men’ (renamed ‘12 Angry Lebanese’) with inmates from Lebanon’s high-security Roumieh prison, Daccache decided to expand her drama therapy programme to other prisons in the country. With support from the Drosos Foundation, she is also training dozens more individuals to become drama therapists in the hope of encouraging a new generation of professionals combining theatre with rehabilitation. Although she has only been working in Baabda for a few weeks, Daccache is already seeing some of the prisoners shrug off their initial caution to embrace the therapy.

“I’m very sad because of my situation and I’m sad because my daughter is far away,” says D.W., who is serving time for drug offences. “I have a good heart but I didn’t think of my daughter,” she says, crying quietly. “I didn’t know right from wrong.”

Drama therapy gained popularity in the 1970s and has been used ever since in schools, rehabilitative clinics, bereavement centres and prisons to help individuals overcome personal problems, promote critical thinking, teach teamwork skills and improve self-esteem. Through role-play, group therapy sessions and dramatisation, many of the women in Baabda are gaining greater self-awareness and reflecting on the events that led them into conflict with the law.

“The aim in the end of this current project in Baabda is to have a theatre performance,” Daccache says. Because of the high turnover in prisoners, the group will create a montage of monologues as opposed to a full play, giving newcomers the chance to participate and explore their personal history. “Each one of them is a scene by herself,” says Daccache. “Each one by themselves fills the room.”

N.L., who has been using drugs since she was 15, clutches a sketch of herself on a stage. “My role in the past was addiction, humiliation,” she tells the group. Although she awaits sentencing for drug trafficking charges, she says she’d “like to be a wife, a mother, someone who is respected, happy.”

Daccache is passionate about the power of drama in rehabilitating prisoners and combating recidivism. At Roumieh prison, “the inmates started working on themselves instead of blaming their situation entirely on society the whole time,” she says. “Depression diminished and the inmates were able to plan a future for themselves outside of prison.” Some of the men became so passionate about theatre that they sought out acting jobs after leaving prison.

The need for such rehabilitative services is especially important given the dismal conditions in Lebanese prisons. Notoriously overcrowded, 19 out of Lebanon’s 20 penitentiaries were not originally built to serve as such, says MP Ghassan Moukheiber, who as head of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee recently presented a detailed report on prison reform. “Prison conditions are to be considered in themselves a form of torture, cruel and degrading punishment,” he told IPS. “There is an urgent need to shift prisons from being places of punishment to places of rehabilitation.”

Besides segregated quarters in mixed prisons, Lebanon has four women’s prisons. Women count for only around 300 of Lebanon’s roughly 5,000 prisoners, all of whom are kept in overcrowded penitentiaries that fail to meet the standard minimum treatment recommended by the United Nations.

Poor holding conditions lead to frequent rebellions and riots. In April, Roumieh prison experienced the worst uprising in Lebanese history. Prisoners protesting a lack of access to medical care and poor services broke down doors, started fires and took control of much of the prison in a standoff which resulted in the death of four inmates.

Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Parliament rejected a proposal to reduce the prison “year” from 12 to nine months, prompting three inmates to set fire to themselves, resulting in the death of one, and hundreds of others to initiate hunger strikes. Last weekend, five prisoners from Roumieh managed a jail-break by scaling the prison walls with bed sheets. Experts are now warning that another prison riot there is looming on the horizon.

While in better condition than many of Lebanon’s larger prisons, Baabda offers no exercise facilities, and women only have access to sunlight filtered through a caged-in rooftop. Many prisoners complain of inadequate medical treatment and unhygienic conditions, and have little to no recourse to legal counsel. Frustrations often lead to spats among the inmates.

Amidst such circumstances, the group therapy offered by CATHARSIS takes on additional importance. “The sharing of experiences and the group dynamic helps them find a way to channel their anxieties,” Daccache says. “The new social interaction has given them back a sense of worth and has made them feel as though they are part of a community.”

Perhaps most importantly, says Daccache, drama therapy offers prisoners a sense of hope at a time when many experience an overwhelming sense of despair. “They are learning that there is still a chance to change even while they are still in prison,” she says. (END)

Becoming the world’s first human camera

8 Feb

What a headache: Bilal's camera implant (Image copyright 3rdi)

Dalila Mahdawi

NEW YORK, 7 Feb (IPS) – Wafaa Bilal hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about two months. After becoming the first person to have a camera surgically implanted into the back of his head, the Iraqi- American artist is learning the hard way just how much of a headache modern technology can be.

“It’s still painful,” he tells IPS, pointing to the three titanium bolts that have been inserted into his cranium to hold the camera in place.

Bilal undertook the dramatic operation as part of a year- long project entitled 3rdi. The camera takes photographs every minute of the view behind Bilal’s head. The images, comprising everything from uninspiring shots of his kitchen cupboards to unnerving angles of objects and passers-by, are then uploaded onto the 3rdi website and streamed to Qatar’s newly inaugurated contemporary art museum, Mathaf.

3rdi is, in many ways, a reflection of Bilal’s own traumatic experiences of loss. Having been raised in a conservative family under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule, the soft- spoken artist was forced to flee during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait after publicly rejecting his conscription into the army. He spent two years living in a makeshift refugee camp in the Saudi Arabian desert before being granted asylum in the United States.

“It was one of the toughest experiences of my life,” recalls Bilal, who is also an assistant professor of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of The Arts. In the camp, “We were subjected to very harsh treatment by Saudi soldiers and many people lost their lives. Art became a way to remind myself I was still alive.”

With little to remind him of the places and faces he had to abandon so abruptly, 3rdi has become Bilal’s way of recording chaotic, poignant and yet often banal moments of departure. “Individually, they might not look significant,” he says of the images, but when taken together, they form “quite a nice mosaic of someone’s life.”

Since unveiling the project, 3rdi has evolved to speak about many other aspects of modern life, such as government surveillance of its citizens (the camera tracks Bilal’s whereabouts via GPS) and the aggressive intrusion of technology.

“There is no such thing as a private life anymore,” says Bilal. “Instead of creating something to serve us, these machines have enslaved us.”

Although the camera’s physical presence leaves the artist susceptible to infection and sleepless nights, he insists the pain is an integral part of the 3rdi project. “Performance is about endurance,” he explains. “It’s a physical reminder of what you are doing.”

It’s not the first time Bilal has used his own body as his canvas. Physical intervention has been a central, and often controversial, feature of much of his work.

In 2010, Bilal held a 24-hour performance in which he had the names of Iraqi cities tattooed on his back. More than 100,000 dots marking Iraqi casualties were also tattooed on with invisible ink, symbolising the anonymous victims of a war that most Americans feel so far removed from. Bilal also has plans to tattoo on some 5,000 dots in homage to the U.S. soldiers also killed in the U.S.-led war.

For an earlier project, called “Shoot an Iraqi/Domestic Tension”, Bilal confined himself in a prison-like cell for 30 days and was subjected to the whims of his audience, who could shoot a remote-controlled paintball gun at him from the internet or gallery. Following newspaper articles about the project, hackers infiltrated the software and programmed the gun to shoot at Bilal once every minute.

“The hope is you build a platform not to engage those already engaged in political dialogue,” but to attract those who typically shy away, he says. It seemed he succeeded in that attempt: by the end of the exhibition, over 65,000 people from more than 130 countries had fired at Bilal.

His work became more overtly political following the killing of his younger brother by a U.S. drone missile in Iraq in 2004. Bilal says he wanted to bring people living in “the comfort zone” into the realm of the “conflict zone”, Iraq.

With that goal in mind, the artist has also subjected himself to water boarding, the simulated-drowning torture technique former U.S. president George W. Bush notoriously admitted to using in Iraq.

“My work is driven from within as a concerned person, as someone who has been directly affected by his surroundings,” Bilal says. “My job has to become a mirror to reflect that social condition.”

It may be another 10 months before Bilal can enjoy a proper night’s rest again, but if having eyes at the back of his head has taught the artist anything, it is to savour the present more.

“Most of the time we don’t exist in the present, and I think in the process we fail to exist in the place we are in,” he says. “I think this is a call to slow down, look at these corners of our lives and live in the moment we are in.”

3rdi is online until December 2011.

http://www.3rdi.me/ and http://wafaabilal.com/

Eyes on the back of his head (Image copyright 3rdi)

12 Angry Lebanese’ Touch So Many More

26 Nov
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.

Last remaining glass-blowers in Lebanon struggle to keep business alive

21 Nov

Khalifeh business hit hard as new highway curbs traffic along old costal road
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Glass at the Khalifeh shop in Sarafand


SARAFAND: During the hey-day of the Phoenician civilization, the trading post of ancient Serepta would have had a thriving artisan community with glass makers, potters and timber merchant selling their wares to sea-farers. Today Serepta is better known as Sarafand – a sleepy run-down village in southern Lebanon with pot-holed roads where no one seems to loiter too long.

The potters and glass blowers have long gone, with mechanics and kebab vendors taking their place. Lebanon’s once thriving glass trade hasn’t completely died out, however. One family is determinedly keeping the ancient tradition alive, albeit with considerable difficulty.

The Khalifeh family has been blowing glass for about 40 years, selling their goods in a local shop or to wholesalers. In happier times, says shop manager Nisrine Khalifeh, her grandfather taught apprentices the painstaking trade and employed several dozen locals.

The family had a thriving business, helped along by exposure at international craft fairs and friendly tour guides who would bring generous-spending Beirutis to the shop.

Today, Nisrine’s father Hussein runs the business but the locals aren’t interested in working with glass. “No one likes to do it because it’s so hard,” Nisrine says with a sigh. “Many people have asked to learn but then they can’t handle the heat.” She points to her father, who at 55 years old looks more like 85.

His face has been leathered and shoulders hunched by years sweating it out in front of the oven, designing and shaping glass in 140 degree heat. The future of Lebanon’s glass-blowing heritage now rests in the hands of Hussein, Nisrine and seven other family members.

The dearth of trained glass blowers has been accompanied by decreasing sales at the Khalifeh’s shop in Sarafand. Despite the undeniable appeal of the shop’s colorful interior, with its rainbow of ornate standing candle holders, hanging decorations, water jugs and vases, hardly anyone ever visits.

When the southern coastal highway opened a few years ago, business at the Khalifeh shop, which is situated on the old coastal road, was hard hit.

Now, says Nisrine, the only people that come to the shop are foreign clients who might not have visited in a few years or soldiers from UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL looking for presents to take home. “When the autostrade was closed a few months ago and people had to travel on the coastal road, a lot of people came in and bought things,” she says. With only the most motivated clients bothering to make the journey, the Khalifeh family’s glass products are one of Lebanon’s best-kept secrets.

Ever-rising fuel costs are also taking a toll. Because of the exorbitant prices, the Khalifehs only turn on the ovens for big orders to highbrow boutiques in Beirut who then sell the glass products for double or triple the original price.

The oven costs $500 each day to run and takes 24 hours to reach 1,500 degrees, the temperature where glass finally turns to liquid. “Sometimes we stop for two or three months because there’s no work,” Nisrine says. When The Daily Star visited, the ovens had been off for some time.

The ovens themselves are also expensive to keep, as they can only be used twice before the intense heat turns the bricks to sand.

Apart from the high fuel consumption, the Khalifeh’s glass production is environmentally sound, using only recycled glass. Behind the shop, rusty bath tubs and old oil vats groan under the weight of shattered beer and wine bottles, mirrors and windows.

The road ahead looks discouraging for Lebanon’s last remaining glass blowers. Assistance from the government has not been forthcoming, though the Khalifeh’s say they don’t expect help. If mounting costs and falling demand finally force the family to close shop for good, Nisrine doesn’t know what her brothers will do: they left school when they were 12 to learn the trade. “My brothers only know glass-blowing. There’s no work for them except this.”

Offering a hip alternative to the cherished plastic bag

16 Jun

Flex bag

BEIRUT: Grocery shoppers in Lebanon simply can’t get enough of the non-biodegradable plastic bag – they are used here in abundance, with enthusiasm and without scruples.

But all too often, these bags end up at the bottom of a mountain or bobbing along the coast. They can remain there for up to 500 years until finally picked away at by the elements.

Disturbed by Lebanon’s love affair with the toxic product, young professionals Stephanie Dadour and Waleed Jad established their own company, Waste Lb, and created a hip alternative: a reusable bag made from salvaged flex.

Flex is a composite plastic most often found in Lebanon in the form of billboards. Like the throw-away plastic bag, it is 100 percent non-biodegradable and non-recyclable. But being water-proof, study and tear-resistant, it is ideal material for a shopping bag.

Waste Lb kills two birds with one stone: reclaiming old flex that would otherwise be dumped into Lebanon’s overflowing landfills, and encouraging consumers to switch to reusable shopping bags. “We know we’re not here to change the world or to educate people, but we thought we could sensitize people to reduce their use of plastic bags by promoting a product that can be reused,” Dadour told The Daily Star on Monday.

The Lebanese use over 6 billion plastic bags annually, according to Waste Lb. “If tied together these bags would form a chain that is long enough to go around the world 37 times.”

Creatures like turtles, dolphins or birds often mistake plastic bags for a tasty meal and can choke to death trying to eat them or become entangled and asphyxiate. When dumped, flex poses a similar threat.

But despite being a pollutant, Lebanon’s output of flex is astonishing – according to Jad, there is “24/7 continuous production.” 

While he and Dadour readily admit their bags are not “saving the planet,” they hope they will at least help change the attitude of Lebanese consumers, who can easily plough through piles of plastic bags in a single shopping trip.

“It’s a question of lifestyle” and whether people in Lebanon are prepared to make a small change to their wanton carrier-bag habits in the interest of the environment, Dadour said.

Unlike other eco-friendly products that come with wallet-unfriendly price tags, Waste Lb’s signature shopping bag, the Kees Dukanne, will be sold for a fixed price of LL25,000. The fashion-conscious need not fret about bumping into someone else with the same bag – as the fabric is stitched from a reclaimed billboard, each flex bag’s design is truly unique. Other than the Kees Dukanne, Waste Lb’s bags currently come in three other styles – oversized grocery bags, clutch bags for women and beach bags. Jad and Dadour later hope to expand into flex furniture and luxury items.

The practice of reusing billboard material is by no means revolutionary, and indeed exists in most Western countries, Dadour said. But the launch of Waste Lb’s flex bag this month comes at a time of growing interest in ethical consumerism among Lebanon’s more educated classes. Even so, the duo also hopes to appeal to buyers who aren’t so finely tuned to the seriousness of the world’s environmental woes. “If people start to use this [bag], maybe they will go home and try to see what’s written on their packaging and think more ethically” about what products they buy in the future, said Dadour.

Waste Lb will officially launch at Beirut’s Souk al-Tayyeb market on Saturday June 27. The bags will thereafter be available at boutiques and major shopping malls in the capital.