Inmates at Lebanon’s largest prison take drama to heart

For the first time in the Middle East, prisoners stage a play and gain insight and respite from overcrowding and anger.

Dalia Khamissy/ ADDL/ Catharsis
Inmates at Lebanon's Roumieh jail perform '12 Angry Lebanese,' the first play staged by prisoners in the Middle East.
Dalia Khamissy/ ADDL/ Catharsis
Actress and drama therapist Zeina Daccache adapted Reginald Rose's 1954 play '12 Angry Men' for her Lebanese 'actors,' enabling them to see their lives from a different perspective.

Mohammed Haweelo faced more challenges than most actors when he took on a leading role. He was a 60-year-old novice. He was also in prison, a drug addict, and unable to read or write.

"I was lost at first," says Mr. Haweelo, an inmate of Lebanon's Roumieh jail, and one of the stars of "12 Angry Lebanese," the first play staged by prisoners in the Middle East.

So the wiry inmate, whose hands shake from his former habit, learned to read at night in his cell. "The guys all helped me, and I started to be able to make out my parts of the script. Before, I couldn't have recognized anything," he says.

Actress and drama therapist Zeina Daccache, the formidable 31-year-old director, said the rewards of working on the European Union-funded project would endure for the 45 performers.

"Some of these people, when we first started, I never heard a word from their mouths. They'd sit and stare and say nothing, as if they'd stopped communicating," she says. "They've learned to speak, to listen, and respect others."

It took a year for Ms. Daccache, known to Lebanese as the star of a popular TV comedy show, to wade through red tape and security measures. She chose the actors a year ago across a range of sects and nationalities, including Bangladeshi, Nigerian, and Iraqi.

Angry men are in ready supply in Roumieh; comforts are few. Built for 1,000 men in the 1960s, it now houses nearly 4,500. Last April, prisoners rioted about overcrowding and took seven guards hostage. Therapy to channel frustrations is rare and using drama is a first.

For Ali Zaiter, "12 Angry Lebanese" is the ideal vehicle to ask those in power, directly, for reform. "The play represents us, we've lived it," he says. "It says that even if we've done wrong, we have rights. Acting showed me how to deliver that message without violence."

The play is based on US playwright Reginald Rose's 1954 work, "12 Angry Men," which shows a group of jurors about to sentence a man to death for murder. One man thwarts the unanimous verdict required, citing reasonable doubt, then wins over the others, one by one.

"They are playing the role of the judges and taking this distance from being the criminal," Daccache says. "They are a mini-society and judge each other, too."

A convicted rapist named only as Rateb was ostracized by his fellow actors at first and fears society's condemnation once he leaves Roumieh's many walls.

On a plastic chair beneath a harsh spotlight, in a bleak hall converted to a temporary theater, he delivers one of four monologues spliced into the script, crying as he describes how being deprived of freedom taught him to respect his own and that of other people. It makes for uncomfortable viewing.

"He said he felt like it was healing him somewhere. It's a taboo, he knows he's a rapist. But he wanted this chance," says Daccache, who heads Lebanon's Catharsis drama therapy organization.

Catharsis staged the play with the Association pour la Défense des Droits et des Libertés, in collaboration with the interior and justice ministries.

A death sentence for murder hangs over Egyptian Majdi Sirjani. After 15 years inside, he was in a state of "psychological crisis," he says. Lebanon does not currently implement the penalty, but it remains on the statute books. "All I was doing was waiting for death, I had no thoughts of anything else," he says. "That's no longer true because of the play."

One gray Saturday afternoon, an audience of diplomats, journalists, and activists of nongovernmental organizations pass beneath Roumieh's outer wall, a blank cliff of concrete on a mountain above Beirut, and through a yawning barred gate.

Prisoners watch their guests cross the courtyard from cell windows hung with laundry. For a moment there is a sense of tables being turned.

To Rose's play, performed in Arabic, Daccache added songs, performed by prisoners on ouds (Arab lutes) and drums. A powerful dance sequence mimics the monotony of their jail routine; the men toss and turn in bed, smoke, play cards.

Scores of armed guards sit in the audience; more are hidden from view on the roof. A standing ovation greets the end of the play, then we sit again as the actors are led away.

Other than an hour's exercise three times a week, prisoners say there is only a state-run music project and occasional sports. But Daccache's initiative was the first in theater.

A Kansas State University drama therapy graduate, Daccache is determined to continue with another play if there is funding, group sessions if not.

Rehabilitation is an alien concept in a system that exists only to punish. "This is a prison, not a beach club," says a burly guard in the gray camouflage of Lebanon's Internal Security Forces, to reinforce the point. He adds that there have been no other such projects.

Without diversions or activities, prisoners say the only education on offer inside is in further crime. A lean man in his 30s seems to echo that sentiment. As he leaves the prison holding a polyester blanket and a plastic bag of clothing, he embraces his waiting mother. "If I didn't go inside a criminal, I am one now," he says.

Back inside, the men say group camaraderie was the best part of doing the play – that and having something to occupy their minds during the long hours in their cells. Dread of the final curtain was the worst.

“All of us guys fear what happens after Zeina leaves,” says Hassan Noun. “We don’t want the last show to end. You get the feeling if you’d had the opportunity to do this kind of thing outside, you wouldn’t have ended up in jail in the first place.”

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