by Aline Sara
Rarely does one consider prison a site for entertainment and performing arts. Last spring however, Zeina Daccache - a certified NADT drama therapist and founder of Lebanon’s drama therapy program Catharsis - transformed the 3rd floor of Baabda prison, Lebanon’s largest female detention center, into a stage for inmates to express themselves through tears and laughter.
Two summers ago, I had the honor of partaking in a workshop organized by Daccache in Roumieh Prison, Lebanon’s most notorious detention center. Originally built for 1,500, Roumieh Prison now holds some 3,700 inmates, of which some 2,800 are still awaiting their trial.
After a few minutes I had forgotten I was mingling with prisoners, some of whom are convicted of murder. In 2009, those inmates had taken to the stage within Roumieh’s walls performing in “12 Angry Lebanese,” a play adapted from the original “12 Angry Men.” The audience included prisoner’s families as well as Lebanese lawmakers.
For Daccache, a 32-year-old graduate in clinical psychology and drama therapy, “12 Angry Lebanese” was the first such type of endeavor. Last May, she reproduced a similar project with female inmates called “Scheherazade in Baabda,” which highlights both female prisoners’ daily struggles and increased vulnerability as women living in a conservative and patriarchal society.
Drawn from sessions of brainstorming with the women in Baabda prison, the play was created in only a few months. “There were things that were more touching, to which I could relate and which probably helped me write the play,” Daccache tells me after the performance. “But everyone’s input was taken into account. It’s a collaboration in which the women are writing their own stories” she insists, clearly passionate and dedicated to the causes of both prisoners and women in her country.
The 45-minute performance, comprised partly of nostalgic soliloquies of mothers reminiscing about their children to the mere sight of the sea, takes the audience on a poignant journey into these women’s lives.
In more rebellious instances, the protagonists lash out at the country’s patriarchal system and twisted view of women and their role. “Adultery, for instance, is considered a crime in Lebanon. Women will be thrown in prison for cheating on their husbands, but I’ve never seen a man in prison for adultery,” Daccache tells me.
In addition, Lebanese law does not criminalize domestic violence or rape and women are not protected from this type of abuse. Indeed, several of the actresses have been jailed for adultery. A number of others are doing time for drug use or drug dealing, murder or attempted murder, among other reasons.
“Many of these accusations,” adds Daccache, “come as a result of self-defense or out of misery. For example, there is no minimal age for marriage in Lebanon, so girls are often forced to marry men they do not love, or at a young age, and end up stuck with men who abuse them,” all of which are issues that are either explicitly or less explicitly addressed in the play.In a scene dubbed “What is a good girl?” the women turned outspoken actresses mock Lebanese standards of a ‘proper women,’ criticizing contradictory or hypocritical ideas, such as the belief that the women should stay at home or not ‘talk to strangers,’ or principles by which a girl should ace her academic courses yet she is not encouraged to enter the professional world.
Besides addressing women’s rights, the actresses poke fun at life in prison. “I thought this was supposed to be a bed and breakfast, with three to four of us per room … but we are 22 people jammed into one space?” exclaims one of the women, while another laughs at the meager quality of the food.
A few weeks after the play, Hoda Kara from the local NGO Dar Al Amal, confirms the abject conditions in which the inmates are living. “These centers are not constructed to operate as detention facilities; they are ill equipped and lack hygiene and general maintenance, no AC, no fridge, no washing machines or blankets for the cold winters, all of this in addition to overcrowding,” she tells me. Baabda holds some 60 inmates but was originally built to hold half the number.
Meanwhile medical care and follow ups are nearly non-existent and the food is minimal and stale at times Kara stresses to me. Yet prison should be a space for rehabilitation, not punishment, she insists. “Placing the prisoners in such conditions can render prisoners more aggressive, which is especially why Daccache’s work is so essential given its therapeutic effect,” notes the expert.
Dar al Amal helps support imprisoned or recently released inmates, providing them with social, psychological, medical, and financial support as well as access to lawyers. The organization also assists victims of exploitation and sexual abuse who, according to Kara, are at a greater risk of delinquency.
When it comes to the prisoners’ crimes, Daccache agrees. She is firm in her belief that half of the accountability is that of the individual while the other half is relevant to the person’s environment - meaning that women face even greater challenges in a country that jeopardizes women and their rights.
Besides addressing the serious, more painstaking matters, “Scheherazade in Baabda” is also peppered with instances of sheer fun as the women, dressed in bountiful and colorful attire, engage in occasional singing and a vibrant flamenco sequence.
At the end of the 45-minute whirlwind, the audience members are easily swept away and forget they are in a room with ‘convicts,’ as they gather around coffee for a question and answer session with the actresses.
Rana, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, responds to my question about the impact of Daccache’s work with hope. “I finally have the courage to speak about my story and all the injustice,” she says with pride. Today, she, like many other women who have undergone drama therapy, has expanded her horizons in a place that, paradoxically, has her locked in.
As the conversation evolves, the extent of the women’s humanity and fragility unfolds as they reveal their most genuine concerns, including their fear of leaving prison and feeling lost, disoriented, and discriminated against for their time behind bars.
In July, Daccache took the play outdoors with a live performance in downtown Beirut featuring several of the women who have completed their sentences and have recently been released. For more information about the play, or Catharsis’ work in general, please visit: http://www.catharsislcdt.org/ - Ed.
About the author:
Aline Sara is a Lebanese-American journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. She has contributed to the Dubai-based TRENDS magazine, IRIN, as well as French publications Arabies Magazine and Le Courrier International. Born and raised in New York, Aline attended the French Lycée. She is passionate about intercultural exchange, with a natural penchant for the Middle East, where she likes to focus on human and women’s rights. Aline completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts where she majored in Psychology and minored in Moral and Political philosophy. Aline is most interested in the relation between psycho-social components of a given society and political unraveling. Fluent in both English and French, and with conversational knowledge in Arabic and Spanish, Aline loves to hit the road and explore as many different countries and cultures as possible.