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On A Theater’s Stage, Inmates Get A Taste of Freedom

In a ramshackle Lebanese prison, a drama therapy program is making a difference on a national scale.

Photo by Patrick Baz/Catharsis-LCDT.


A drama therapy program in a Lebanese prison provides restorative justice while creating policy change.

On a stage in Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison, a play is unfolding. In front of an audience that includes judges and members of parliament, the actors bring the scenes to life. But these aren’t your typical thespians; they’re inmates.

In one scene, a middle-aged man with a shaved head explains that he was a militia commander in Lebanon’s civil war before being told to give up his weapons and go home in 1991, after the war’s end. “That’s a reason to take drugs!” he remarks to the younger inmate sitting beside him before summoning a troupe of fellow inmates for a song-and-dance number.

In another scene, a Palestinian refugee with an unkempt beard gives a rambling reminiscence about his beloved donkey, Johar, which he believes to be imprisoned in Israel.

The play, “Johar … Up in the Air,” is part of a long-running project by the Lebanese nongovernmental organization Catharsis, headed by actress and director Zeina Daccache. Since 2007, Daccache and her team have been carrying out drama therapy programs with inmates in Lebanese prisons and others living on the margins of society, including patients in mental health and drug treatment facilities, migrant domestic workers, and refugees.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We ask people not to say that ‘this guy was in jail, so he’s no longer a human.’ Everyone makes mistakes – there is no one infallible.[/quote]

When funding allows, the therapy workshops are developed into original theater performances. Some have been developed into documentary films. The publicity generated by the plays, in some cases, has led to legal reforms.

Daccache said the idea of working in the prisons came at a moment in her own life when she felt trapped: during the monthlong war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in 2006.

As airstrikes rained down on Lebanon, killing hundreds and disabling the airport, Daccache and her neighbors in Beirut remained hunkered down in their homes.

“I felt I was in a prison myself,” she said. “I was in prison for a month – how about those who are in prison for years and years?”

Daccache already had experience as a drama therapist. And she had an idea of what theater would look like in a penal setting, having assisted Italian director Armando Punzo with his theater program in Italy’s Volterra prison. She consulted with Punzo while setting up the program in Lebanon.

After a yearlong process of navigating the country’s bureaucracy to get all the required permissions, Daccache began her first series of workshops in Roumieh Prison in February 2008. The work culminated in the 2009 production of “12 Angry Lebanese,” an adaption of the American courtroom drama “12 Angry Men.”

Daccache works on an adaptation of “12 Angry Men” staged with inmates. Photo by Dalia Khamissy/Catharsis-LCDT.

The play was central to a campaign that led to the implementation of a law — one that was on the books but never applied — allowing for reduced sentences for good behavior.

Later plays that dealt with the plight of female prisoners and migrant domestic workers helped to usher in new domestic violence laws and the repeal of a regulation restricting migrant workers from having romantic relationships.

A new hope

The most recent production, “Johar … Up in the Air,” which was performed at Roumieh Prison in May and June 2016 and subsequently turned into a documentary, focused on prisoners serving life sentences and on mentally ill inmates, who are effectively also sentenced to life in prison.

Under Lebanese law, mentally ill inmates convicted of a crime must be held “until cured” – an impossible standard to meet, Daccache said, especially given that most Lebanese prisons provide no psychiatric care. Only Roumieh has a small psychiatric unit, known as The Blue House. But there is no psychiatrist on staff; NGOs send in staff periodically to provide treatment.

Prisoners enact their play “12 Angry Lebanese.” Photo by Dalia Khamissy/Catharsis-LCDT.

The Blue House residents could not act in “Johar … Up in the Air” themselves, so other inmates portrayed some of their stories. Since the play’s production, draft laws have been introduced that would abolish the “until cured” requirement and ease the process of getting a life sentence reduced.

Daccahe said when she first embarked on the prison theater work, she did not plan to make it into an advocacy project.

“I only intended to do drama therapy and theater,” she said. “But once you are inside and you hear the stories of the inmates, there is no way you don’t become an advocate.”

Over the course of the project, many of the inmates begin to take responsibility for their actions and grow in empathy, she said.

“Everyone who comes to the drama therapy sessions, they are people who want to work on themselves,” she said.

Roger Khoury acted in “Johar … Up in the Air,” playing the former militia commander, while serving a five-year sentence for drug trafficking – the last of several stints in rehab and prison. Khoury said the drama program was one of the few things that gave him hope.

“Only there I felt myself to be a human,” he said. “I felt myself to be outside, in freedom. I felt that I had value. I felt that there were people doing right.”

The project also gave him one last meeting with his mother, who died while he was in prison. His sister, visiting from Canada, brought his mother to see the special performance of “Johar … Up in the Air” for inmates’ family members. After the play, they sat together and ate fruit cocktails and cake and talked for hours.

Khoury was released recently, but his drug conviction means he can’t get a driver’s license, and finding work is difficult with a criminal record. He works under the table as a security guard and sometimes makes money on the side by buying cheap goods and selling them at a markup. He said he hopes the work by Catharsis will encourage others to give former inmates a chance.

“We ask the people not to say that ‘this guy was in jail, so he’s no longer a human,’” he said. “No, this guy did something wrong. Everyone makes mistakes – there is no one infallible.”

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