Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Inmates at Lebanon's Largest Prison Take Drama to Heart

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Inmates at Lebanon's Largest Prison Take Drama to Heart

Article excerpt

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. …

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