Theater project has dramatic effect on Lebanon jail

Wed Dec 24, 2008 1:58am EST
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By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

ROUMIYEH, Lebanon (Reuters) - Cigarette smoke wafts through a hall in Lebanon's biggest jail where an all-male jury is arguing over whether an accused murderer should be hanged.

The 12 men, all prisoners themselves, strive for a unanimous verdict. Tempers rise, insults flow, blows are threatened.

Then someone forgets his lines. Laughter erupts. They start again. Occasionally the frustration leads to a real quarrel until the firm voice of director Zeina Daccache restores order.

In jeans and a black sweater, she castigates, coaxes and cajoles her novice actors, who sulk, talk back and then perform with renewed gusto, just like their counterparts in any theater.

Some tell their own stories in monologues. Hawilo acts out a comical prison visit with his mother who unwittingly got him convicted of dealing drugs instead of just possession. "Good news son, I told the judge you never smoke hashish, you only sell it!" Hawilo mimics her saying, before he pretends to faint.

For a few hours each week, these forgotten men taste a world beyond the bars of Roumiyeh, a crowded prison near Beirut that houses Islamist militants as well as 4,000 ordinary criminals.

Since she launched her drama therapy project in February, Daccache has won the respect and affection of the convicts, who call her "Abu Ali," reckoning her to be as tough as any man.

Anwar, a tall, shaven-headed Iraqi in combat pants and boots, who is serving a 15-year sentence for murder, said she was "like a sister" who had unlocked a door.   Continued...

<p>Prisoners are seen rehearsing a play adapted from "12 Angry Men" by Reginald Rose, in a makeshift theatre in Roumiyeh, Lebanon's biggest prison. REUTERS/Dalia Khamissy /ADDL/CATHARSIS/Handout</p>