Life behind bars becomes theatre

BEIRUT — Convicted murderer Youssef Chankar has been an inmate in Lebanon’s high security Roumieh prison for 18 years. By 2008, he says, he had lost touch with most people outside the prison, save for his mother and brothers. As the years dragged on, his life looked increasingly bleak.

“The last few years, my psychological status was very bad. I was really tired. I used to work at the workshop, then I stopped going. I just stayed in my room for 17 days,” he said.

Roumieh prison is not a nice place. Upon first approach, the drab concrete-walled facility looks like a medieval fortress dropped into a "Mad Max" film. Built in the 1960s to house 1,000 prisoners, it now holds more than 3,000 male inmates. Nearly half of them are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime, according to the U.S. State Department. Riots by prisoners calling for better conditions are a regular occurrence, as are fights between different religious groups.

So when Chankar heard that a Lebanese non-governmental organization was going to stage a play using inmates as the actors, he was skeptical.

“I thought we were going to fight because everyone’s from a different religion,” he said. “Someone is going to say something, and another is going to attack him.”

But the play, called “12 Angry Lebanese,” did just the opposite. Chankar says he and other inmates in the production became “one unit” and began looking after one another. He says it also helped him emotionally.

“During the play I had a chance to express a lot of things that have happened to me and I had buried inside of me, and never said to anyone,” he said in an interview filmed for a documentary on the play. “This project made me feel like I could connect with the people outside.”

Chankar was cast as the Master of Ceremonies for “Twelve Angry Lebanese.” He’s one of 40 prisoners who took part in the production of the play, which marked the first-known use of drama therapy in a prison in the Arab world. The play is based on the 1954 television drama “12 Angry Men,” which was later turned into a movie of the same name starring Henry Fonda.

The play revolves around a 12-man jury that must decide the fate of a 19-year-old man accused of murdering his father. The boy already has a criminal record, and, if convicted, will be executed by hanging. The jury’s verdict must be unanimous and, at the beginning, 11 jurors agree that the boy is guilty and that the case is cut and dried ... leaving one dissenter. Juror number eight, as he is  known, is the play’s protagonist and the voice of reason and justice.

Though  jurors argue, shout and deliberate angrily throughout the play, one by one they come to believe the boy has been wrongly accused, and in the end unanimously find him not guilty.

The choice of the play was fitting for inmates as it deals with class and cultural differences, as well as inequities of justice and perceptions of fairness in society. But the Lebanese production was about much more than just learning lines and stage directions.

Director Zeina Daccache is a licensed drama therapist and holds a master's degree in psychology. With a grant from the European Union, she worked at the prison for the past year, going nearly every day to work with the inmates on the play.

“I received 200 applications at the beginning,” Daccache said. She eventually narrowed the participants to 40 inmates.

The cast included rapists, drug dealers, murderers, and a man on death row. She chose to inject the play with prisoners’ personal monologues, which tell the true stories of how the prisoners ended up at Roumieh.

Some are dark, like the rapist's tale. Others are light: A convicted drug user tells a story about how his mother inadvertently told a judge her son was a drug dealer, innocently trying to get him a lighter sentence. The information predictably resulted in just the opposite.

Songs, written and performed by the inmates, reflect on life in prison. There’s even a dance sequence choreographed to Michael Jackson’s “Scream,” during which inmates demonstrate the mundane aspects of prison life. Using hip hop and disco moves, they mimic the daily ritual of sleeping, eating, playing cards, fighting and watching TV.

The rehearsals took place in an iron-barred recreation room in the center of the prison — the same room where the play was performed for the public. On performance days, 200 audience members were locked into the packed room, with some sitting on the floor. After the inmates/actors arrived to a rousing applause, the few guards present locked the door. No bathroom breaks were allowed, parroting for two hours the inmates' own experience at the overcrowded prison.

Daccache began production on the play at the prison last February. The play’s final performance was last weekend, after running every weekend for eight straight weeks to rave reviews.

“Nobody has ever done anything like this before in a prison in Lebanon,” said Marie Ghantous, whose organization, The Association for Defense of Rights and Liberties, helped sponsor the play. “It helps the prisoners manage their anger and feelings, and to build a bridge between the inside and outside worlds, because they don’t know how to deal with people.”

Rawad Jafar plays the third juror, the first to side with juror number 8 and vote not guilty. He has served more than half of his five year sentence for dealing drugs. He says he didn’t mind coming to prison because he wanted to stop using and selling drugs.

“This play affected me emotionally,” he said. “I used to be shy, but this has made me strong, I say what I think. It’s made me change for the positive, just going to rehearsals.”

Daccache says it wasn’t easy convincing Lebanese authorities to allow a young woman to work with a cast of convicts. It took eight months of petitioning the relevant Lebanese authorities just to get permission to work in the prison.

“The prison authority falls under many different people, so if one says ‘no,’ it means no, just like the play,” she said. “We got two consecutive refusals. Then a unanimous decision came out after eight months, and this is when we went in.”

The first performance was to the very government officials and generals who had given permission for the production to proceed, including the prosecutor general, who had prosecuted many of the men in the play.

“When the show ended, the general prosecutor said I want to go and congratulate the [actors],” Daccache said. “Backstage, the [officials] were kissing them and saying they did great. These are the same people who put them here.”

Many in Lebanon are astounded the Lebanese government let the play go on at all. The play contains criticism and of the justice system and prison life. The prisoners also plead for the penal code to be changed to allow for early release for good behavior, and parole. Both are not allowed under current Lebanese law.

One of those who deserves a second chance, Daccache says, is convicted murderer and Master of Ceremonies Youssef Chankar. Some government officials apparently think so, too. Daccache says Chankar has already met with several who say they’ll review his case. Chankar says regardless of the outcome, he’s happy that he’s been able to take part in the play, to show others, and himself, what he’s capable of.

“The play shows our humanity, we are humans. There’s not a single person who doesn’t make mistakes,” he said. “And if I ever get out, I’m going to try to do something equal to the good of what the theater project has done.”

Daccache says prisoners who participated in “Twelve Angry Lebanese” sleep better, have a better attitude, and are more responsible for their own actions. That gives them some feeling of control over their lives, and makes them more likely to have a chance at a better life, away from crime, when they get out. She says she wants to continue the project and work with other prisoners at Roumieh on a new production.

“I worked with 40, but what about the rest?” she says. “And what about permanence? Some people have never heard of this prison. Now people are more aware.”

(Youssef Chankar’s quotes are taken from an interview for a documentary about the play recorded by Jocelyne Abi Gebrayel during rehearsals for “Twelve Angry Lebanese.”)

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