For Prisoners, Drama Therapy is More Than Just Art

8 Jan 2018 | Staying alive in turbulent times | by Bibbi Abruzzini

At Yo!Fest we discuss solutions to the issues affecting young people. With the refugee crisis and rising levels of social and financial insecurity, young people are at risk of falling through the cracks. Every day too many young people’s lives are overshadowed by financial difficulties, abuse and neglect – a toxic recipe for all kinds of problems in the present and later life. How can we give a chance to the most vulnerable? Can we use creativity and performance in Europe as tools for social change, empowerment and integration? We interviewed Zeina Daccache, the soul of Lebanese drama therapy, to see how theatre can empower marginalised communities and give a voice to those forgotten behind bars.

Seated in her garden in the town of Jounieh, Lebanon, Zeina Daccache sips her coffee. Every now and then, she lights up a cigarette. At first impression Zeina transpires compassion and empathy. Her eyes tell a story. They are determined, her gaze is alive.  Her spirit talks of determination and passion, but also of sufferance and challenges. She transmits strength through the power of her presence, the boldness of her work and the vigor of her voice.

Zeina is the director of Catharsis, the first Drama Therapy center in the Arab Region. Since 2007 she has been offering therapy through the use of theatre to give those neglected by society a much needed cathartic outlet. She has done projects with a variety of groups, including women in southern Lebanon, people with mental illness, male and female prisoners, drug addicts and migrant workers.

Zeina begun by working with people struggling with drug addiction in Beirut’s Oum el-Nour drug rehabilitation centre over 15 years ago. She has since become known as a pioneer of drama therapy in Lebanon, producing internationally acclaimed plays and documentaries. Plays by Zeina extend beyond art. For Zeina, it is all part of her larger goal to use theatre as a tool to incite social change.

"I didn’t want theatre to be something elite, accessible only to the few, I wanted it to have an impact on society,” Zeina says.

With a radical approach, Zeina introduced drama therapy in jails in Lebanon in 2008, with the aim of helping prisoners finding a voice and cope with their daily lives behind bars. She found inspiration after working with director Armando Punzo who introduced drama therapy in Volterra prison, Italy. She decided to do the same thing in one of Lebanon’s most notorious prisons: Roumieh, the country’s largest penitentiary facility. Cells are overcrowded, living conditions dire, prisoners are mostly left to themselves—they establish their own internal hierarchy system leading to tension, discrimination and exploitation.

Through her plays, Zeina brings much-needed attention to the issue of penitentiary reform in Lebanon. To interact with the criminal justice system is to be part of a legacy of trauma. Through drama and theatre inmates have the opportunity to tell their personal stories in an attempt to heal wounds but also to hold up a mirror to society about the conditions in prisons and what brought them where they are.

“Many women”, Zeina explains, “end up in prison because they were victims of forced child marriage, which led to years of abuse from their husbands”.

There is a whole political element to the choices of many women who end up in prison in Lebanon, which is based around the oppression of women and the violence they are forced to endure on a daily basis.

With her work Zeina is able to help inmates portray the individual rather than the ‘criminal’. The idea is that everything – the stories and the dialogues –come from the interpretation of prisoners themselves. Their thoughts and feelings are expressed in the plays.

Yet her projects are not only about the representation of prisoners or those addicted to drugs, or refugees—it’s about what comes next.

Can drama really be used as a therapy for social change? How do we promote individual’s voices? Zeina goes that extra mile. Her plays have been credited with breaking taboos, defending the rights of detainees and working to change Lebanese laws. It was after “12 Angry Lebanese” the play produced in 2009 in Roumieh Prison, that a 2002 law to reduce prison sentences for good behavior was finally implemented. “Scheherazade in Baabda”, performed in the female prison of Baabda in 2012, shed light on the oppression faced by women in Lebanon.

Zeina recently presented her latest documentary on her third prison theatre production ‘Johar... Up in the Air’, which exposes the injustices faced by inmates with a mental illness and the reality of inmates sentenced to life. Despite the different reasons for their incarceration, the two face a common fate: life imprisonment. Her latest project is pushing the government to improve Mental Health in Lebanese Prisons and reform the law for inmates with a mental illness and inmates sentenced to life. In August 2016, two draft laws have been submitted by Zeina to the Lebanese Parliament, hopefully changing the lives of many forgotten persons behind bars and preventing a “life sentences” fate for future inmates. Zeina continues to work with vulnerable groups and individuals across the globe. To follow her work click here.

Can we use drama therapy for intercultural exchange and in conflict resolution? How can young people be inspired to advocate for social change? Which are the ways in which we can empower young people from disadvantaged groups? If you have any ideas or know of any initiatives send an email to Bibbi.abruzzini@youthforum.org

Credits for pictures: Dalia khamissy/ Catharsis-LCDT