Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Twelve angry Lebanese - A play in a prison lends life to a grim monument

In the hills above Beirut, inmates of Roumieh prison are staging a version of the Reginald Rose play Twelve Angry Men. It is the first time prison authorities in the Middle East have agreed to such an initiative, which seems as much directed at changing the attitudes of prison authorities toward incarceration methods as at the prisoners themselves. The play is financed by the European Union with Catharsis, the Lebanese Center for Drama Therapy, whose founder, Zeina Daccache, is the director. It will be shown every Saturday for one more month, and the results are, in many ways, astonishing.

What makes them so is that the spectators are invited to navigate concentric circles of surrealistic sensations. The first is the entry into Roumieh itself, a forbidding but mesmerizing citadel of retribution, designed by the architect Pierre Khoury, with massive Y-shaped cell blocks on either side of the main entrance (with a third in the rear), their striated brown-white facades overlooking enclosed courtyards. The facility was designed for 1,500 prisoners; today it houses over 5,000.

We head to the left, through a heavy metal door leading into the first courtyard where the Internal Security Forces check our papers. Each cell window is made of two parallel vertical slits sealed by horizontal bars, out of which most prisoners have hung rags to dry. A pair of inmates look down at us as we enter, young men smiling at the spectacle below (why would anyone want to come in?), their faces mashed into the narrow openings. One gives me a thumbs up. It’s difficult to smile back as the fa├žade of the building is one of pitiless squalor, the windows filthy and the metal rotting, the youths the sole sign of intelligent life in a derelict ecosystem.

Then it’s to the second courtyard, where the play will be staged in the gymnasium. Here, the metal door is even larger than the first, or so it seems. The area is pentagonal, with cells all around framed by bizarre juxtapositions. An art deco observation post to the right looks like a gladiator’s helmet with its visor down; near it is a printing press, mainly displaying religious books and mementos on the shelves; a lone basketball goal is off to the left (why not two?); while hovering over the space is a suspended walkway cutting across between the central spoke of the prison and the cell block to our left — a concrete bridge of sighs.

We take our seats in the gymnasium, an oblong room with a steep metal staircase at one end leading up to a fenced passage from which the guards can watch us. The play, which was the basis for a 1957 Sidney Lumet film starring Henry Fonda, is two hours long, during which the doors of the gym will be locked, and the curtains closed. The guards inside the room are unarmed in the event the prisoners do turn into angry men. That passage above will be the only way in and out of the room if something goes wrong, though at no point does anybody get a sense that something will go wrong, so immersed are the prisoners in their roles.

After a musical introduction, the first prisoner comes out. His name is Yusif Shankar, or Grandfather Shankar, and he’s serving a life term for murder (we’re not sure if that’s singular or plural). He tells us his story. He’s been incarcerated for 18 years, which, he explains, adds up to so many months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, with no sign that this demoralizing math will ever end with him a free man. Grandfather Shankar introduces the play, which has been re-titled 12 Angry Lebanese, adding that many Lebanese are angry. He is as smooth as silk, a natural actor (“Being good actors is how we got in here,” he later explains); his colleagues emerge from off right, and the show begins.

Twelve Angry Men, like its Lebanese derivative, is the story of a jury deliberating over a crime. But what it’s really about is guilt and innocence, and the willingness of those judging a crime to discern the innocence in apparent guilt. The subject matter is an inspired one for Roumieh. In the next couple of hours the play will be twice interrupted by interludes—in which the prisoners will dance, tell jokes, and talk about themselves.

An inmate from Bangladesh, who, with other migrant prisoners, must be counted as among the lowest of the low in the prison hierarchy for having little or no support outside, says that imprisoned or not, he is still being treated by those around him as a servant. A drug dealer and two others illustrate the absurdity of Lebanese penal practice when it comes to paroles. And a convicted rapist, who looks very much like a convicted rapist, admits to his crime, but dissolves into tears when describing his childhood. He explains that once his term ends, his criminal record will deny him the basics of a normal life in what will be a prison without bars.

When it’s all over, the prisoners exit first, sent off into a room across the courtyard before the return to their cells. Most had jackets and neckties on during the play, and as we file past them, it seems outlandish that these well-dressed gentlemen should now so abruptly be convicts again. The wind has kicked up and it’s beginning to rain. The lights have gone on in some cells, so that they seem almost cozy in the squall. Roumieh, the grimmest of monuments, has offered up an afternoon of stimulating contrasts. But is this a place where anything stimulating can last?

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