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Actress brings hope to Lebanese prisoners

By Catriona Davies, for CNN
  • Zeina Daccache began drama therapy in Lebanon's largest prison in 2008
  • Inmates have performed a play in front of government ministers
  • A documentary about the project has won several international awards
  • A second project is underway at Roumieh Prison

(CNN) -- Zeina Daccache is best known in Lebanon for her weekly stand-up comedy and political satire shows on national television.

But Daccache, an actress, comedian and drama therapist, can also give a unique insight into life inside Lebanon's largest prison.

Daccache, 33, began a 15-month drama therapy project with 45 inmates of Roumieh Prison -- including murderers, rapists and drug dealers -- in Beirut in 2008. One illiterate inmate learned to read just to take part.

She is now working on a second project in the prison, which will result in a play called "The Hanged Man" being performed in May and June this year.

When I first suggested to the authorities doing therapy inside the prison, they thought I was crazy.
--Zeina Daccache, actress and drama therapist

"When I first suggested to the authorities doing therapy inside the prison, they thought I was crazy and that it wouldn't be safe," said Daccache. "It took a year to get a permit to begin.

"Most of the prisoners had seen me on TV and thought I was going there to make them laugh, but discovered it was totally the opposite."

She added: "Roumieh is so overcrowded. It was made for 1,000 and now holds 4,000 prisoners.

"You can imagine what chaos comes from that. There's a lot of frustration and anger."

The first project resulted in a performance of "12 Angry Lebanese," an adaptation of the Reginald Rose legal drama "12 Angry Men," in front of an audience including Lebanese government ministers.

A film about the project, 12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary, has won a host of international prizes, including awards at the Dubai International Film Festival, the International Documentary Film Festival and the Arab Film Festival in California. It included music written by the inmates.

During the film, Youssef Chankar, 44, who is 20 years into a life sentence for murder, said: "I expected hostility and problems because each one comes from a different background, but I found out that this project has unified the group of 45 men."

He added: "I fear this project won't be followed by others and that we would go back to oblivion after it.

"This year I went out of this oblivion world and I wish we would never go back to it."

This year I went out of this oblivion world and I wish we would never go back to it.
--Youssef Chankar, serving life sentence for murder
  • Lebanon
  • Documentary Films
  • Crime

Another inmate, Josef, 29, serving five years for drug dealing, said: "The timing of the project was perfect for me. I was able to rebuild my contact with society.

"I was on the verge of despair. I was thinking 'this time I will sell drugs in a smarter way.'"

He added: "This project has given me back my confidence and has shown me that I can be successful in other ways."

Daccache said a psychological study of the inmates confirmed the changes she had seen in them.

She said: "When I first went into the prison, people didn't talk to each other. There was no life in their eyes. They were just in a passive cycle of waiting for something to change.

"We did a psychological study and discovered that their ideas of injustice changed. They took responsibility for themselves. They became more active and wanted to change themselves, rather than just waiting for society to change."

Two of the inmates who took part in the first project have since died in prison of cancer, both aged in their 60s.

Daccache said: "It was really hard. I have no words to explain it. We knew these guys had done wrong in their lives, but what's more unjust is making them die in there. They paid their price.

"We had to support the whole group because many of them have life sentences and realize it's going to be their turn sometime.

"It's a continuous question of how to keep hope, because without it we can't go on."

Daccache argued that some hope of early release -- which she said is currently rarely available -- would give prisoners motivation to behave well and improve themselves.

John Bergman, an American drama therapist who joined Daccache in Roumieh Prison for a few days during her latest project, said: "It's clear that Zeina has juice. If the prison wanted to shut down her project they would find a million ways to do it, but they are clearly very comfortable with her work."

Daccache also leads drama therapy in rehabilitation centers, with victims of domestic abuse, and is planning her first project in a women's prison latest this year.

Daccache's organization Catharsis has received funding for its projects from the Italian Embassy in Beirut and the Drosos Foundation.

"12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary" will be shown in London on March 30 as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.