Theatre therapy opens the curtains for Lebanon's most marginalised

Theatre therapy opens the curtains for Lebanon's most marginalised
5 min read
25 November, 2014
After working in notorious prisons, teaching inmates the art, Zeina Daccache has now turned her talents towards Lebanese women and Syrian refugees, helping them tell their own stories.
Daccouche won first prize for '12 Angry Lebanese' at the Dubai International Film Festival [AFP]

Zeina Daccache is a pioneer of drama therapy in Lebanon. Employing a technique that uses theatre for psychotherapeutic means, she has been widely talked about for staging plays with the inmates of the infamous Roumieh and Baabda prisons.

Today she is preparing her new play with Lebanese women and Syrian refugees in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli, a town ravaged by the Syrian crisis. It is an opportunity to bring two worlds together and enable participants to put words to their sorrows.

"Get into your role, Fatmeh. Act from the heart," says Daccache.

Fatmeh, in her thirties, sits up on a plastic chair. From the corner of her eye she scrutinises the several dozen other women sitting in a circle with her, and she unfolds a scrap of paper. She takes a deep breath and begins.

     My children were like jasmine in Damascus, gradually blossoming, now I see them withering.
- Fatmeh, Syrian refugee in Lebanon

"I left my parents, my children, and my husband behind in Syria and I took refuge here in Tripoli," she says. "I saw my children's future go up in smoke, their dreams are gone. My children were like jasmine in Damascus, gradually blossoming, but now I see them withering."

"Did you come to Lebanon alone?" asks Daccache. "Where are your children?"

"I don’t know, they're lost. I feel desperate, I've become withdrawn. I can't speak to anyone. I can't trust anyone. I am full of sorrow," replies Fatmeh.

Under the neon lighting the women in the circle are quick to react, comment, tease out the thread of the emerging story, and applaud. She was not just performing a role, Fatmeh was also telling the story of one of the other women in the room, a story the true protagonist has never dared tell.

"It’s an exercise. I asked them to write a secret on a piece of paper. Then we mixed them up and handed one out to each of the women. They then acted out what was written on their piece of paper without knowing whose story it was," explains Daccache.

"The idea is to get them to talk about themselves, to give them back a voice." Through role-play and theatre exercises, the drama therapist is trying to encourage participants to focus on themselves, and express what they are feeling inside.

Telling one's own story

The first game requires participants to imitate each other's gestures. Rigid facial expressions unravel as they copy each other, and the exercise encourages them to talk. In total, 40 women take part as actors and members of the audience, and the stories sometimes shock.

Last week, the story of a mother who wished she had never had children disturbed the audience, sparking a lively round of cliched reactions. "She’s a bad mother," said one. "She isn't respecting the will of God."

After a week when emotions were calmer, one of the women, Roula, revealed she was the author of the story. Daccache invited her to retell her story, which she did. When she finished she was met with heartfelt applause.

Congratulating Roula for speaking out, Daccache addressed the group.

"Now you know it is Roula's story, and, as you know her, are you still shocked? I bet that at least half of you have also thought at one time or another you shouldn't have had children. She has had the courage to share her thoughts with us."

During the exercises Daccache notes down everything: the stories, the characters, and the women's behaviour. She used these statements and snapshots as the basis of the play.

Drama therapy in prisons

Watch the trailer for 12 Angry Lebanese here

To get to where she is today, the drama therapist has worked and studied hard.

In 2007, she founded Catharsis, one of the Middle East's first centres for theatre therapy.

In her first large-scale project she put on a play with inmates from Lebanon's Roumieh prison. Showing boundless determination, she spent a year knocking on doors to get permission to enter the jail.

"Nobody understood what I wanted to do… I think they thought I'd give up trying to get permission, and in the end, they were the ones who gave in," explains Daccache mischievously.

Her next challenges were to be accepted in the prison, establish discipline and successfully lead the project. In 2009, after 15 months of hard work she successfully produced 12 Angry Lebanese, an adaptation of Reginald Rose's famous stage play, 12 Angry Men.

The opening night at the prison was attended by political leaders and the media. The documentary Daccache filmed during rehearsals for the play gained international recognition, and won several awards.

Inmates benefitted from being able to focus on themselves, while their messages and experiences were carried beyond their prison bars. Two months after their performance, a 2002 law prescribing a reduced sentence for good behaviour - which had never been put into practice - finally came into effect.

Scheherazade in Baadba

Daccache hopes to give a voice to those who have been excluded, marginalised and silenced in a divided society. After her experiences with the men in Roumieh prison, the women in Baabda prison welcomed her in 2011.

Working alongside them, they produced the play Scheherazade's diary, and Daccache created a second documentary depicting daily life in prison and women's place in Lebanese society.

She focused on issues such as rape, forced marriage, drugs, adultery, and murder. Her documentary looks at those things never spoken about by those who have experienced them.


Watch the trailer for Scheherazade’s Diary here

Daccache's Scheherazade's uses the women's stories to question the basis of a patriarchal society where there is no legal framework to combat marital violence.

Using these experiences, the filmmaker is embarking on a new Lebanese-Syrian adventure with the help of the US embassy in Lebanon.

"My aim is to reunite people," she says. "I want Syrians and Lebanese to communicate."

After rehearsals, participants were transformed, and seemed relaxed and at ease with their bodies, words and expressions.

"Zeina gave us a voice," said Amina from Homs in Syria.

"All the papers we read out, all these stories, I feel like they are mine. Since I arrived in Lebanon, I've experienced all these things - fear, despair, misery. I wanted to walk towards the sea and never come back. But after doing this, I think things aren't so bad, it turns out we still have the will to accomplish things."

This article was originally published in French by Orient XXI. This is an edited translation.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author, and do not necessarily reflect ths opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.