Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 4th August 2019

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Former Syrian prisoners put experience in Adra Prison on stage

The stories of courage, resilience, pain and triumph demonstrate the women’s unshakable faith in the cause they are fighting for − a free Syria.

Bitter testimonies. A scene from the play “X-Adra.” (Ahmed Naji)

Bitter testimonies. A scene from the play “X-Adra.” (Ahmed Naji)

LONDON - In a heart-wrenching drama titled “X-Adra,” Hend, Ayat, Ali, Mariam, Rowaida and Kenda – Syrian activists who had been held in the notorious Adra Prison near Damascus, speak eloquent soliloquies about their experiences.

The actors surprised the audience in London’s Battersea Arts Centre by rising from seats among the patrons and beginning their stories. “X-Adra” was featured in Shubbak, London’s festival of contemporary Arab culture in July.

Their imprisonment ranged from the 1980s until after the 2011 protests. Each person, with simple gestures and quiet intensity, created a penetrating flash of insight into prison life and their hopes and dreams on being released.

Ayat Ahmad left her husband and became involved in civil mobilisation through various associations, which led to imprisonments in 2012 and 2013. Hend Alkahwaji was imprisoned in 1982 for distributing leaflets asking for the withdrawal of the Syrian Army from Lebanon. After her release, she resumed militant activities for the Communist Labour Party and was arrested in 1984.

Ali Hamidi, a transgender person, returned from Jordan to take part in peaceful demonstrations in Damascus in 2011. He was transporting deserters fleeing to Jordan when he was arrested in 2012. Mariam Hayed also participated in the demonstrations and was accused of belonging to a terrorist group. Rowaida Kanaan was arrested three times: for taking part in protests, for transporting medication to rebels and for working as a journalist.

Kenda Zaour was arrested in 2012 in Damascus for wearing a wedding dress in the Medhat Basha market to ask for the release of civil prisoners.

The soliloquies were brief but full of facts and details told in sombre, moving tones. The former prisoners spoke in Arabic and an English translation was projected on a screen above the stage.

The play started with the words of an unknown prisoner: “Anyone here? Can anyone hear me? Can anyone help me? I don’t know where I am?”

“The police forces held me hostage somewhere unfamiliar. Everything I remember is that they have beaten me a lot. I don’t know what to do. The investigator asked a lot of questions. Whatever answer I had, I got beaten,” the prisoner says.

Describing her detention, Mariam said: “They forced me to have a TV interview in which I (wrongly) confessed how we fabricated the fake demonstration. I was ready to do whatever they wanted just to put an end to my pain in the (detention) centre and get transferred to Adra Prison.”

“Yes, I agreed to the film because I was exhausted from their torture and I wanted to let my family know I was alive,” Mariam said.

Kenda spoke about the “wedding dress” protest: “We received the signal. With the blink of an eye, we took off our black abayas to reveal the wedding dresses we had underneath.

“We lifted up our demonstration banners and signs. People started reading our banners, which read: ‘Syria is for all of us. The civil society demands the cessation of all military operations in Syria.’

“The security services immediately came and arrested us. We were in detention for two months.”

Director Ramzi Choukair was working in Mersin, Turkey, in May 2015 when he met Mariam, who had just been released from prison. “I was overwhelmed by the story of her detention,” Choukair stated.

“It was during my stay in Turkey that I conceived the project of creating a play with the stories of former Syrian female prisoners to emphasise their prominent role in the revolution. I started contacting them in Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Istanbul through different NGOs,” Choukair said.

“At that time, I didn’t have any idea about the shape of the play but I told them that I was sure about one thing: If we are going to present your stories in a play, then please know that no one is better to tell them than you because they belong to you,” he said.

The women’s testimonies were taken during a 4-week workshop in France and the play evolved. The premiere was in January 2018 at the Filature, Scene Nationale – Mulhouse in Alsace, France, and was followed by a tour of France and Europe.

The stories of courage, resilience, pain and triumph demonstrate the women’s unshakable faith in the cause they are fighting for – a free Syria. Choukair said the play allows the women to present their lives and touch the audience with their humanity and dignity.