Dramatic escapes: The improbable story of Syria’s secret prison theater

A former political prisoner under Hafez al-Assad recalls the “impossible stage” on which inmates covertly performed plays in one of Syria’s most notorious penitentiaries.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 10 July, 2017]

Is it possible for beautiful things to happen in prison? At first, you would expect to answer this question, containing a contradiction in its very structure, with no. But I, without considering myself hasty, and through my own personal experience (along with many of my friends), will answer with no hesitation that yes, it is possible.

There are certain experiences that normal life with its stressful pace cannot provide, whereas prison with its long and extended time can achieve. I mean specifically to say that normal life does not always allow you to achieve those things that require effort, patience, and the free time that prison grants to its guests. Here it is of course necessary not to fall into generalization, and certainly one must except the truly hellish Syrian prisons and investigative branches. What I am speaking of here are those prisoners who are merely just another number in the prison record book.

Generally, a central role of restricting freedom is to focus on crushing at least the spirit and psyche of the individual detainee. However, we often have an innate ability and personal readiness to produce beautiful things, a human disposition which can be developed with much love. This can form a collective mechanism of converging wills that attempt to limit the effects of the crushing that comes from losing freedom.

For example, in prison, people who have passed the natural age of students can learn a foreign language or more than one, or how to play a musical instrument, and how to paint or sculpt, reaching even to theater. These are not abstractions I am mentioning here, but rather every one of these examples has its own tangible and divergent story with details to be narrated in the experience of prison.

Theater? Theater indeed, and it is this that I will write on here, as briefly as possible.

Theater was, like many of the beautiful and creative activities in prison, a completely local achievement and individual experience. I personally think it would be unjust to not discuss and document it in a research paper that would go beyond what I will do here. The truth is that I feel a great personal shame because I/we (we who lived that experience) are more than a quarter century late to write on it.

In prison, we would repeat, “Is it not enough that they produce death and all this evil? Come, let us make life a little less ugly.” And I assert (and how I would like for you to agree) that we gave it our best effort.

“Rehearsals” behind mattress cover curtains

Bader Zakaria (an agricultural engineer by profession) had a decent amount of experience from the university theater in his hometown of Latakia. At the beginning of our long time in prison he announced to the wing his intention to form a theater group, and that this was a general call for whoever thought they had some talent to join this new group. Bader in this way started to gather his theater team from whoever wanted to jump into the fray. Adnan, Jamal, Rashad, Ali, Khaldoun, Maan, Muhammad, Kareem, Khalil, Haytham, and more. Most of them knew almost nothing about theater. At first glance, we (that is, we the detained with the accusation of affiliation with the Syrian Communist Party, the residents of wing A on the left side of the third floor of the Saydnaya military prison in the late eighties and early nineties) all thought we would soon witness a play resembling those plays the school groups used to present, and that this would be an entertaining and not-too-bad affair in the world of prison and would be understood in light of those conditions.

It was strange for us for several months of preparations to pass while we waited for the late show. What were they doing? They were doing their preparations in the empty space between the left and right wings, at the end of the walkway of the wing which included ten dormitories. The members of the team set off a special space with curtains of cloth made from our military mattress covers, and there in that isolated space (as well as in the dorms at night) the members read about acting and acting culture (we of course had in the wing a library containing thousands of titles which were our own property we had gathered from what came during visits; the prison administration’s benevolence was limited to allowing in books during visits). All of that edification in the theater arts was accompanied with long reading rehearsals, then our first experience of full rehearsals, in addition to an almost daily course on how to move the body on stage and the skill of separating the senses.

The play “The Committee,” taken from the novel by the Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim, was the first experience of the team in the wing. Before gathering us new detainees in a special wing, Bader had previously directed “The Committee” in the A wing of the right side of the first floor with our comrades detained before us, after the writer and journalist Ali al-Kurdi had turned it into a play. In addition to Bader, Ali al-Kurdi, Mazen Rabi, Abd Darwish and Wail al-Sawah led the roles in it.

During the training period, while the director of our prison, Colonel Barakat al-Ash, was on an inspection tour of our wing, our director Bader Zakaria asked his permission to use the cinema found beside the main building of the prison with the goal of presenting a play. Bader was definitely making this fantastic request expecting it to be rejected, but neither he nor us ever expected to hear the colonel’s reply, “And what, should I bring you some dancers too?”

Theater culture takes over the wing

In a short period, there echoed throughout the wing phrases that had not previously been known to most of us (we who were supposed to be busy with political concerns): dramatic plot structure; building the character; character background; and many more phrases recently coming in to our wing, all the way to that strange phrase we said in English: “general rehearsal.” That rehearsal caused some clamor, nay even protests, as the director picked only a small number to attend it, which some considered to be an inexcusable elitist discrimination.

As such, after several months the day of the first show had been determined in one of the dormitories of wing 10. The decor occupied a space to be called the stage, and what remained of the dormitory’s space became the hall that could accommodate fifty audience members as long they organized their seating well. We in the wing, assuming everybody wanted to attend, were more than 200 audience members; therefore the team decided to present the show for a period of four days with pre-determined arrangements as to who would attend each show.

The Saydnaya team’s opening show was an event beyond description; I can even say with no fear of being called biased that it was unbelievable. It crushed all of our naive assumptions and our stupid comparisons to the experience of school plays. I am able now to claim, with no fear of anyone accusing me of exaggeration, that this experience could not have happened in this outstanding manner in any similar place in the world. One day it will be considered unjust to write on the history of Syrian theater without this exceptional experience occupying the space it deserves, not only because of the particularity it possessed making it a beautiful and creative human experience unlike anything else, but simply as an experience of Syrian theater, in which domain it deserves a distinguished place.

Jam cans for “spotlights”

The “spotlights” we used for lighting were a collection of metal jam cans, in which we then stuck tin foil wrapper from cigarette packs to reflect the light we needed after fastening the lamp bulbs inside. The group’s technicians connected the bulbs with electrical wires extracted from the electricity boxes in the corridor walls. Those electrical wires had originally been planted there for the loudspeakers that were not transmitting anything at that time, which is what assured us that the police officers would not know of our violations against the prison’s property (the loudspeaker had stopped working after the martyrdom of Ihsan Azo, a detainee from the city of Salamiyah accused of joining the Syrian Communist Party, who had been punished with solitary confinement at the end of 1987 as a result of him protesting the transmission of Hafez Al-Assad’s speeches through the loudspeakers in front of the police). The electrical wires were extended to canisters on the ceiling and on the walls there was a panel made from the wood of vegetable boxes that was to be the control panel for team’s lighting director. On the panel, they put some used medical syringes which were to be the electrical keys that would turn the lighting on or off by connecting or disconnecting the negative and positive ends, by pushing the syringe of every spotlight in a well-thought-out manner befitting each scene, an operation to be managed by the light engineer.

Music on wooden crates

Throughout the rehearsals, Hassan, Asaad, and Anwar worked on the theatrical music to accompany the scenes and add the dramatic charge needed. (What did I get myself into? Trying to talk about this experience will require a lot of explanation and digression; oh well.) Hassan Abd al-Rahman (a medical student) knew how to play the oud; Asaad Shalash (a conservatory graduate) also played the oud; and Anwar Jaafar (a philosophy student) knew how to play the guitar. All three of them had great skills no less than those of a professional musician, and they were accompanied on percussion (on a big water jug) by Maurice and Anis (an economics student). As for the guitar and oud, they were, like everything in prison, produced locally, again from vegetable crate wood. The strings at first were twined from the threads of socks that were no longer usable, though later we were able to smuggle in regular strings, which marked an important shift in the history of the prison’s music. There were engineers in the wings who added new expertise to their original competences in civil, architectural, or mechanical engineering, and volunteered to make those instruments with precise measurements and thickness, also using tools of local manufacture. The truth is that their work was difficult at times. When the oud was confiscated during inspections, they had to produce a replacement in only a few days.

I cannot even conceive of the wing without an oud, without music. Prison without music? Truly unbearable. Hassan was my neighbor in the dormitory for years, and I tested that personally, for he and his music contributed to providing important psychological support for my ability to bear those long years in prison.

Costumes, makeup, and decor on an “impossible stage”

Let us return now to the stage. Other specialists prepared the hair dyes, make up, and costumes, as our wing had several visual artists. Ironically, they were forced to use chemical substances as painting colors on the actors’ faces, which caused allergies in several of them, but despite this they continued to use them as there was no alternative. The decor was the hardest area, especially in the play “The House that Swift Built” by Grigori Gorin. The doctor and famous translator Thaer Deeb had translated the play before prison for the benefit of the Kuwait Series in Global Theatre (the play was published in its first issue after the liberation of Kuwait) and in prison he was able to retrieve it and rewrite it from memory. Thaer wrote in the dedication in its second print, after he was released from prison, “To that team that performed this play on that impossible stage.”

The decor had to go along with the security situation, therefore it had to have the capability of being folded and concealed in less than a minute in anticipation of inspection raids, as it also had to be quickly replaceable to move from scene to scene and be good for more than one use through the show. In “Swift,” there are scenes with dwarfs in them, and since it was impossible to make the actors smaller, we had to change some of the lines of dialogue that implied the size of their miniscule characters, as well as make the decor in some of the scenes big to suggest the small size of those characters, as if a cup of Turkish coffee was bigger than the actor. There were engineers who took up this challenge, and how many there were; more than twenty engineers from the whole range of specialties in our wing alone. Ghassan Mardini (an architectural engineer) and Jamil Adnahali (a civil engineering student), Karam Kurdia, and others worked long days producing the decor, building the required models using wood, fabric, and ropes made from the threads of nylon bags, and a special paste, which had egg cartons, bread, and some local glues among its ingredients. All of this ran parallel to the daily rehearsals and Bader’s anxious and tense supervision and following of the work details like that of any professional director. Bader was not scared of failure, rather his fear appeared more specific: that his show would suffer from the slightest shortcoming or mishap.

Scenography? Why not?

“We have to use scenography which utilizes the moving lighting in the scene of the temple burning.” With this simplicity, Bader Zakaria expressed his rebellious idea in applying in the conditions of prison during preparations for the play “Forget Herostratus!” (also by Gorin), and as long as Bader wanted it, so it would be. Screens of white cloth would be placed in a well-studied manner to reflect the moving yellow and red lighting, to suggest the movement of flames of fire and their reflections over the whole of the theater space. That point, when it was showed, was a theatrical scene that thrilled the audience, and it could be said that it puzzled them too. One of the audience members during the show whispered, “My God, how did this happen?”

Actors born on the stage

We could put all of the foregoing to one side, and on the other side would be the surprising performance of the actors, who imposed (and this doesn’t happen much in the world of the prison) a stunning sanctity and silence during the run of the show, of course with the exception of their normal interaction as with any venerable theatrical audience. Any viewer of the play would not believe that this was the first time for those actors, and some would comment that they must have been born and lived on stage. Later on, after the showing of the play “Forget Herostratus!” many knowledgeable people would confirm that Adnan al-Bab (an agricultural engineer) and Khaldoun Dou (an electrical engineering student) both possessed skills and talents in acting not any less than those of first-class professional actors in the Syrian National Theatre. I remember now my comment at the time, that Khaldoun’s stunning performance immediately reminded me of the roles of the great Syrian actor Youssef Hanna. Likewise, the civil engineering student, Basil Khouri, stood out in his role as the spinster (with breasts made of balloons) in “The Committee.” And in a question-and-answer session held after “Herostratus,” someone commented firmly that no actress in the experienced amateur teams in Syria could embody the role of the queen in the play as did Rashad Abd al-Qadir (imprisoned while still a high-school student).

Khalil Muslim (a visual artist) played the villain “Crisip” in “Forget Herostratus” with impressive distinction, with his own special mastery of that annoying evil laugh, which prompted a friend to jokingly ask the director to change Khalil’s role before we came to hate him. In one of the final rehearsals, the costumes were light in the extremely cold weather, and all of the members of the team got sick. Khalil informed me that day that he, because of the cold, had performed his role in the “general rehearsal” going through the movements without speaking. After he finished performing one of the scenes, he looked in the direction of Bader to see his impression and if he was content. Bader was crying from how much he was moved.

Bader’s role was not limited to leading the team and direction, but he also participated in acting in most of the plays. It is no exaggeration to say that his preoccupation with directing made us lose him in many of the plays as a spectacular actor, as he had to suffice with mere supporting roles. However, in the play “The Papers” taken from the story by Aziz Nesin, he surprised us as an actor just as much as he could as a director. Maan Ibrahim (a student in electrical engineering), who shared the protagonist role of the play, did so as well.

Should we wish to talk about a purely local production put out by the Saydnaya theater, the obvious case would be the play “The Lockup.” Muhammad Ibrahim (an electrical engineer) wrote it, and the group performed it under Bader’s direction. It was Muhammad’s first time playwriting, which made that play an experience special to the Saydnaya team from A to Z. Someone commented in those days: “Oh God! Who gave himself the right to imprison these people and steal all these years from their lives?”

Outside performances

The news of our exciting theater performances spread from our wing (through the prisoners’ special means of communication) to the rest of the wings. Thus our old comrades (imprisoned before us, between 1980 and 1986) who were in the J wing of the second floor asked for their right to attend and view the show. “Very well, we will move to your wing and present the show, so get ready,” was our team’s response. As such, our team had to move to the other wing without the prison administration’s knowledge to present the play “Forget Herostratus” which had recently been shown in our wing. Is this possible in the conditions of prison? Indeed.

With the loss of several pieces of decor that were unable to be hidden or passed through while moving for this “outside” performance, the operation passed easily after a very detailed coordination that continued for a not-short period of time until the clock ticked zero. In the outdoor recess space, the members of the team switched places with several “doubles” from the other wing, while we were all together. The theater group, in addition to the musicians, went up to the hosting wing and our friends who had volunteered to stand in for us, after they had been coordinated with beforehand and with great precision, returned with us to our wing, so there would be no changes in the numbers to lead to grave collective punishments. If it took place with the exact numbers, people switching places in their wings was not something the guards would notice, as we were naught but our number in the wing; inspected every night with a mere head count. Our names, like our lives, did not mean much to the prison administration, which knew nothing about the amazing experience of the Saydnaya theater team.

The show in the hosting wing happened, and it created (as we found out later) to some degree a new atmosphere in our friends’ monotonous lives. Just as it had happened with us after every new play, there was a critical symposium after the show; sparking discussions that did not end until days later. After several days, during the next break time, we switched back. Thus did the team return from its journey and its first (and of course last) outside show, and that stressful adventure ended peacefully.

The Oracle of Delphi

During the preparations for the play “Forget Hetrostratus,” the team needed to occupy a dormitory for a period of two weeks to carry out rehearsals. An agreement was made with us, the residents of the seventh dorm, to empty out and disperse in the other dormitories for that period. During the fever of day and night rehearsals there remained a dilemma we hadn’t solved yet; the costume of Karim Al-Sayed (a civil engineer who passed away in the fall of 2014) who would play the role of the Oracle of Delphi. Every time Jamal Al-Kurdi (a student in architectural engineering) would prepare a design for the black robes of the Oracle and show it to Bader, the demanding director would tighten his lips in an expression of his lack of conviction. One of the nights, while Bader was drowning in his papers at a late hour while all the members of team were asleep, he dozed off on his bed, with his head leaning on the wall. In his sleep, Bader found the appropriate costume for the Oracle. He woke up as if he had been bitten and pounced on Kareem, shaking and waking him up. The terrified Kareem jumped up from his sleep in shock and did not hesitate to surrender to the mad frenzy of Bader, who wrapped a piece of black cloth around his body in a special way, and fastened it with pins. When he had finished putting on the costume, he asked Kareem to remember precisely how he had done it for the show. The half-asleep and shocked Kareem said to Bader: “If I discover one day I can’t have children, you will be the reason.”

Abu Mahjoub Swift

It was not always possible to have the trainings and rehearsals at the end of the wing, so the team would be forced to borrow and use the dorms. During the preparations for the Swift show, Bader informed the residents of the dorms that he wanted, every day, to empty them out for a period of four or five hours. Of course, everyone agreed, with some fidgeting from some.

When our floor came down to the first dorm, whose residents were in the Communist Party – Political Bureau, it was emptied out, except for Abu Mahjoub (who was elderly compared to the team members), who was annoyed that day for some reason. With the weather intensely cold, and the prospect of staying in bed warmer, he refused to leave the dorm. “No rehearsal, no… I ain’t gonna leave my mattress,” replied the good Abu Mahjoub. His mattress was in the middle of what was supposed to be the stage, the area that Jamal al-Kurdi would occupy as Swift, who remained silent throughout the show. Quickly, Bader asked Jamal to step down from the rehearsal and inform the members of the team that Abu Mahjoub would be Swift that day. After the rehearsal finished and Abu Mahjoub (the silent Swift) witnessed how much effort, exhaustion, and seriousness went into the work, he came to the members of the team with tears in his eyes, apologizing: “Guys, forgive me, take the dorm, take my mattress, take my clothes, take whatever you want.”

No smoking: strict theatrical traditions

During the entrance for the presentation of Swift, every individual in the audience carried in their hand a scrap of paper with some writing and something resembling a seal to make it look like a theater ticket, with one of the team members at the door to take the ticket and verify its authenticity. “Abu Ziyad, what are these pieces of paper with seals on them, you crazy man?” I asked Bader. “They’re entrance tickets to make sure of the daily number of attendees and avoid any chaos. As for the seal, we made it out of wood to make sure of the card and for there not to be any defects.”

Later, Bader would inform me that these were theatrical traditions which we had to experience and respect in all of their details and particulars, even those which appeared unnecessary in this prison. In a session following the show, Muhammad Ibrahim went even further, saying, “I felt while holding the ticket in my hand that I was actually at the door of a theater, and my girlfriend would come after a little while, for us to enter and watch the play together.”

Naturally, smoking was prohibited during the show. The day of the (external) showing of Herostratus, Munif Mulhim (a.k.a. Abu Waleem, previously a police officer) was hesitant about attending the show or not. “They’re the Adnan and Jamal and Kareem that I know. So, why I am going to attend and watch them here?” Abu Waleem said to his friend Bader. In the final settlement, after it was insisted that he attend, he stipulated that he would leave when he felt bored, and because opening the door was prohibited during the show, if he wanted to leave, they agreed he would sit in the last row near the door in front of Bader who was directing the lighting in that play in addition to directing. Bader would inform me later, “Abu Waleem stayed the two hours and fifteen minutes (the length of the show) sitting down and supporting his upraised arm on his knee. He had in his raised hand an unlit cigarette, waiting to leave the show to light it.” At the end of the show, Munif, who of course did not leave, would comment, “Those were not the Adnan and Kareem and Ali and Haytham that I know, those demons were real actors who I had not seen or met previously.”

Open-air interactive theater cafe

Ali al-Hakeem (a civil engineering student) was one of the founding Saydnaya theater team members, and he distinguished himself in his personal life, alongside his friend Jamal al-Kurdi who was also an actor, with unique powers of ridicule; the ridicule of anything. Yes, any thing or person could draw his ridicule, even when undeserved. The idea of establishing a “theater cafe” occurred to Ali. Quickly, whatever was needed for the place was prepared in the clearing at the end of the wing. Imad Fatoom (a worker in the private sector, who passed away in the spring of 2014), Yassin Shamsin (an employee in the Military Housing Establishment) and Khalil Muslim worked with him on the project. Suddenly, Ali transformed into his new name, “al-Muallim Fshayfish,” the owner of the cafe which carried the same name, and the other three took turns as waiters. (Fshayfish is the name of a place on the corniche of Latakia, which Ali tried to evoke with his crazy idea to name the cafe after it.)

Without any previous knowledge of improvisational comedy, or outdoor performances, or improvised dialogue between actor and audience, al-Muallim Fshayfish announced the opening of his cafe, which would serve tea and coffee to its potential customers. Anyone who arrived to the place had to instantly turn into an actor, otherwise it would be a weird or awkward situation or even a caricature in that environment. As such, those who feared embarking on such an experience would not dare so much as approach the place. The anxious waiter (played by Imad Fatoom) married to two women, who carried his concerns and sufferings from his two wives from the house to the cafe and would vent his complaints to any customer in the cafe, informing him of his (supposed) family problems, was always a noticeable and distinctive part of the cafe.

The Saydnaya hakawati storyteller

The crazy ideas of Ali al-Hakeem, which could not occur to anyone else, were executed in this theater: green gambling tables, bets on the results of the European Football Cup, the International Championship of Chess and Backgammon, April Fools’ Day, and other almost daily pranks. Ayman Qaroot (a student in philosophy) performed the role of a hakawati storyteller. Ayman was also one of the distinctive actors of the team, who would attend every day in the form of an old man wearing a red fez, a shirwal, and a shawl over his shoulders, in addition to some old glasses lying on his nose which set apart the character he played with an unbelievable mastery. The hakawati would narrate daily from the One Thousand and One Nights, with creative additions inspired by the environment and realities of our daily lives in prison. These repeated departures from the text, in addition to special theatrical movements, created the comedic and satirical environment which he sought in presenting the daily passage.

Improvisation: the creative actor’s imagination

Other than the improvisations of the owner and workers of the cafe that were ongoing around the clock, in the Fshayfish stage, anyone who wanted could participate and engage in some form of improvisation, however they agreed. One afternoon, without the knowledge of al-Muallim Fshayfish, both Bader and Ayman Qaroot prepared themselves with costumes to play the roles of some qabaday bullies. They came to the cafe with glances disdainful of the rest of the customers. In accordance with their plan, they started a quarrel with one of the waiters, which quickly escalated to the point they hit al-Muallim Fshayfish, and the workers, and all the other customers of the café who intervened. The aggressors retreated after they had created anarchy and it looked like the contents of the place had been smashed. Ali would later inform me that for a moment he thought they were actually hitting him.

Daily, there were a number of cases of improvisation that anyone who spontaneously wanted to join could without any previous coordination. The most eye-catching of these was with the incomparably fertile imagination of Abd al-Karim Mutawwij (an agricultural engineering student) in his magic realist stories that he would narrate to many a person through creative improvisation that would suggest its narrator had truly lived through them.

Fshayfish, Gorbachev, and Dario Fo

In accordance with global events, Ali would change the routine of the cafe as necessary. During the attempted military coup against Gorbachev, then-leader of the Soviet Union, the cafe quickly harmonized with the new Russian situation. Fshayfish imposed a state of emergency, and all of the customers had to strictly adhere to the role to enter the cafe, even while moving around in the place. Durust Izzat (a visual artist) drew caricatures of al-Muallim Fshayfish corresponding to the Russian coup attempt and the state of emergency, which were hung up in the cafe. Thus did al-Muallim Fshayfish transform into a strict military dictator, dispatching orders, and with no knack for a smile; that smile which never left the cafe for a moment.

What Ali Hakeem did highly resembles what the great Italian director, playwright, and comedian Dario Fo did in his strenuous experiment that he named “the theater of the municipality” in Rome, by which Fo, with his team, would transform an abandoned place into a theatre of freedom with the individual efforts of the actors. Certainly, Dario Fo’s theater was not at that time the inspiration for Ali Hakeem or the Fshayfish café concept. However today, after a quarter century, I personally find that the comparison is a reasonable one; if we wanted to coin a term, we might call it “comparative theater.”

The accidental death of our theater

Dario Fo’s play “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” would be the last of our plays, as it was the date of our trials in the Supreme State Security Court. The team held a number of rehearsals, then they stopped for some time and resumed again. Throughout a whole year, this process repeated itself, and despite that, this fantastic play was unfortunately not able to see the light on the Saydnaya stage. Information began to reach us that we would soon be released from prison (that of course did not happen for years). This news had a strong effect on the psychological state on the prisoners in general, including individuals from the team. The rehearsals therefore ended permanently. This dramatic end to the Saydnaya theater came with much heartache. For Dario Fo’s play specifically was like a drama that suited our tragic existence in Assad Senior’s prison. It was one of the most famous plays of the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, which he wrote based on the true story of the death of an anarchist politician while in police detention. It is considered one of the most important examples of the political employment of dark comedy in theater.

Today, while reading the reports, and listening to the stories of the survivors from the (slaughterhouse of) Saydnaya about thousands of cases of execution that were and still are carried out in the time of Assad Junior, we repeat (to ourselves at least, we its previous detainees) that Saydnaya prison at that time was a five-star tourist resort compared to the crimes we see today. At that time, the true Syrian hell that Assad Senior created, and in which he annihilated tens of thousands of Syrian souls, was the Tadmor (Palmyra) prison.