A prisoner dreams of a better future for his kids. Another yearns to be more like his mother, who encompasses all the qualities he desires to have himself. Yet another has been memorising the Quran and found it to bring more meaning to his faith.
These (and more) are some of the stories that have inspired a new book, featuring essays by Dubai inmates, that is in the works for release early next year.
The book is the result of the Emirates Literature Foundation’s ‘Writers in Residence’ project, which returned to Dubai’s prisons for its second edition last week, as part of the initiative called ‘From The Inside Out’ — the first of its kind in the Arab world.
This year’s programme saw editor Allison K Williams and author Jessica Jarlvi host concentrated creative writing workshops for male and female inmates during a week-long writers’ residency at Dubai Punitive and Correctional Institutions.
Explaining the theme of the creative challenge, ‘Change the Story’, UAE resident Allison said: “We did a lot of thinking about how the story can change when you understand more about a character or person, and how every villain is the hero of their own story.”
The entire process was quite “therapeutic”, found Jessica, who spoke of the inmates’ journey of transformation by the end of the week. “In the beginning, the energy was quite low, as inmates have been feeling the effects of Covid restrictions in prison, just as we have been in the outside world. They’ve had limited visits from family.”
There was also the matter of gaining their trust, she added. “The women I was teaching seemed to have a lot of walls built up at first, but over the week, we saw a lot of laughter and tears in the room.”
One of their other challenges turned out to be language-related. “I was a bit worried on the first day, because half my group couldn’t speak or write English, and I don’t speak Arabic or Farsi,” said Allison, who regularly hosts finish-your-book writing retreats. “I later found out that, instead of handpicking only those who had good English, the organisers had extended the opportunity to anyone who was interested.”
It turned out to be the silver lining of the project for the editor, who recalled how group members with more proficiency in the language worked together with those who struggled. The end result was a series of handwritten multi-page essays as well as short reflections that are being collated for publication.
Writing opportunities such as these stand to have a real impact on inmates’ rehabilitation, the authors noted. “Some women felt like no one would want to read what they’d written, but 99 per cent of the time, I found their stories intriguing. The workshops were an opportunity for them to be heard and seen,” said Jessica, whose latest book deals with the twin themes of mental health and crime.
Echoing those sentiments, Allison said it was a chance for the men in her group to communicate to the outside world that they’re “still here and not forgotten”, even though they’re in prison. “Being in prison can be a dehumanising experience. This was a chance for them to reconnect with the human beings who will, one day, join us again in the world.”
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