Meet the authors who enabled prison inmates in Dubai to tell their stories
Sitting in the confines of a prison cell, a son imagines what 'tomorrow' would mean to his father. As he delves deep into their relationship, he understands that the future his father looks forward to is in his son. It is akin to a relay race, where the older generation passes the mantle to the younger one. And then there is a young mother narrating stories to her child born inside prison. The stories, that draw heavily from the world outside, seem fairytales to the child who has spent her formative years in the jail.
'Tomorrow' is a loaded word for those who see uncertainties of future outweighing its promises. When authors Clare Mackintosh and Annabel Kantaria visited Dubai Central Prison to conduct a writing workshop for the inmates, they may not have been wrong in their assumption that the theme - 'tomorrow' - would inspire stories of hope. "We assumed they would be desperate to get out of prison," says Mackintosh during a telecon from the UK, where she resides. "But almost all of them were apprehensive about the future, about not knowing how the world would look like, how they will be received by their friends and family, how they'd earn to make a living."
Imagining a tomorrow
It is this tomorrow - with all its hopes and uncertainties - that is at the heart of a collection of essays written by the prisoners with a piece each by Kantaria and Mackintosh. A unique project of its kind in this part of the world, Tomorrow, I Will Fly is the result of a collaboration between Emirates Literature Foundation and Dubai Police and will be released at the festival next week. The authors - Mackintosh and Kantaria - held writing workshops in the prison for men and women and trained them to articulate themselves through words. "The first authors to visit were Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Alex Wheatle from the UK in 2018," says Isobel Abulhoul, CEO and trustee, Emirates Literature Foundation. "We know that support with writing and engaging with stories can produce life-long skills, reducing the risk of re-offending, as well as providing inmates with ways of processing their own experiences and emotions. It can be a lifeline for those who need it most. We all want to be seen and heard, and for the inmates, this truly helps them feel like they are."
Dilemmas need vocabulary, and Mackintosh and Kantaria were tasked with offering one to the inmates. They divided their student base into men and women and while Mackintosh took charge of the former, Kantaria taught women. Teaching a room full of male convicts wouldn't have been easy for Mackintosh had it not been for her experience of serving as a police officer in Oxford for 12 years - a job she quit after her son's untimely death. While visiting a prison may have seemed like navigating a familiar terrain, Mackintosh maintains that the physical space is a lot different. "In the UK, there are many old prisons and facilities aren't as good. The Dubai Central Prison, however, is very big in comparison." Kantaria adds that there is a beauty salon, which the female inmates can freely use on certain days, and a library. "It's like a little town."
With a wealth of experience in the field, Mackintosh - who is also an award-winning author whose books have sold about two million copies - came with an obvious advantage. As part of her job at Oxford, she had focused on restorative justice, a programme where both criminals and victims are brought together to understand where the other person comes from. Which is why she also found herself being more adept at handling a range of emotions, and was least unnerved by being the sole woman in a room full of male convicts. "I think I had an advantage," she says. "I wasn't scared or intimidated about working with inmates. Perhaps I had a great understanding of what brings somebody to this difficult point in life. I am not judgemental about it. From a writing point of view, I wanted to unlock their creativity."
The question is - how do you unlock the creativity of those in physical confinement? For Kantaria as well as Mackintosh, it meant taking small steps towards winning the inmates' trust and letting their imaginations loose. Kantaria worked with women who were not only looking forward to the workshops, but had been voracious readers themselves. "The women were gifted. Some of them would sketch so beautifully that I can totally imagine their works being sold at an exhibition. One woman made a shoulder bag using labels on water bottles." Their nervousness was palpable. "They had spent close to 12-13 years in the prison and often wondered how the world would perceive them," she says. Writing then became a means of creating another identity for themselves.
Writing is nothing if it doesn't make you feel. The men in the prison were more reserved and found it more difficult to open up to a woman teaching them to articulate themselves through pen and paper. "One of my students actually said, 'I don't know what it's going to do to me if I allow myself to feel.' In such an environment, inmates have to stay very strong to be able to cope. We build a defensive wall around ourselves. One of the ways I coped with the grief of losing my son was not to think about it at all. It makes it difficult to break through and write about emotion. In the context of prison, when decisions are made for you all the time, you have no control. And writing is about control," says Mackintosh.
This odd cocktail of letting one's imagination fly from the confines of a prison led to some fantastic realisations. "When you're in prison, almost every decision is made for you. You don't know what you will eat, what you will do. It's almost like being a child," says Mackintosh. "Some of the inmates had spent many years having someone think for them. I wanted to help them think about situations outside the prison. I wanted to encourage them to think positively."
Mackintosh employed a strategy called mind-mapping to help prisoners stretch their imagination. "It is a concept where you write an idea and then keep adding words that are related to that concept. For instance, if you ask someone to write flower, the other words associated with it - like petals and stems - naturally come to mind. It's a way of stretching one's creative muscle."
Technical exercises aside, the authors would routinely read out to the inmates to elicit reactions. "Once, we read a poem called Warning by Jenny Joseph. It's about a woman talking about how she will wear the colour purple when she grows old and will do other crazy things because she couldn't do them now," says Mackintosh. The verse resonated with the prisoners and sparked a conversation on what they would do once they were out.
It also helped that, like the city itself, the regional diversity extended to the prison too. For Mackintosh and Kantaria, it meant the discussions were enriching, and as the former recalls, a lesson as basic as one on clichés would not work because "I'd prepared it from the point of view of English language".
The process of editing, both admit, was rather long and laborious, but Kantaria and Mackintosh are happy that, finally, the inmates have been given a voice. Kantaria cannot emphasise enough on the importance of their newfound ability to write. "It can help them understand what happened to them. It can help them plan where they want to go from here. It can make them think about the mistakes they may have made. It helps them reflect and inspire hope among other inmates. To write, you need empathy, and empathy is a lot about rehabilitation."
Perhaps writing itself is the first step towards healing!