LONDON—The lights stay low throughout the play, X-Adra, creating the sense of a cell-like space on stage. Halfway through, the actors, all former inmates of Adra prison in Syria, start scribbling frantically on the floor, sending clouds of chalk dust up into the air.
For the audience, the performance is uncomfortable to watch. The actors say re-living their incarceration on stage is “exhausting” and “difficult.” But the performers believe it’s their duty to remind the world of the hundreds of thousands who have perished inside Syria’s prisons and untold numbers still languishing behind bars. “It can be quite cathartic but at the same time it’s hard to go back,” says Kenda Zaour, who was imprisoned for two months in 2012.
The U.K. premier of the play last week, following a performance in France, was part of the program at Shubbak Festival, a biennial showcase of contemporary Arab culture in London. Hend, Ali (formerly Ola), Mariam, Rowaida, Kenda and Hend Mugale recount their time in the Adra prison near Damascus from the 1980s to the Syrian revolution.
Their tales are framed by the haunting voice of singer Hala Omran, who wanders barefoot between speakers on the sparsely furnished stage. At Battersea Arts Centre, where X-Adra was performed, audiences are free come and go and make noise, as they wish. But during the performance, the audience stayed stock still and silent as they listened to stories of systematic torture, agonizing uncertainty, lost family members and hellish conditions.
Roweida Kanaan was a journalist, accused of working for an opposition TV channel. Bound and blindfolded on the day of her arrest, she recalls looking down and seeing her best friend Khaled’s feet through a chink in the fabric. In prison, she would search for his face among the corpses of people killed under torture. She never saw it, but learned later that he was dead.
Violence is kept to a minimum in this production, so the focus stays on the women and their stories. “I was amazed by the incredible presence and participation of the Syrian women in the revolution,” director Ramzi Choukair said. He wanted to spotlight individual testimonies, “but also to say that what happened to them can happen to anyone anywhere in the world.”
One by one, the women recount the circumstances of their arrest. Zaour, who had recently graduated from the Institute of Tourism, wanted to protest peacefully against the incarceration of civil prisoners. Wearing wedding dresses, she and three friends headed to a busy market in central Damascus and waved banners proclaiming their love for Syria. “That was the moment that broke the fear inside me forever,” she says. Minutes later security services arrested them.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights records 127,916 currently detained or disappeared by the government since the beginning of the conflict and says 14,000 prisoners have died as a result of torture.
A 2016 United Nations report described inhumane conditions in Syrian prisons that amounted to mass extermination. Former inmates have detailed mass hangings, torture and starvation, but rights groups say there has been no sustained effort to hold the regime to account. “Some countries have been vocal about the practices of arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearance of people carried out by the Syrian government but no concrete steps have been taken to pressure the government to end these violations,” said Diana Semaan, a Syria expert at Amnesty International.
[Get more articles like this in your inbox. Get our newsletter .]
Art can help keep the plight of those still incarcerated in the public eye, says Semaan. “We have collaborated with many of the families of the disappeared to raise awareness on this issue through showcasing objects left behind by victims and narrating the stories of disappearance and the horrible impact on their families,” she said.
For Ali Hamidi, who used to go by Ola before a gender transition, the day of his capture was terrifying. “I was beaten up so badly,” he says. He was 21 years old at the time. “I used to drive injured soldiers to the Jordanian border so they could get help,” Hamidi explains. In a letter to his mother from prison, he wrote that: “Over here, you learn that nothing is as important as freedom.” After he was released, he made his way to Turkey and later walked to Germany, a grueling journey that took him nearly two months.
Hamidi said in an interview that he would comfort the others after they’d been tortured, “even though I was weak.” After developing diabetes and deep-vein thrombosis in prison, he shut down and spent six months without uttering a word. “I used to write on the wall all the time, anything that came into my mind, names of my siblings, my family.”
He spent a year and six months in the women’s prison, living with up to thirty people in a cramped cell. At one point, the others were pardoned and he was left alone, which was worse. “I would just wait and wait and wait.” He was released after being forced to sign a blank piece of paper that was used to transfer his $50,000 inheritance over to the regime. He was given 10 days to get out of Syria.
At the beginning of the play, which is performed in Arabic with English subtitles, the performers repeat the advice they clung to inside. “Don’t admit anything, even if they threaten rape.” “Remember your loved ones.” “If you believe in God, pray.” The isolation and confusion of the early days in prison are captured in the opening scene. “Is there anyone here?” the actors ask in frightened voices, pacing the stage, heads bent.
Their accounts of life inside Adra prison capture the surreal experience of boredom, fear, isolation, claustrophobia and eerie silence, punctuated, at night, by screams. They describe the fraught desperation for word from their families, and terror that this might mean news of death; the constant hope of release and the worry that a guard unlocking the cell means a fate that’s even worse.
Hend Mugale, 58, used to have nightmares that her daughter was also in prison and then bang her head against the wall, strangely convinced her child was in the neighboring cell. “I could cope with anything, except the thought of her being in this place,” she told the audience. Later, prisoners who shared a cell with her daughter said the girl used to stand next to the wall after hearing her mother’s voice singing a song next door.
For Kanaan, who now lives in Paris, pain floods to the surface in each performance but she’s determined that those who suffered and died inside are not forgotten. “Theatre is one of the forms of resistance,” she says. At some point in her monologue she stops addressing the audience and talks instead to the memory of her best friend, Khaled, who she last saw on the day they were both arrested. I think of you every day, all the time, she says. “I miss you immensely.”