‘The most moving essay?’ Clare Mackintosh repeats my question. The telephone is silent for a moment. The British author appears to be rewinding her thoughts to the past few months when she and Dubai-based writer Annabel Kantaria conducted a first-of-its-kind writing workshop for inmates in Dubai’s Central Prison. At the end of the session, all 28 participants turned in an essay on the theme of ‘tomorrow’.
‘There were many [that moved me],’ says the award-winning bestselling author, in a phone interview from London. ‘One man’s essay was about the moment when he would see his wife again, and his fears of her tolerating him. “It isn’t her hatred that I fear, but her tolerance,” he wrote, “because, to be tolerated is a terrible thing”. The story was so honest, so insightful...’
Another essay that touched her was of a man who wrote about how he felt he had disappointed his father. ‘It’s a beautiful essay about the journey he’s been on learning more about his relationship with his father, and what makes the future between father and son.’
Clare is not new to working with prison inmates having spent 12 years in the British police force. ‘I’d always wanted to be a writer,’ she says. ‘I only didn’t see it as a viable career.’
But while in the department, she realised that ‘being a police officer is being a storyteller’.
A police officer, she believes, essentially finds out the stories behind crimes, what happened to victims, listens to witnesses, their histories and versions of what happened, and interview criminals to learn how and why they commit crimes.
‘I gradually became more interested in human nature and stories that led people to particular crisis points in their life,’ she says. ‘And now as a published writer that’s what I focus on in my books.’
Clare was among a group of authors who participated in an initiative led by the Emirates Literature Foundation (ELF), Dubai Central Prison and Dubai Police that involved talking to inmates about books, reading and writing. The project had been ongoing for a couple of years but early last year it took a new, unique direction.
Realising the impact the author talks were having on inmates during a visit to the Dubai prison in March 2019, Clare wondered if they could do more. Sending authors into the prison to speak about books and writing, while good, was only one half of the conversation. To complete the circle and create a genuine dialogue, it was important the authors listen to the inmates as well, she felt.
‘I asked Annabel, who I’d met at the lit fest earlier, if she would like to help,’ says Clare. She quickly agreed.
Annabel, winner of the inaugural Montegrappa Writing Prize at the 2013 Emirates Lit fest, remembers the moment like it was yesterday. ‘I’d been to the women’s prison to give a talk and conduct a reading workshop and was blown away to see how hungry the girls were for knowledge,’ says the British expat. ‘They were really interested in writing and learning.’
Annabel mentioned this to Clare and the idea of a writing workshop that would result in an anthology of works by inmates took shape. Next step was bouncing the idea off Isobel Aboulhoul, CEO and trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation, who immediately agreed to it and began negotiating with stakeholders and securing necessary permissions to realise the project.
‘Isobel wanted to set up something that would be really good and could be repeated,’ says Annabel, in an interview in her tastefully decorated villa in Dubai’s Arabian Ranches.
Even as the ELF got busy getting the project up and running, Clare and Annabel began fine-tuning the content and structure of the workshop attempting to create a model that could be replicated easily.
Late last year, the workshop details were announced in both jails and within days 15 female and 13 male inmates signed up for it.
While Clare opted to conduct the workshops in the men’s section, Annabel set off to the women’s section.
‘Clare and I worked really hard to create the skeleton plan of the project that went from teaching them how to brainstorm ideas to narrowing down exactly what they are going to be writing,’ says Annabel, who has four novels to her credit and is working on her fifth.
During the week-long workshop that began in November, the two authors discussed expressive writing, similes, metaphors, writing styles, creating rough drafts, how to start, to plan the middle and the end.
Structure, clearly, was paramount. ‘That’s like the foundation,’ stresses Clare. ‘We also read a lot of articles and looked at why they were impactful, what was it about the beginning that hooked us in and what it was about the ending that left us satisfied…’
After five days of classes, the inmates were told to start writing and given a week to submit their stories.
Was it easy for the inmates to translate their thoughts and feelings into words? I ask.
‘It wasn’t for many,’ says Clare. Most had only done academic, scientific or technical writing so getting them to embark on a creative project like this one meant the authors had to give them lots of writing exercises to do and group work.
Then there was the emotional angle to contend with. ‘A man in my group stopped half way through a writing exercise saying he couldn’t cope with feelings the memories brought back,’ says the officer-turned-author. ‘He said: “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me if I allow myself to feel. I don’t know how much it’s going to hurt”.’
Clare believes people build a protective layer or wall around themselves during periods of intense stress to stop themselves from experiencing the loss, and to go through each day. ‘It’s important to be resilient and strong in prison, so inmates build up emotional walls deliberately to make sure they won’t be affected by what’s happened and what is happening.
‘But of course, when it comes to writing, we need to chip away the walls to get that emotion to flood on to the page because only then will we truly understand what the writers are trying to say,’ she says.
It was a tad different in the women’s section. ‘The women were so excited to be participating in the workshop, and although they were expected to submit their stories a week after we finished the class, by the third morning of the session, submissions started piling up on my desk,’ says Annabel.
Was there a particular story that moved her?
‘Many of them were,’ she admits. ‘There was a lot of honesty in their stories.’ The British expat recalls how one inmate talked about growing up in a village where there was no electricity or proper roads. ‘When she heard from a friend that there was electricity in cities, she [innocently] thought that meant it would be like day all the time.’
But a story that truly moved the author was one written by an inmate who was pregnant when she was jailed and had her baby in the correctional centre.
‘She wrote her essay as a story to her daughter describing things that exist outside the jail, which her daughter had never seen. “My daughter doesn’t know, for instance, that there are things like a beach or a sea or a train or mountains, or that there is this thing called money which can be used to buy things like toys or fine dresses from places called shops…”, the inmate said. In her essay, she writes “I can’t wait for you to go outside and experience all these things”.’
Annabel was also touched by the fact that hope was a strong element in many essays. ‘Hope and growth were words that came up frequently in the stories,’ she says. ‘For instance, one lady found her jail term to be a positive thing saying it allowed her to learn so much about herself and about God. She realised that the life she’d lived was perhaps one she’d lived away, and was sure she didn’t want to live the same kind of life once she was out.’
Once the project was over, Annabel and Clare were clear about minimising their involvement on the editorial side. ‘This books is an anthology of unedited thoughts. They are true, authentic and honest thoughts of men and women serving time in prison,’ says Clare. ‘We’ve worked to strengthen their story-telling, but their thoughts have not been changed, and the words are their own.’
How did the project change you, I ask Annabel.
‘I am proud of myself for doing it,’ she says, gently pushing back a few strands of hair falling over her forehead. ‘It was very humbling and made me think a lot about freedom.’
Admitting it was exhausting and emotionally very moving, she says that by the end of the week she had bonded strongly with the group. ‘I’m hoping to go back and help them develop their skills in writing, maybe teach them other things.
‘The prisoners got so much out of it. They felt valued and were blown away to know that people outside the jail might want to read their stories.’
Clare seconds that. ‘The project was very therapeutic for the inmates,’ she says. ‘It led to a great deal of introspection – so healthy and necessary for rehabilitation.’
Given a chance, she hopes to use this model in prisons in the UK or elsewhere where there is a high population of English-speaking people.
‘Inmates are simply individuals who travelled through different paths and ended up in a very difficult situation. They are still people who have identities… voices [that need to be heard].’
They are true bookworms
Dr Mansoor Anwar Habib is not new to the world of letters. His Arabic book, whose title roughly translated to English means The Carpenter’s Door is Broken, deals with mental well-being issues and was showcased at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature among other book fests over the past few years.
The head of Happiness and Tolerance, Human Resource & Corporate Training at Emirates Integrated Telecommunication company in Dubai, Dr Mansoor is also a regular speaker on mental health awareness.
So when he learnt that the ELF was initiating a programme to help inmates in correctional institutes, he offered to volunteer as a speaker. ‘I wanted to tell them that being in prison is not the end of the world; it could be seen as an opportunity to discover the best in you,’ says the cheerful doctor.
The first session two years ago ‘was enriching for the inmates,’ he says, adding he was pleasantly surprised to note that some of them were true bookworms. ‘In my talks with them, I tried to focus on books on self-development, on the history of the UAE,’ says the doctor.
He is happy that the authorities are approaching inmates from a humanitarian perspective. ‘They don’t see them as prisoners but as people who need help and rehabilitation and are willing to offer them a helping hand.’
Dr Mansoor’s experiences with the ELF initiative and meeting the inmates has encouraged him to pen a novel. ‘It will hopefully offer new insights into the philosophy and psychology of prisoners and correction centres,’ he says.