There is a muted metallic clang followed by a soft click as the large iron gates shut firmly behind us. We – Corporal Aamir Muhammad Miran and I – are inside Dubai’s central jail, officially known as the General Department of Punitive and Correctional Establishments in Al Aweer.
The prison precincts are silent and I turn to look at the gates – heavy, metallic grey and cold – once again as Aamir presents some documents to a security officer. The official, a cheerful gentleman exchanges some pleasantries with Aamir, peruses the papers in detail, gives me a pat down and waves us through.
Inside the men’s wing of the facility, Aamir leads me to a meeting room – not unlike a classroom – where some 25 chairs with flip-top tables are arranged in five neat rows facing a white leather sofa. ‘Please wait here, I’ll be back in a minute,’ he says, offering me a bottle of water. Helpful and with a pleasing demeanour, Aamir has been assigned to be with me during the entire time I will be spending in the facility.
I make myself comfortable on the sofa, check my voice recorder – the only electronic device I have been allowed to take inside – review a set of questions I have prepared before looking around my surrounds as the import of my visit to the jail begins to sink in.
In a first of its kind, Friday is the only magazine that has been granted exclusive access into Dubai’s central prison to speak with a few inmates who have been part of a unique initiative – the first of its kind in the country.
Organised by the Emirates Literature Foundation and Dubai Police, a week-long writing workshop was conducted by two award-winning authors, UK-based Clare Mackintosh and UAE-based Annabel Kantaria, for a group of male and female inmates, separately, inside the prison. At the end of the workshop, each inmate was expected to turn in an essay or a short story. The theme: Tomorrow.
Their works, compiled in a book titled Tomorrow, I Will Fly (the title is taken from a piece written by a woman inmate, but more about her and her story later), was launched at the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and if reactions of readers who had a chance to read a copy is anything to go by, it is unputdownable.
I had been waiting for a couple of weeks for the official clearances to come through, keen to find out more about the inmates’ journey in the world of letters. Then, on a Sunday morning, I received the permissions and was told I could visit the centre the following Tuesday.
Now, looking out from the facility’s meeting room, I notice a small vegetable garden where a few inmates are busy tending the green plot. Vines of cucumber and squash curl up a sturdy lattice frame while a few tomato plants grow lush nearby; from a rod above the frame hangs a set of hydroponic trays in which herbs, too, are being raised.
Even as I am admiring the garden, Aamir returns. With three inmates. Dressed in regulation whites of the correctional facility, they take their seats in the meeting room and appear as keen to talk about their writing journey as I am to know about it. (Upon request, names of all inmates have been changed to protect their identities.)
Since Xavier is seated closest to me, I start with him asking him what led him to enrol for the writing workshop.
‘We have very little to do here [besides] staring at the walls,’ he says, admitting to nursing a passion for the written word. ‘The challenge was to formulate an idea. How do you express yourself?’
All about tomorrow
The workshop began on a Monday morning and at the end of the week, the inmates were told to turn in an essay on their Tomorrow. ‘Now, everyone has a different tomorrow, so suddenly you had to get your brain to start thinking. That was the exciting bit,’ he says.
Bestselling author Clare Mackintosh conducted the writing workshop for male inmates. Now a regular at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the British writer was part of a small team of authors who had been giving talks on books and writing to inmates of the correctional centre over the past two years. This time though, there was an added incentive: the inmates were told that their works would be published.
‘And who wouldn’t want to be a published author!’ asks Rashid, an inmate seated next to Xavier.
The participants were given a word count of 2,000 but with a couple of riders. ‘One, the piece had to be true. And two, personal,’ says Xavier. ‘So that limits the scope.’ Fiction being ruled out meant the wannabe writers had to draw deep from their reservoirs of experiences. Giving wings to creativity while remaining in a confined space could be limiting for some but Xavier is all praise for Clare. ‘She was good at getting us to focus on writing; you are writing 2,000 words under a very good editor,’ he says.
Did the workshop lead to a lot of introspection?
‘Huge,’ says Xavier, without a moment’s thought. ‘You can decide whether you are going to write quick and dirty or whether you are going to make it real. A lot of what I’m talking about internally [in my piece] is that in the future I’ll be honest about what I’ve done and where I go. So, honesty was the crucial part of what I wrote about.’
Rashid agrees. ‘Via writing you do a lot of introspection. You expose this creative side of yourself; you get to understand your style of writing. So, yes, the project was good.’
Then almost as an afterthought he adds: ‘Confinement gives you a lot of time to write… memoirs, short stories, novels.’
I ask him if he will share a bit about the plot of his story.
‘There were two ways of looking at the theme Tomorrow,’ says Rashid. ‘It can be your distant tomorrow or your close tomorrow. Most of us are stuck with what we know in here. If you start talking about tomorrow being a bright future and so on, you are going to get lost because you wouldn’t have a lot of resources [to rely on]. So I talked about what was going to happen to [me] tomorrow; where do I see myself tomorrow. And it worked out fine.’
I point my recorder to Rajesh, who has been staring at his clenched fists all the while, and ask him what his story plot is.
‘Since I’ve seen a lot in my life, I thought for long before concluding what is most difficult for me… what is the thing I most regret [having done]. I went from there,’ he says.
I turn to Xavier, who is resting his chin in the palm of his hand, to share a bit about his essay. ‘Jail,’ he says, stressing on the single syllable of the word, ‘is simply confinement. No one blames anyone in here. We are all like in a camp; there is no actual punishment involved. The punishment and guilt come when you meet people you’ve hurt or betrayed; or in the case of financial issues, when you’ve run off with someone’s cash. So you are insulated from any effect of what you have done.’
He closes his eyes and pauses before voicing his thoughts: ‘What I wrote about was how I would nerve myself to meet my responsibilities and how I would meet my future.’
Beacons of hope
The future, and how the inmates hope – and are preparing – to face it sailing on the wings of their words, is a common thread that binds all the stories in Tomorrow, I Will Fly.
Xavier, one of the inmates whose story opens the book, underscores the power of the pen, beginning his tale admitting that he can ‘never put right what I have done…’ but concluding saying ‘words are powerful and if I can fashion them to tell a story, I can use them to help’.
Xavier is not alone. Words and the ability to use them well, clearly have the power to heal, if the inmates’ responses after attending the workshop are any indication.
Rajesh, who is a tad reticent compared to the other two in the meeting room, opens up when I ask him if the writing programme has helped him in any way. ‘Writing is easy,’ he says, ‘and hard. Easy because I’d written a bit when I was in university; hard because when you are here, it’s difficult to expose your true feelings.
‘In jail, I had a lot of time to think about my feelings and put it into words.
My feelings are very complicated now. But the most interesting thing for me is that I had an opportunity to write… to tell people outside my true feelings. Penning [fiction] is easy, but writing about real feelings… that’s hard.’
Grateful to Clare for honing his writing skills, he admits that he initially struggled to find the correct direction. ‘But with Clare’s help I saw the clear path. She is a good guide. Now I feel I have a lot more things to write about. I want to write novels,’ he says.
Giving a definite direction to writing is something Clare helped Xavier with too. ‘When I started, my writing was [heading off] in different directions; Clare with her editing took it into one direction saving the reader from jumping all over the place.
‘She helped ensure my essay had a proper beginning, followed a relatively straightforward line and ended very clear,’ says Xavier.
Rashid, who enjoys reading thrillers and sci-fi, says he decided to get involved in the writing workshop to get to know ‘the different styles of writing’ and praises Clare for drawing out the best in him. ‘We worked with different authors, different methods but Clare was the first who sat with us and helped us to progress… to actually produce something.’
For Rajesh, ‘discussing other people’s works at the workshop opened up new ways for us to tackle a topic. That was truly enjoyable’. He plans to do some fiction writing once he finishes his term here. ‘I have many ideas and want to explore them. I want to translate a few books from other languages to English. But meanwhile, I’d like to participate in more such projects.’
A glimmer of hope flickers in Xavier’s eyes too as he talks about his tomorrow, hopeful that the future would bring more such projects. ‘Writing first person is not easy,’ he says, ‘particularly being honest.’ He is quick to add that writing fiction is tough too. For an untrained writer, not being constrained by realism can result ‘in the plot going all over the place’. He recalls an author lecture previously conducted in the facility where the speaker underscored the importance of planning a plot. ‘If you are writing history or reporting a story, it writes itself. But when it’s fiction, you need to know what you are doing; planning for fiction is a completely different thing,’ he says.
Is he planning to try his hand at fiction in the future? ‘I’d like to try both – memoir and fiction,’ he says.
Rashid seconds that, saying he is hoping to ‘write a lot more’. Post the writing workshop, he has started rewriting a memoir he had been working on. ‘I’d never written before so I didn’t know about structure or mind mapping which Clare taught us. The workshop experience taught me a great deal. I’m now restructuring my memoir into three parts.’
As I prepare to wind up our chat – I am to visit the women’s section of the prison too – I ask the three men if they are looking forward to reading Tomorrow, I Will Fly and if they have a message for readers.
‘I’m curious to know what the other inmates think about our pieces,’ says Xavier. ‘It’d be interesting to see which stories they’d relate to… or whether they would read it all.’
This book is a ‘first and a very important first’, he says, adding it offers an insight into the minds of inmates. ‘[The public] should read and think about the essays. Our voices are just ink on a page until someone actually reads each story and thinks about them; if they don’t, these voices will never be heard. People should read, then pause and think. The chance to speak [to the] outside is a very big deal.’
Rashid waits patiently for his chance to speak: ‘[After reading a story] close your eyes and try to picture the images in the stories. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and understand the emotions and energies that have gone into this,’ he suggests.
Rajesh says he is indebted to the jail authorities for having given him an opportunity to sharpen his skills. ‘They provided us with not just pens, paper and time, but also a lot of encouragement.
‘But I hope they will stock more books in the library.’
Xavier agrees. ‘More books would be welcome,’ he says, before clasping his head in his hands.
To the women’s section
On our way to the women’s section of the jail, I ask Corporal Aamir Mohammad for his take on the writing workshop project. ‘It was a new thing for me,’ he admits. ‘When Major Mohammed Abdulla Al Obedli [director of inmate training and education] gave me this task to coordinate, I was as excited as the inmates. I was proud to be working closely with Clare and Annabel on such a great project. It was something new for this facility and we were keen to take it forward and make it a success.’
Aamir’s tasks included preparing the list of 12 male inmates and he put down the names of a few who had earlier attended author talks. ‘I told them [the inmates] that this is going to be more than just a seminar where you will be listening; you are going to be trained to be writers and they were excited,’ he says. ‘And now I am happy to see that the book is launched.’
As we arrive at the exit of the men’s section, Aamir gives a signal and a mini bus arrives to ferry us to the women’s section. ‘I’ve previously worked on a few educational projects,’ he says, as we board the bus. ‘Some inmates are very bright and have a lot of creative ideas. If some ideas are doable, the authorities review it in detail and then take it forward.’ A few minutes later, we pull up outside the women’s section, and after my documents have been verified, am led down a squeaky clean corridor whose walls bear a neat coat of green paint to a meeting room that is close to the library. Taking one of the 15 swivel chairs that line either side of a rectangular table, I wait for the women to arrive.
I hear them before I see them. Looking through the glass doors, I see around seven women inmates dressed in the regulation dull red prison uniforms, some busy chatting with each other, troop in with a lady police officer.
Not unlike the male inmates, they too seem keen to share the stories behind their stories and their experiences at the writing workshop.
Anne, who is sitting right across me, says that writing a book had always been one of her dreams. ‘Actually, not just me; all of us here dreamt of writing a book,’ she says. ‘And here was our chance… to express our feelings.’
And how did she feel to put down her thoughts on paper?
‘It was therapeutic,’ she says. ‘Healing. Comforting.’
‘Yes,’ says Safia, looking down. ‘Although I enjoy reading, I’ve never had a chance to write. But when I did with the help of Annabel and Clare, it was healing. It helped me a great deal. There were a lot of things that I’d kept bottled within. People think I’m happy but I was bleeding inside. Putting down on paper everything I was carrying helped. I feel light now.’
She admits there were several moments when she felt like giving up convinced she could not go through the process of releasing her emotions through writing. ‘But Annabel was helpful. Very, very helpful; she kept encouraging us. Her words gave me the power to go on.’
If writing was therapy for Safia, for another inmate, Asha, ‘it was cathartic. It helped me a great deal,’ she says.
Lina, who is sitting next to Safia and eager to speak, says she signed up for the workshop hoping to learn a skill. ‘I’d always wanted to write a book but had no idea how to go about it,’ she says, adding that reading and writing act as destressors for her. ‘I’ve read all the books in our library.’
Rania, who is merrily swivelling in her chair, chips in: ‘I too love books. We even have e-readers here now. I can’t wait for more books to be uploaded in the readers.’
Asha, vivacious and bursting to share her story, says that she has always been a fan of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. ‘I used to be a regular at the fest,’ she says, giggling like a school girl. ‘I loved writing short stories while in school and have participated in competitions. I guess I was the first to sign up for the writing workshop.’
Several inmates reveal that they were a tad apprehensive that the authors ‘would be scared to meet with us. But Clare and Annabel were so very nice and encouraging’.
What tips did the writers offer them?
‘They told us to explore our talent. Clare told us that when writing your emotions, don’t go by rules. Just write what you feel. Pick the first word that comes to your mind. Don’t go searching for tougher words,’ says Asha who is planning to write a book that will be ‘part memoir part fiction’.
Do they have more stories to share?
Oh yes, say the women, almost in unison. Says Safia: ‘I want to write about what the world will think of me once I’m out of here. Will I be the same mother that I have been to my children before I arrived here? Will they trust me? Give me a second chance?’
I turn to Anne and ask her what her story revolved around. ‘It’s a piece I wrote for my daughter who is growing up here with me,’ she says. ‘All the things that I have gone through, all the things she does for me, how she is a support for me and helps me go through the day… What she misses. My Tomorrow is for her.’
Rachel, another inmate, tells me her story is one of survival. ‘I wrote about my mum who supported me, gave me the strength and optimism to have hope, and to look forward to a good tomorrow. She’s a cancer survivor.’
Asha’s story is on baby boomers and the environmental crisis. ‘I wrote about the future and about the youth… like my 17-year-old sister.’
What kind of books do you enjoy reading? I ask Asha.
‘Everything – from sci-fi and fantasy to horror and thrillers, anything except,’ the chirpy, happy demeanour turns serious for just a moment, ‘anything except romance. I hate romance. And self-help books.’
What has the process of writing helped them? I ask.
‘It means a great deal to me; I’m sure to all of us,’ says Asha. ‘It’s huge. I mean who would not want to be a published author.’
Shadia, another inmate, says writing released her from a lot of chains that were binding her. ‘It has helped me get rid of a lot of negativity. I used to be very angry and frustrated. Writing has made me a better person, a changed person.’
Asha does not think so. ‘She still gets annoyed when I ask her to return books that she has borrowed from the library,’ she says with a laugh.
However what all the inmates agree upon is the help they received from the authorities to hone their writing skills. ‘All the jail officers have been very helpful,’ says Safia. ‘We particularly want to thank lieutenant colonel Jamila [Khalifa Salem Al Zaabi, director of Dubai Women’s Jail]. She’s like a mother to us. Do you know she never addresses us as anything but ‘daughter’? She never looks at us as a prisoner but as a person and is ready to offer us a shoulder to cry on.’
As I prepare to wind up the meeting, I turn to Cathy who has been silent for a while, and ask her what her story was about. ‘It’s about a part of my life… my struggles to reach this country where I came with so much hope. But a lot of things happened and I’m here today.
‘However, I’m so happy that the book title comes from my story…’ she says, looking up for the first time. Then with hope flashing in her eyes, she adds: ‘Tomorrow I will fly.’
How the project started
‘The seeds of this project were sown about three or four years ago when I thought it would be lovely if a couple of authors could visit the Dubai prison to do a talk about reading and writing,’ says Isobel Aboulhoul, CEO and trustee of the ELF.
Over two years, the annual visits morphed into monthly visits by authors and apart from talks on books and writing, subjects such as well-being were also discussed. ‘However, when the idea for a writing workshop like this came about, I was keen to take it forward, she says. ‘That said, none of this would be possible without the support and trust of the Dubai Police and prison authorities.
‘The stories that came out of the prison are moving and so very different; some are very deep, some more allegorical leaving you with something to think about.
‘We hope to gift copies of the book to a few prisons overseas. We want the initiative to go as far as possible and to give everyone hope. Everyone deserves a second chance. That is at the heart of this project.’
Major Mohammad Abdulla Al Obeidli: Learn new things
‘Thanks to this programme spearheaded by ELF, inmates received a chance to express themselves with their voices being heard across the world. This has left a very positive impact on the inmates.
‘The workshops’s success has been encouraging and we want to be part of more such programmes. We initiated an e-book project with 20 e-books. But seeing the positive response we sourced 70 more and are planning to get more soon. They are available in Arabic and English but can be translated in 12 languages. We hope to make this a smart prison.
‘My message to the community? Inmates are here because they have committed a crime but during the time he is serving his sentence he is improving himself, learning new things. Once he is released, the community needs to accept him and allow him to become part of the community once again. You do not punish him again.’