As Hakeem leaves the workshop that he leads in the Aljwaida prison for women in Jordan, he is usually surrounded by cops, who separate him from the prison inmates. A prisoner shouts out his name as she tries to make her way through the cops who are preventing her from crossing the designated line for prisoners. Gasping, she says, “Hakeem Harb, thank you for giving me hope and a glimpse of freedom. I promise you to get into theatre when I leave the prison.”

Hakeem Harb is one of Jordan’s most celebrated professional directors. He studied theatre at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan, in the early ’80s. After earning his degree in acting and directing, he began working in Jordanian theatre. In the early ’90s, he started The Travelling Theatre Lap with the aim of bringing theatre to remote towns in Jordan. He began to draw attention because of his work in this company. He then moved to the professional theatre, working in the Ministry of Culture; while there he won many state awards for his work in the field. His work has been presented in many Arab states. In addition to his professional artistic work, he is also an arts administrator; as part of this role, he is responsible for running the Ministry of Culture’s children’s arts festival.

With such a high professional theatre profile to his name, Hakeem has decided to return to places where the theatre is least expected. As the prison is one of the most “isolated” sites in any community, Hakeem is intrigued to enter that territory and to learn more about what theatre can offer people who are “forgotten.” Three years ago, he proposed his project to the Ministry of Culture in Jordan and received the necessary approval to execute it.

Hakeem is proud of his work with prisoners; he feels that he is achieving something on both the humanitarian and the artistic levels. He believes that in the life of each criminal is an “innocent moment”; he also feels that many criminals are victims of society. His work began with visiting many prisons and evolved to focus later on women prisoners, as they were committed and deeply interested in liberating themselves from stigma, social, and psychological pressure. Women in Jordan face many challenges in an overwhelmingly patriarchal community. Hakeem finds in his work that most of the inmates’ crimes were not initiated by “evil” intent but as a reaction to the patriarchal and social oppression, they feel in their local communities.

Hakeem feels that professional theatre is repeating itself in Amman: the same directors, same actors, same audience. He yearns to find the “real” thing in both the human and theatrical experience. He wants to connect with the people, and to find natural “talents,” people who are not looking for fame or money but who just want to act and feel the power of theatre. He feels obliged to nurture them and to help them hone their natural artistic skills. He is in search of innocence and the pleasure of forming the theatre experience with them. In pursuit of these raw moments, he decided to venture even further and go for a place that is even more “isolated” than the remote towns of Jordan; he found what he was looking for in his work with the inmates.

When he approached prison managers to conduct theatre workshops, they were surprised, as they were used to hosting a kind of entertaining performance and sometimes craft workshops. Administrators warned Hakeem that he might be discouraged by the mere fact that his workshops participants were “criminals” who were not committed and were hard to control. Hakeem insisted on getting this opportunity. He began the work with 7 or 8 of inmates, and each time he came, he would find new faces, until he had up to 60 inmates in the same workshop. Despite the large number, prison administrators were stunned to find Hakeem able to “control” the participants.

In explaining how he can manage running a workshop in such a challenging setting, Hakeem says that he would speak with inmates as human beings and not as evil criminals. During the workshop time, he would share with them theatre experiences that would transport them to places they rarely visited in their souls. The workshop for them is a window onto the potential of freedom. The workshop would become an event they eagerly waited. Twice a week, Hakeem would improvise with inmates based on concepts related to their personal narratives and what had brought them to the prison. Then, they would transform their stories into scripts; they would use the theatre as a tool to explain their viewpoint.

You would find in Hakeem’s workshop prisoners between the ages of 20 and 50. During the workshop, they would play games, laugh, cry, imagine, and they would re-enact their crimes. Hakeem discovered that there is a sense of patriarchal oppression that the inmates face in their communities which forces them to commit their crimes. In reaction to his revelation, Hakeem began to feel that they are victims and not criminals. Hakeem argues that the fact that some of them committed crimes should not be a recipe for excluding them from society. On the contrary, he says, many of them are forced to commit crimes, and for many of them, living in prison might be better than living with an oppressive husband or tyrant father.

Hakeem’s work was evolving naturally with them, and he would begin to feel the development in their personalities, and even in their theatrical skills. While Hakeem was leading his workshops, Jordan was undergoing a public debate about capital punishment. Prompted by his experience, he posted his thoughts on Facebook, and his post went viral. Hakeem claims in his post that our mission should not be to execute them; he believes that killing should not be punished by killing. His Facebook post asks the Jordanian community to give five of his workshop participants, who are sentenced to death, a chance to be understood and to replace a capital punishment platform with a theatre platform where they can publicly tell their stories. Hakeem says that we need to look for the reasons that forced them to become criminals so that we can avoid other crimes. People accuse him of encouraging crime, and of making excuses for criminals. Such accusations don’t stop Hakeem from his work, as he believes that each person is entitled to his/her opinion. What matters to him is not what people think but his connection with his inmates, a connection that went beyond prison doors. Some of the inmates who have left the prison have met with Hakeem, and some of them have helped him in his professional theatre productions.

While talking with Hakeem and learning about his experience, I find myself once again pondering the power of theatre, and I am not talking here about professional theatre where a text is there, a set designer is there, a director and a group of actors are there; I am talking about a theatre experience where a group of people meet together to act out their life challenges and to collectively brainstorm answers to questions related to their being here and now. This kind of work is the work where theatre is most connected to the community; it is the kind of theatre that prompted personal change; it is the kind of theatre that will have a chance to bring about social change. The work of Hakeem in Jordan is a sample of the many exciting applied theatre projects taking place in community centres, refugee centres, and local neighbourhoods. As I share my thoughts with Hakeem, he smiles and reminds me of the story mentioned at the beginning of this article; he repeats the story again very vividly. “It is for such a moment that I do theatre in general, and it is for such a moment that I plan to go back to prison and lead more workshops with the women there,” he says, while sipping green tea and again telling me about his workshops. While he talks, I can visualize 60 prison inmates going through an imagination theatre exercise where they go beyond the prison bars, they form stories, they explain themselves, they perform their stories, they transform themselves while being reminded that they deserve another chance.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.