On March 31, 2022, the MENA Prison Forum held the official release of the “Impossible Stage,” a radio drama series of prisoners inside Saydnaya Prison in Syria who developed a theatre group. The talk was held with several members of the team behind the series, including Jaber Baker, Bushra Joud, Nihad Kattan, and Nael Al-Farkh. Based on real events that occurred in Saydnaya prison in Syria during the 1980s and 1990s, the “Impossible Stage” podcast sheds light on the struggle of political detainees to find a space for their cultural and artistic work in a prison where the conditions for a normal life are absent. Through their efforts, theatre, music, singing, and pain turn into means of resistance to inhuman conditions. The “Impossible Stage” is a journey to find meaning in suffering and an attempt to keep remembering the forcibly missing and unjustly absent from their families and loved ones.
The session was kicked off with a reminder that the series was developed as part of a process attempting to find meaning for those who were and still are in prison and those who have disappeared in the political prison carceral system in Syria. The series was conceptualized after Baker, the producer, had written a series of articles on prisoners and internal dynamics within Saydnaya Prison as a centre of militantism and activism, as the prisoners were trying to create life under conditions of complete depravity and lack of basic necessities. His motivation was to transform the documentation of these experiences into something that can be seen and heard, in keeping with the element of imagination that was an important resource for prisoners in their attempts to survive their time in the prison.
However, not only was imagination and creativity important for the survival of the prisoners, Baker sees them as important in conveying information about conditions and experiences in Syria in ways that are received and understood by others. He notes that very little was known about Syria for around 50 years until the revolution began in 2011, and that this is directly due to the culmination of immense bravery of Syrians who were saying no to the dictatorship and the regime that had been running a system of incarceration for decades. However, coupled with this lack of information is the weight of speaking about the overwhelming suffering and crimes committed against people in Syria, and in order to talk about these dynamics that have deep emotional cost for those telling the stories and those hearing the stories, using dramatic and creative modes of communication to convey the feeling and atmosphere without shutting down communication or reception.
Other members of the team also contributed their experience of working on the series, and the team is not composed of professional actors, but individuals who have become intimately involved and invested in contributing their voices to such a project. Writer of the episodes, Boushra Joud, noted the profound highs and lows of being part of such a project. She noted the importance to her of paying homage to former prisoners and trying to capture the delicate details of prison experiences. Technical director Nihad Kattan spoke of the importance of addressing difficult elements of the prison, including the abject conditions and the torture, while also creating friendships and capturing small moments of lightness in the personal dynamics between prisoners.
There was a lot of attention paid to the background sounds of the prison, the way the voices and noises would echo, as well as special attention to the accents and dialects spoken within the prison. The recordings of Hafez al-Asad’s speeches, the insults, the moans, and the snores are all necessary to build an audible memory of the situation of the Syrian prisons in the past but also in the present. There was also a reference in the conversation to the radio program “Travelers Around the World” which was used by families of the detainees as camouflage to smuggle messages to their brothers, sons, and husbands as if they were studying or working abroad.
Feedback from the audience members evoked gratitude and impressions left by the series, with previous prisoners who spent time in Saydnaya commenting on how their experience in the prison mirrored and added to their reception of the series. For example, one important comment came from Badr Zakariyya, whose character is central to the plot of the series. Zakariyya expressed his gratitude to the crew of the podcast and expressed the importance of such work in reminding him and his friends of their resilience. Other audience members who were also prisoners, expressed how the series was able to capture very hard times in their lives in jail in a very professional and accurate manner.