On November 18, the MPF hosted a talk with Hassan Sahily on his recently published MPF Log Back to the Fold: One Prison May Hide Another. Sahily spoke about the various aspects of Lebanese prisons he learned about through his conversations with X***, an anonymous individual who was imprisoned in Zahle, Lebanon.
In light of the previous MPF talk with Saif al-Islam Eid on the struggles of students incarcerated in Egypt, Sahily pointed out similarities in the Lebanese context. He noted that in the Zahle prison there are dedicated rooms for students, and the dynamics around their incarceration for often-minor offenses and the financial burden on families to secure their release. While X*** personally did not experience this type of embezzlement, his prison experience instead had a high psychological and emotional cost.
Sahily used the story of the X*** to show elements of carcerality that are both unique and universal to societal and power dynamics, inside and outside of prison. X*** is from a region in Lebanon known for illicit drug cultivation and limited government control, and where toxic masculinity prevails. His childhood was marked by bullying from his mother’s clan until he moved to Beirut to study architecture and freed himself from the stifling social environment of his extended family. However, in Beirut he was accused of being a drug dealer, and when given a choice of prisons, he chose to go to a prison in Zahle where he knew there was the presence of his mother’s clan behind bars, thinking the family could offer him protection behind bars. However, once he was incarcerated, he re-encountered figures from his past, and he was reverted to a child-like fear of the world and those around him.
X***’s story allowed for discussions around societal dynamics within prisons, such as the case that behind bars, it is often people who were marginalized outside of prison who are then put into power. Power is not derived by financial or educational status, but by physical strength and reputation, such as the severity of the charges of the prisoner. Prisons in Lebanon have also been incubators of larger social and religious movements, as exemplified in concerns around Islamist presence and control in the prisons. The use of prisons as control sites by various other organizations in Lebanon was also addressed.
A common recurring topic of conversation that has arisen throughout various MPF talks and workshops is the focus in the MENA region on political prisoners rather than criminal prisoners, X*** belonging to the latter of the two groups. Focus on prisons and carceral conditions in Lebanon dates back to the man who is considered Lebanon’s first political prisoner, Asaad al-Shidyaq, who was sent to prison by the church and whose story was an impetus to starting the MPF project.
Lastly, the talk and discussion outlined areas for further research, such as more detailed work on the power and administrative dynamics within prisons, and the link between internal prison dynamics to the wider role that sectarianism and violence play in Lebanon.