The MENA Prison Forum was honored to attend the premiere of its co-produced play “Palmyre, Les Bourreaux” (“Palmyra, the Torturers”), directed by Ramzi Choukair. The performance forms the third part of a trilogy of theater performances based on the testimonies of former detainees in prisons run by the Syrian regime. The premiere of the hour-and-twenty-minute performance took place at the 2022 edition of Campania Teatro Festival in Napoli, Italy: please see a recording available here.
The first two plays of the trilogy were “X-Adra” (2017), which embodies a reconceptualization of the country’s modern historical record through the experiences of former detainees, and “Y-Saidnaya” (2020), which tells stories of traveling, exile, and imprisonment before and after the 2011 Syrian revolution. The third installment, equally taking its name from a Syrian prison, continues with stories of three former detainees who meet to share their anecdotes with Jamal, the narrator of the play who provides comments while serving drinks, and Saleh, who complements the script with background music.
The performance evokes a space out of space, and a time out of time for the protagonists. Jamal, together with the three former detainees Fadwa, Riad, and Samar, construct their location, their own secured world, with two benches and a few chairs without any reference to their whereabouts. The script opens with Jamal telling the infamous story of Alois Brunner, the Nazi soldier who escaped Germany during the Second World War before settling in Syria to work for the prison system of the regime of Hafez Al-Assad. Brunner died in Syria without facing accountability for the crimes he committed both inside and outside of Germany. Brunner’s impunity is linked with the recent Koblenz trials in Germany that sentenced two former Syrian intelligence officers to prison. Jamal then opens the floor to the former detainees to debate if serving in German prisons is a “real” punishment, especially in comparison to the inhumane conditions they were subjected to while incarcerated in Syria.
The protagonists not only construct the space of their storytelling, but also draw links between the human and non-human objects on the stage and their ordeals. Jamal serves Riad a glass of wine, which reminds him of his interrogators asking him if he drank alcohol before inflicting upon him various types of torture. After receiving a cup of coffee, Samar recalls when she was “invited” to drink coffee at a security branch, a meeting that led her to more than three years in prison under false accusations. As the coffee is a trigger that reminded Samar of her imprisonment following the 2011 revolution, Samar’s description of her relationship with her daughters before her detention motivates Fadwa to in turn describe her close relationship with her brother during their university years, before she became politically active in opposition movements while he joined the Syrian Ba’ath party.
At various points, the former detainees join Jamal to narrate their stories; like a tapestry, the respective stories weave together to provide a glimpse into a composite image of the missing archive of the Syrian prisons. As they speak, they uncover that Riad’s torturer in prison was Fadwa’s brother, who was also responsible for her imprisonment in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the regime. The experiences of the former prisoners present fragments of a long history of incarceration, torture, and trauma in Syria and from different economic, social, and ideological backgrounds, the former detainees exchange their grievances. Even lighter moments of recollection present entangled dynamics, showing an overlap between the memories and experiences shared by prisoners and jailers. When speaking about the Venezuelan TV series “Cassandra,” Riad wryly comments that both the torturers and the tortured loved the series: while the jailers watched the show, the prisoners looked forward to the scheduled programming as a break from the torture and pain inflicted upon their bodies.
The challenge of how to remember and seek justice becomes obvious when Fadwa recounts how, after she was released from prison, her mother wished upon her deathbed that Fadwa could forgive her brother. Fadwa reflects on this request, as well as how she remembers her brother, especially after he and his wife were shot dead a few years later when their house was attacked in Syria. Prompted by this, the former detainees continually debate amongst themselves if Adnan’s fate is the only way to achieve justice against the torturers, or what “justice” could and should look like for those who perpetrated the crimes experienced in Syrian prisons? Should they be sentenced to “good” prisons, as would be the outcome of trials such as those in Koblenz, or should they experience the “hell” of the Syrian prisons they themselves built and ran over the years?
Indeed, these questions will remain central in the long process of transitional justice in Syria, as it is not separated from both listening to and documenting the past, as well as searching for a better future that seeks to end impunity and bring justice to those who died and have been disappeared in Assad’s prison system in Syria.