DUBAI: A new book released at the Emirates Literature Festival last month gives voice to 27 inmates of Dubai Central Prison. “Tomorrow, I Will Fly” is a first-of-its-kind initiative in the region, and saw British novelists Annabel Kantaria and Clare Mackintosh host a one-week writers program for 12 male and 15 female prisoners in a project organized by Dubai Police and the Emirates Literature Foundation.
The results of the workshop — a series of short personal, often poignant essays — were compiled and edited by Kantaria and Mackintosh and have now been published in the book, which was initially launched at the prison and will be available in digital format, as well as being distributed to other English-speaking prisons.
Its title is taken from one of the essays — written by a Ugandan housemaid named Cathy. The only time she has been on an airplane was to come to Dubai — “the city of opportunities.” The inmates were not allowed to write about why they are in prison, but Cathy wrote, “I made a bad choice of girlfriend and she put me behind bars. Because of her I had to bury the dreams of my husband and me.”
Still, her spirit remains strong. “I know we can’t turn back time, but we can create new memories,” she wrote. “It’s never too late to sit down at the same table with my family and share a meal and laugh together. That’s what I’m looking forward to. My next flight will be back home to my country, my motherland, the pearl of Africa… Today I am here. Tomorrow, I will fly.”
According to Kantaria and Mackintosh, the workshops taught the participants how to come up with ideas, mind map, structure and plan their work, assess newspaper articles and improve their use of language. It was an emotionally charged project for them both.
“It was very humbling being there with them,” Dubai-based Kantaria told Arab News. “It was lovely that they put their trust in me to tell me their stories. It’s a very unique thing to be able to go into a prison and help people who really need and appreciate it.”
Mackintosh’s former profession as a police officer helped her to engage in the project without any prejudices about the inmates. “We perhaps like to think of ourselves as being morally correct and that we would never do anything that would land us in prison,” she said. “But things happen in life — people make mistakes. I went into the prison just thinking about these people as people, and I have the same amount of respect for them as I have for anyone else.”
Kantaria was especially struck by the female inmates’ eagerness to learn. And she said she was surprised by the prison’s fairly cordial atmosphere.
“I’ve never been in a prison before and I suppose you imagine people (just) locked up in cells. But, it was more like being inside a school; they were milling about, talking to each other, and there were grassy, open spaces,” she said.
In spite of the prisoners’ difficult circumstances and understandable fear of what might happen to them, it was their hopeful and philosophical attitude that left an impression on Kantaria: “I think if you haven’t been to prison, you imagine it would be the end of your life — you’d be absolutely devastated and destroyed. But they didn’t see it like that. They were sort of reassessing their life, counting their blessings, planning the future. One of them said to me: ‘It’s not that my life is over — my life is on hold. And when I come out, it will start again.’”
Mackintosh noted that one of the major challenges that arose during the sessions was convincing the inmates to open up emotionally.
“When you’re in a difficult situation, there’s a tendency to shut down your emotions because it’s too hard to cope,” she said. “You build up a protective wall around you and that’s something that is very common in prison inmates, who are in self-defense mode and are quite numb. We had to chip away at that wall in order to allow them to write freely.”
Their approach appears to have worked. After the project had finished, one of the inmates wrote: “If you ask me to pick one good patch of comfort (from) my entire prison term, I’d say it was your workshop.”