Prisons are often hidden in shadow. Across the Middle East and North Africa, a host of detention centers, remote prisons and covert facilities referred to as “black sites” have been kept secret or quasi-secret over the past decades. Many more prisons in the region are visible from the outside, yet researchers, family members, and human-rights organizations have struggled for access.
Some of the best information we have about prison life comes from literary works, art and films made by former prisoners. That’s one of the reasons why the MENA Prison Forum has a special focus on art.
But it’s also because the project wants us to expand our view of prisons and prisoners. According to three organizers from the forum—Mina Ibrahim, Monika Borgmann and Lokman Slim—prisons have a broader impact on society than we think. The three said over email that “prisons contribute to the interactions of people’s everyday lives, even if they are not directly aware of it.”
Even if you can’t see them, they said, prison systems are “a silent threat in the background.”
[Editor’s note: The correspondence with the organizers took place days before Lokman Slim was shot to death by unknown assassins in southern Lebanon this week. An outspoken critic of Hezbollah, he had gone missing on Wednesday, February 3, after visiting friends. His body was found in his car the next day with multiple bullet wounds to his head and body, according to news reports.]
Teaching and Learning About Prison Life
When the MENA Prison Forum launched in the fall of 2018, organizers aimed to help bring this silent threat out of the shadows. The group had three core aims: collating information about prisons, conducting research, and doing public outreach and advocacy. It now has a bilingual website that reaches out to several different audiences. The group is speaking not only to researchers, activists, instructors and people who live in the region, but also to the governments of Western countries, “who are often supportive of the regimes in the MENA,” the organizers wrote.
The forum is a project of the Beirut-based organization UMAM Documentation and Research. It is also building and strengthening its network throughout the MENA region, and developing a sister organization in Europe.