Prison in the Middle East and North Africa: Histories, Cultures, and Practices
JUN 14, 2021

Darkness of prison fall upon us! We are the Passionate of Darkness! 

From O Prison Darkness, Najib al-Rayyes
(The poem is one of the most renowned prison poems of modern Arabic literature)
This course is an introduction to histories, cultures, and practices in prisons across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Designing a course about an overlooked – and often intentionally obscured – topic like prisons and incarceration in MENA is like asking someone to cut the trees of a rainforest with scissors. This course is therefore neither exhaustive nor inclusive of all aspects related to imprisonment, torture, suffering, trauma, and despair across the geography of the MENA region. However, the course will address various aspects of prisons in the MENA region: including their roots, the internal environments, and how they exist in larger society. There is a continued legacy of incarceration in the Middle East; not only through the living memory of prisons and prominent prisoners, but also as prisons as central to state-building and rule of law development. The course is additionally not exclusively focused on individuals who have personally been placed within formal prison or incarceration systems, but also those whose lives are affected by related structures and systems of oppression. This course is just a step to address the related dynamics to prisons in MENA; a first layer that students, together with their mentors, are encouraged to further explore and excavate beyond the classroom.
The motivations of the course come from the fact that there are many courses on criminal justice systems, as well as courses that focus on wider dynamics and politics in the Middle East, that touch on the issues addressed in this particular course. However, this course fills a unique lacuna of specific attention both to the prison systems existing under authoritarian regimes in the region, and to various art and cultural forms that address these aspects. The course was developed out of the awareness of the central role prison plays in countries in the MENA region, and the belief that understanding the cultures and practices of incarceration can help unlock understanding of the wider region. Additionally, this course is aware that it does not exist in a politically empty environment. Therefore, the course will also address the continuing international/Western focus on prison systems in the Middle East, as tools of security in fulfillment of counter-terror objectives, as sources of concern around religious radicalization in prison, and as topic of security sector reform.
For students and professors, the purpose of taking or teaching this course should exist beyond simply a grade. The stories, readings, and various art forms that will be discussed every week will present an unpleasant, yet important journey where emotions will be invested in individuals whose bodies and souls have been – and still are – humiliated and crushed by state and non-state actors. The materials and topics addressed in this course are highly sensitive in nature, and students of the course must be prepared to critically analyze often emotional and disturbing material. In this regard, participants of this course are advised to work together in groups and to collectively express their sentiments of anger, pain, and melancholy via fruitful discussions, research papers, and presentations.
The syllabus of this course was developed by the MENA Prison Forum (MPF). As the name suggests, the Forum is a critical meeting point where ideas and arguments about incarceration can assemble. Within this context, this course is designed for the sake of theorizing and conceptualizing nuanced and heterogeneous meanings of ‘the prison,’ that is usually taken for granted despite of how it changes destinies and shapes life-worlds. More information on the MPF can be founded here.