One of my favorite writers, the late Joan Didion, used to say that the best writing comes not from reporting as a passive observer, but rather, from actively engaging with the communities you are reporting on. Didion wrote prolifically about the Beat movement in San Francisco, a counterculture movement that took hold in the city’s Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s, and in a way, became a “Beat” herself, a journey which she details in her seminal essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
During my reporting trip, I had the opportunity to put Didion’s philosophy into practice. When Zeina Daccache, an actress and filmmaker introducing drama therapy into Lebanese prisons, invited me to participate in a group drama therapy session she was leading at a local library in Beirut after our interview, it sounded like an opportunity I could not pass up.
I knew that attending the drama therapy session, hosted by Zeina’s organization Catharsis in partnership with ASSABIL, an NGO dedicated to building public libraries, promoting reading, and expanding access to culture in Lebanon, would bolster my reporting. Before attending the session, I thought I would sit in the back quietly with my notebook and observe. I did not expect to pull up a chair, participate in the session myself, and laugh over my broken Arabic. Two minutes into the session, I had put my notebook away and was fully engaged.
The evening started with a game of musical chairs. The participants sat in a circle, and one person stood in the middle and called out a conditional phrase, something like, “If you have lived in another country, switch chairs!” Then, everyone who had in fact lived in another country would have to find a new seat, and the loser would be left in the middle to call out the next phrase.
The game was so much fun. Not only did it bring back giddy memories of musical chairs in elementary school, but it allowed me to connect with the other group members on a human level. I frequently found myself in the middle of the circle, as the session was conducted entirely in Arabic, and it took me a bit of time to translate each phrase in my head before I could process what was being said.
I made some amusing blunders, too. One time, the person in the middle of the circle quipped, “If you like the people in this group, switch chairs,” and I was the only person not to get up—not for any feelings of aloofness, but simply because I hadn’t understood the question in Arabic. I was subject to some playful teasing, and most importantly, a good laugh. It made me remember just how fun reporting can be, especially when it forces us to get outside of our comfort zones, immerse ourselves in something new, and make some new friends.
The fun didn’t end there. After the game of musical chairs, we played another game: We were divided into two groups, and each group had to line up in a particular order, for instance, by height or hair length, faster than the other. Admittedly, I didn’t really understand the premise in Arabic at first and felt a bit like a deer in headlights. But with the help of the other participants, I caught on and was soon racing to line up with my team.
The session was emotional too. Zeina had each of the participants reflect on an object that represents them in some way, shape, or form, and share back with the group. I had seen Zeina conduct this drama therapy exercise with those held at Roumieh Prison in her documentary, 12 Angry Lebanese, but participating in it myself was entirely different. Being in the same room as these 15 or so people, hearing their stories, and seeing their raw emotions made me realize just how powerful drama therapy can be, especially in a group setting. When some cried, others lent hands. When some shared challenges or personal struggles, others expressed that they had a similar experience, reminding them that they are not alone.
Taking part in the drama therapy session at Monnot Library reminded me just how important the concept of experiential reporting is. As journalists, it is our job to report accurately without bias. However, that does not relegate us to the role of passive outsiders. Indeed, only by participating in the session itself was I able to understand just how much of an impact Zeina’s drama therapy work has. The silence in the room after the session concluded, the belly laughs exchanged during musical chairs, and the moments of solidarity in a shared glance, could only be felt by being in that room. And for that, I’m glad I followed Joan Didion’s advice.