ABU DHABI // From outside on the scorching hot pavement, Al Wathba Central Prison does not look like a hub of creativity. But deep inside its high, white walls topped with barbed wire is a large room filled with the sounds of hammers banging and lathes whirring.
The smell of paint and cigarette smoke wafts out of the workshop into the halls. For five days a week this room is a refuge for the inmates, the one corner of the jail where they can roam freely and be creative. The Women's Police College of Abu Dhabi is hosting an art exhibition created entirely by the men and women at Al Wathba Central Prison. The men make mostly wooden chests and paintings; the women sew woollen garments, paint, do crochet work and embroidery and make perfume. This is the second year for the prisoners' art show and it has become an event the more artistic prisoners look forward to.
Bakhit al Menhali, who teaches art to the women, says the hours the prisoners spend in the workshop is tremendously important to them. It does not only occupy their time - of which they have a good deal - but also gives a sense of purpose, while the process of learning distracts from the routine of prison life. "For them, this is like a career," Ms Menhali says. "It's something to do. And it gives them the chance to learn about something while they are in prison."
But as well as giving meaning and focus to their otherwise mundane existence, art brings the inmates with an income, though this is marginal at best. The men start on a wage of Dh4 (US$1.08) a day, which doubles after six months. For women, the starting rate is Dh1 a day, increased after six months to Dh2. "I use this money to buy cigarettes," says Ozod Ishamkulov, 28, originally from Uzbekistan, who has served half a 14-year sentence.
"I also buy phone cards to call home, but I can only talk for 10 minutes at a time, and I love smoking; so mostly I buy cigarettes." Ishamkulov is working with three other men on making a wooden chest decorated with a thin layer of gold-coloured metal embedded in the sides. Chests such as these, which are about 30cm wide and 60cm long, take about four days to make if there are enough men working on them - ideally, he says, three.
Ishamkulov and the others spend much of their time in the workshop talking. At first they discuss what kind of pattern they want to engrave on the metal sheets before hammering them into the wood. Then they decide in which colour the box should be painted; typically, the consensus is black. While they work, they talk about their families and the lives they led "on the outside". Ishamkulov, for example, talks a lot about his sister. He believes she will be able to help him obtain his freedom in the shortest possible time.
At different times throughout the day, groups of men will gather around a work in progress and exchange thoughts on how the piece is coming along and what can be done to improve it. One or two men will point to something that particularly impresses them, and the man or men responsible will respond, explaining how they came up with the idea, how they carried it out and what they learnt in the process.
The women prisoners' art workshop does not have the same social atmosphere as the men's. While most of the men in the art room are in jail on charges related to drugs or crossing the border without a valid passport, many of the women are in prison because they had illicit sexual relations. A 21-year-old woman from Iran explains that she is there because of "how you say, umm, rape". Sexual relations carry a stigma here for women, regardless of whether they are claimed to have been consensual.
The walls of the women's workshop are painted light purple and hung with embroidered images of kittens, giving the room the feel of a little girl's bedroom. "There is nothing to do here, so I do this," says Imana Liaw Nazir, 29, from Kyrgyzstan. Nazir is pretty, bored, shy and reluctant to speak. She spends five days a week, from eight in the morning until noon, sitting at an embroidering machine in the workshop.
She follows digital patterns programmed into the machine and sews images of flowers and animals onto cloth. Each new project is more complex than the last. She says she enjoys the challenge and likes to improve her work, but her overall demeanour is indifferent. She seems tired, and while the men all scrambled to speak to The National's reporter - someone who could offer a lifeline to the outside world - Nazir is not particularly interested.
Even when the guard tries to provoke a reaction, Nazir cannot be bothered. She does not understand why anyone should be interested in her story. But while she appears not to understand when asked why she enjoys embroidering, she does say her time in the workshop is the best part of her day. Then she shrugs and turns back to the machine. The prisoners' show is open to the public from 8am to 1pm until July 3 at the college in Muroor Road in Abu Dhabi.