Ozod Ishamkulov holds up a sheet of gold-coloured metal in one hand and a ballpoint pen in the other. "What kind of design should I engrave in this?" he asks. "Let me show you how we do it." Clearly, his abilities with metal and wood are a source of pride, and it is easy to see why. Asked if he will make a flower, something like a poinsettia, he replies: "No problem." And to work he goes. He puts the metal upside down on a wooden table and outlines the shape of a flower with the pen, focusing intently on the design. "Should I put leaves in it too? Long leaves or short leaves? Obviously, we cannot use colour with this. Only design. Only shape."
Ishamkulov is 29 and has spent his past seven years in Al Wathba Central Prison, 30km from Abu Dhabi. While life in prison is not always pleasant, Ishamkulov smiles a lot and becomes noticeably excited when describing what he does in the prison's art workshop - mostly making the wooden chests that are on sale as part of the second annual inmates' art show. It is clearly important to him that his visitor knows and understands the entire process.
"A carpenter will make the pieces of wood into the parts of the box. Then the paint boy will paint it and we will design it and make it into a box. Then we put the design into the metal and glue it onto the box. Like this, you see?" Ishamkulov has worked at the workshop for long enough now to be earning the maximum Dh8 (US$2.18) a day. He is not allowed family visits. His phone calls are limited to one 10-minute call each month. So Ishamkulov puts his energy into the chests on which he works. This, he says, is his art.
"I also make tables and chairs, but mostly the wooden chests." His friend, Ateur Rahman, 36, has been in jail for eight years. The two men are jovial and clearly know each other well. Rahman was held in a jail in Ajman until three-and-a-half years ago, when he was transferred to Al Wathba. Life is better here, he says. Smiling, he puts his hand on Ishamkulov's shoulder; there was no art workshop in the prison in Ajman.
"I'm afraid to tell you too much about life here," Rahman says. "But I will say that with this art we try to keep ourselves as busy as possible. I enjoy this, but life in prison is hard." When they are not in the workshop, the inmates spend time in the library, where most of the available books are copies of the Quran. There is also a computer but the prisoners have no access to television and spend much of their time praying, sleeping and eating.
"We don't want too much free time," says Rahman, turning to Ishamkulov and laughing as he explains that the prisoners would just fight one another if left to their own devices. Then he looks at the ground and drops his smile. "Really though, this art, making these boxes, this is all we have," he says. "We hardly survive." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org