Playing the role of a prisoner on death row is an act of solidarity: Sarmad Khoosat

Published October 5, 2018
A glimpse of Sarmad Khoosat in his upcoming role as Prisoner Z.—JPP
A glimpse of Sarmad Khoosat in his upcoming role as Prisoner Z.—JPP

Actor Sarmad Khoosat will be playing Prisoner Z, a death row inmate who is about to be executed, in No Time to Sleep, a 24-hour digitally live performance streamed directly on Dawn.com on October 10 — the World Day Against the Death Penalty. Khoosat told the following to Rimmel Mohydin:


I was a quiet child. Narrow, docile, harmless. I was an easy target. When I was seven years old, a boy from my class began picking on me.

It started with a poke. Then a little more than that. When I got up to run away, he ran after me.

As a child, there can be nothing more terrifying than feeling like you are about to get caught — and probably hurt.

I raced towards my classroom, hoping to put a wall between us. He was inches away. I jumped in and slammed the double doors behind me.

The scream that followed was not my own.

His hand had got caught in the door. He lost a fingernail.

I had no intention of hurting him. I didn’t have those instincts. I think I cried more than him, at the sight of his bleeding finger.

For causing this injury, I was slapped across the face by a teacher who believed that this was all my fault. I had bullied him, so I deserved to be chastised for it.

Punishment, as a concept, then eluded my understanding. I had neither provoked him, nor had I fought him.

Whatever retaliation there had been on my end had been in self-defence.

Follow the liveblog: No Time To Sleep

It was an accident but all the teacher saw was his injured finger. She made no assumptions of my innocence and suddenly, I was the bad guy.

How was this fair?

My father played a police inspector for almost three years on a television show and growing up, I always believed that that was his actual profession.

I could not separate baba from the funny cop he was on TV (I never really understood how he could exist both inside the box and outside it).

So to me, the idea of punishment became even more grey — almost fictionalised. But I learned early on, that it could never be objective if human beings were charged with carrying it out.

Knowing Zulfiqar

So when Zulfiqar’s story reached me, I wondered if the punishment that he had been given was deserved.

I read his letters in 2015 for a dramatic reading at a festival. There were three. In one, his words were clear-headed, rooted in his terrible reality but ended on a note of hope. As if he wanted to reach out to his reader to be a comfort to him.

The second was one filled with pride. He wrote about his diplomas, his love of learning, and particularly the joy of teaching hundreds of inmates.

The third was for his daughter.

This was the only letter that betrayed his fear. That his daughters would not be taken care of. That they won’t find homes because of the shame of having an incarcerated father on death row. That they won’t fend for themselves because they wouldn’t be able to afford a quality education.

A snapshot from behind the scenes at the rehearsals for No Time To Sleep.—JPP
A snapshot from behind the scenes at the rehearsals for No Time To Sleep.—JPP

I wanted to write back to him, get to know him. His concerns were so ordinary, his love of teaching so evident — he didn’t sound like a killer, and I wanted to get to know him better.

Unfortunately, I was told he had been executed just months before. He was 53, and spent his last 17 years waiting to executed. They scheduled his execution 22 times.

How the man had the energy to keep going, keep teaching, keep fighting — I’ll never know.

The more I learned about him, the more complex he became. It is not easy to get into the skin of someone who has died, let alone someone who did not have to die, someone who did not deserve to die.

Performance as solidarity

To connect with him for No Time to Sleep, I confronted my debilitating claustrophobia.

Growing up, my sister and I were playing hide-and-seek. I climbed into this trunk, and when she realised that’s where I was, she sat on the lid.

The fact that I could not get out on my own terrified me. Until very recently, I could not even stomach a flight from Karachi to Lahore. Elevators still scare me. I always take the stairs.

But how did Zulfiqar feel, going into solitary confinement, knowing that he would be executed in 72 hours? Knowing that he couldn’t leave, knowing there was no escape, knowing that had he had money — he would have likely never seen the inside of jail cell, let alone spend 17 years in one.

Also read: It's not easy getting into the skin of a prisoner on death row, says Sarmad Khoosat

I lock myself in that very similar trunk now to learn. I have to make a conscious effort not to shake, and to stay there for at least 15 minutes at a time, before the panic sets in.

For the 24 hours that I will imbibe Zulfiqar’s story, I will be thinking of him. I’ll be thinking of his letters. I’ll comfort myself knowing that, at the end of 24 hours, I can go back home and be with my family and loved ones again.

This performance is an act of solidarity. For those who are unfairly punished. For those who can’t escape the box.

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