No Time To Sleep: a theatre experience
By Farah Ahamed
In 2019, according to Amnesty, there were at least 2,307 deaths from capital punishment and 27,000 facing the death sentence in 56 countries. This number is considered to be artificially low because of the unavailability of reliable information. 60% of the world’s population live in states where capital punishment is legal.
No Time to Sleep, is a twenty four hour live performance in the shoes of a dead man, showing acting at its most powerful. I watched it two years ago when I was in Lahore, but even now, I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. The play is based on the final hours of Prisoner Z or Dr Zulfiqar Ali Khan, a person, charged with murder in Pakistan. Even though his lawyers argued that Zulfiqar had acted purely out of self-defence during an armed robbery he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Zulfiqar spent seventeen years incarcerated, and seven years on the death-row during which time his execution was scheduled and halted more than twenty times. He was executed in 2015.
No Time to Sleep was part of the Justice Pakistan Project on World Day Against the Death Penalty, 2018. The production has no cuts, edits or retakes. Like life, there was no rehearsal. It captures in real time every hour of Zulfiqar’s agony in solitary confinement the day before his hanging. Zulfiqar, a thin man with black hair and a beard, was serious looking with kind, intelligent eyes. A photograph of him in his youth shows a man ready to smile and enjoy a happy life. However, it was not to be; the only colourful thing in his life for many years was his bright orange prison uniform, a stark and painful contrast to his grim surroundings. During his time in prison, Zulfiqar completed two Masters and a Diploma, and taught three hundred fellow inmates to read and write, eight going on to do their Masters. Zulfiqar had been a generous optimist.
No Time to Sleep was an excruciating viewing experience. How strange it is that we feel more alive in the face of death; one becomes acutely aware of every passing minute. Against the sobering backdrop of the pending execution there are poignant moments of humanity. In one instance, Zulfiqar asks the warden to share his cigarette and the simple, ordinary gesture connects the two men for a brief moment. At another time, after performing his ablutions, Zulfiqar puts on the skullcap, unrolls the prayer rug, and goes down on his knees; what difference could prayer possibly make? Everything appears pointless.
But more than pointless, the word meaningless landed on my mind. I was taken back to when I was eleven years old, growing up in Kenya to one warm and lazy Sunday afternoon when I was at my father’s chambers waiting for him to finish drafting the pleadings for a murder case. After being humoured with Beezer comics and been told to wait for another hour, I wandered into his library to see what I could find. Running my fingers through the vast volumes, I came across a slim tome and after scanning the first sentence and seeing it was simple enough even if frightening, decided it was something I could read. Later that night I finished Camus’ The Outsider, and then lay awake worrying not only about what would happen to me if my mother died, but also about what it was to love, lie, tell the truth, murder, be alone in prison, be executed, and to die alone. I also realised for the first time that adults did terrible things.
While watching No Time to Sleep, I returned to the well-thumbed copy of The Outsider I’d borrowed from my father’s office and kept with me ever since (one of the few books to travel continents with me). As I turned the pages, renewing my understanding of Mersault, I found childish pencil squiggles under these sentences:
‘I’d realised that the essential thing was to give the condemned man a chance. Even one in a thousand was quite enough to sort things out.’
The words were familiar and resonant- the impression they had left on my young mind had not been erased over time and I returned to No Time to Sleep full of emotion having discovered the genesis of my belief about capital punishment.
In the performance, the role of Zulfiqar is played by actor Sarmad Khoosat and in preparation for the role, Khoosat interviewed ex-prisoners and their families, as well as executioners, lawyers, court bureaucrats and guards so that he could bring into focus their individual psychological trauma. Khoosat movingly portrays Zulfiqar passing through the darkest night of his soul, biting his nails, pressing his fingers, and kicking his feet, almost unconsciously, against the wall. The warden too is tortured; he sings a Sufi qawwali about the sorrow of separation, ‘maayin ne main,’ in an attempt to forget the nature of his work. As the minutes tick, Zulfiqar paces his cell, lies on the rough mat, gazes at the ceiling and stares into space. His inability to sleep portrays the depth of his torment. From time to time, he sits on the floor to drink tea and eat biscuits, the only food inmates are allowed in case they fall sick, while on the other side of the door, the warden enjoys his paratha.
After twenty one hours, three hours before his execution, the warden checks Zulfiqar’s blood pressure and tells him, ‘All is normal, you are well enough for the execution.’ In response, Zulfiqar shows the warden his wrist. ‘Look at my pulse,’ he says, ‘see how it beats irrespective of everything.’
After twenty two hours, Zulfiqar is given his last meal which he eats without ceremony and then his family come to say good bye. The scene is an understated climax; this is the day they had been dreading for the past seventeen years. Zulfiqar tells his brother to make sure his daughters, Noor and Fiza, finish their studies and are not forced into marriages. Zulfiqar’s wife is not with them because she had died of cancer earlier, without him by her side. After their departure there is a heavy silence. Zulfiqar lies prone on the mat, his head buried in his folded arms.
At twenty three hours, with just one hour to ago, there is suddenly a flurry of activity; the lawyers arrive to check the paperwork and the warden tests the ropes. ‘Sab acha hai,’ he says to Zulfiqar, ‘Everything is good.’ Zulfiqar does not reply. Through the small window with thick bars comes the raucous cawing of crows and the cheerful ring of a bicycle bell- the final sounds in Zulfiqar’s ears, echoing Camus’ closing in The Outsider : ‘the benign indifference of the world.’ But is it benign?
In his essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine,’ written in 1957, Camus makes a strong argument for the abolition of the death penalty, ‘the most premeditated of murders,’ not on sympathy for the convicted, but on logical grounds that it is ineffective as a punishment. Camus may have intended to illustrate this in The Outsider, but to the mind of an eleven year old, which remains unchanged after more than thirty years, the novella grounded a belief and a quest for compassion.
In Camus’ words, art should translate ‘the sufferings and happiness of all into the language of all,’ so that it is ‘universally understood.’ For me, it evoked memories prompting me to reflect on one of my earliest literary experiences, but most of all, it expanded my heart and reminded me to embrace the other, the outsider, as one.
Farah Ahamed writes short fiction which has been published in The Massachusetts Review, Comma Press, and Kwani. Her stories are bound by an overall sense of oppression and rebellion and explore the ways in which culture, religion, politics and tribalism constrain and determine working life and relationships. They range in time from the early days of independence in East Africa to the present.
Her writing spans many themes –identity, self-determination, ethnic/religious/gender conflicts, through to relationships, and family dynamics. Throughout she is trying to understand our humanity: what sets us apart, and bring us together, as humans.
Recently she was longlisted for the Canadian CBC Books 2019 Short Story Award. She was joint winner of the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award and was highly commended in the London Short Story Prize. Her essays and stories have been shortlisted for the Thresholds Essay Prize, Screen Craft Prize, SI Leeds Literary Prize, DNA/Out of Print Award, and The Asian Writer Short Story Prize. She has been nominated for The Pushcart and Caine prizes.
Farah is a lawyer with a Diploma in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She was born in Kenya and currently lives between London and Lahore. At the moment she is working on a short story collection inspired by Lahore.
Cover image: Photo of a Gaza city market in April 2021 by Ahmed Masoud.