A Frenchwoman's Lebanese prison ordeal

French-Lebanese Joëlle Giappési developed a heroine addiction in her early twenties and subsequently spent five years in Lebanon's women's prisons for drug dealing. Today, she runs an Arabic language school and she is the author of a memoir, Les Murs ne font pas la prison (The Walls do no make the Prison).

BEIRUT, May 5, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It was not the first time Joëlle Giappési had a run in with the police when she was arrested in Beirut for dealing heroine. Two times before she had been detained for taking the drug – a habit she developed in a relationship during the Lebanese civil war which wrecked the country during the seventies and eighties.

"I loved someone very much who used to take it. I never thought I'd take it [myself] but I did," Giappési, now 50, told MENASSAT.

Giappési, who was teaching at St. Joseph University in Beirut at the time, was charged and convicted in 2001 of being an intermediary dealer. She was given a five year prison sentence, which she spent at various women's prison facilities in the towns of Zahle, Baabda and Beirut.

In prison, Giappési soon learned that the walls and barb wire are not what constitute prison, but rather the constant absence of privacy, promiscuity, the "mental games" between inmates and prison guards .

"Every morning the guard opened our cell door around 8 a.m. We were allowed to work during the day before we had to clean the prison and before the doors closed behind us at 5 p.m. At night we were many in the room – we were eleven in my cell at times –, sleeping on mattresses." 

VIP prisoner

The lack of adequate medical treatment also posed hardships to heavy drug users like Giappési. When Giappési lost her teeth at one point, it was only thanks to a local NGO that she was granted access to a dentist who enabled her to eat properly again. Her own family provided her with medicine to help with the drug withdrawal symptoms which caused her much physical and mental pain.

Giappési is French by birth but  acquired the Lebanese nationality through marriage.

"When you are fighting for survival you realize that we're all the same – rich, poor, Lebanese, or French – it makes no difference in the end," she said.

But Giappesi's French nationality did make a difference in prison. Fellow inmates became curious about the traditions and cultures of their French cell mate, while Giapessi's "VIP status" as a foreigner caused anger and resentment from the prison guards.

"The fact that you could not beat me up because I was a foreigner caused even more irritation."

Teaching Arabic

Giappési occupied herself with various activities during the many hours of free time. At first she read a lot, preferably in her native language French, but the prison's book inspection department soon grew tired of reading through Giappési's incoming stacks of foreign reading. She developed instead other interests and discovered hidden talents, including an eye for jewelry accessories.

"I learned how to do this in prison" she said while fiddling with a self-made exotic necklace made out of pearls and shells.

It was also in prison that she first started teaching Arabic by volunteering with an NGO organization that provided education for prisoners.

"There were inmates from many different places in the prison who didn’t know how to read or write in Arabic. I started out helping them with their exercises and then I started teaching them."

It has been two years since Giappési was released and she's been clean ever since. She started her first job only two weeks after her release from prison. Today, she is  the head of an Arabic language school in Beirut. Despite her success, she still felt that something was missing in her life.

"December 2007 marked my first Christmas after prison. I was not happy. I was thinking of them [her fellow inmates.] Prison is the worst place you can spend holidays like Christmas and Easter."

Inner peace

Shortly afterwards Giappési began writing her memoir, a project that took her only three months to finish. "I wrote everyday after work, from six p.m. until midnight."

She has just returned from a book promotion tour in France. Soon, "Les Murs ne font pas la Prison" will be available in bookshops in Beirut as well.

While prison was not easy to survive, Giappesi stressed that it also served as a wake-up call for her and that it has helped her win back her life.

"Prison was taking heroine for twenty years," she said showing her tanned arms that still bear clear marks of past drug use.

"The time spent in prison gave me time to reflect on why I took the drug for so long. Drugs take away the pain but also the joy. Today, I have both joy and inner peace."