On October 10, 2018, Sarmad Khoosat will be stepping into the skin of the most difficult character and performance of his life. This live act will be performed at Bari Studios in Lahore, where Sarmad will be reliving the last 24 hours in the life of a death row prisoner, Prisoner Z, also known as Doctor Sahib.
This groundbreaking live act, titled No Time to Sleep, has been organized by the Justice Project Pakistan in collaboration with Olomopolo Media and Highlight Arts, in solidarity with the World Day Against Death Penalty. The performance will permit 24 batches of a limited audience of twenty people each and will be live streamed on various channels throughout the world, including the British Parliament and universities across Ireland. Viewers in Pakistan will be able to see the live telecast on Dawn.
Sarmad Khoosat has been preparing and rehearsing for this performance for six months but the challenges of the role he has undertaken are graver than simply losing weight and looking the part.
“I had to grow a beard and lose weight, but the biggest challenge is to feel the confinement,” Sarmad shared with Instep. “I’ve been closing myself in a box for hours to get a feel of confinement.”
It’s a feeling beyond comprehension. It’s also not as simple as most movies would have you believe. Fiction has fed into numerous stereotypes over time and history, and what really happens is quite unknown. Sarmad explains how so many fictional stereotypes will be shattered during his 24-hour performance.
“I was told to lose weight but not too much weight,” Sarmad shared some disturbing details. Apparently, prisoners on death row experience such heightened adrenalin surges in the last few days that they begin to bloat. Instead of shriveling, as one would expect, they start retaining body fluids and swelling up.
The last meal – contrary to fictional and romanticized scenes where prisoners are offered a ‘last wish’ or a ‘last supper’ of their choice before being hanged, is the most basic breakfast of tea and biscuits or rusk, which Prisoner Z will be given at 7am. A doctor’s visit is always scheduled on the day of the execution, ironically to ensure that the prisoner does not have fever, an infection or worst of all, an upset stomach.
“All sorts of strange things happen to a person when he is hung,” Sarmad explained, “and a prisoner with a loose stomach is not something jail authorities necessarily want to deal with.”
The ghusl, or the last bathing ritual, may possibly be one of the most morbid experiences the prisoner goes through as it is conducted before he is executed. A human body is given a ghusl after it has expired but in the case of a death row prisoner, the ghusl is conducted before he is hanged.
“Prisoners are given ghusls before they are hanged,” Sarmad shared details of how this act will push boundaries that have never been attempted in Pakistan before. While nudity and exploration of the human body are norms on the western proscenium arch, Sarmad will have to strategically reveal what the human body is stripped to. “It is an extremely immersive experience,” he said with both anxiety and the excitement that an actor must experience when undertaking a challenge of this magnitude.
The idea is to humanize a prisoner who, to most people, is merely a statistic of how one man convicted of murdering two men, was sentenced to death. The performance, directed by Kanwal Khoosat, will attempt to cast the prisoner in a new light; not many people know that Zulfiqar, known as Prisoner Z or also as Doctor Sahib, had completed two Master degrees and 33 diplomas in jail and had taught over 300 prisoners how to read and write during his sentence. His death sentence was issued and reversed almost 20 times (possibly because he fired the gun in self-defense) for all the years he spent in jail. He was hung on his last verdict.
But why protest the death sentence, many people will argue. Did we not want to see the terrorists responsible for APS handed the Capital Punishment? Did Javed Iqbal, the serial killer responsible for the sexual abuse and murder of 100 young boys, not deserve to be hanged? There have been so many tragic instances in the country that have merited the death sentence upon child molesters, murderers, terrorists, etc.
While former President Asif Ali Zardari had issued a moratorium on the death sentence in Pakistan, former PM Nawaz Sharif lifted that moratorium after the tragic APS incident. It was only meant for terrorists though the Pakistan Penal Code cites 27 offenses (including blasphemy, rape and sexual intercourse outside of marriage) as punishable by death. It’s a very tricky territory and boils down to one thing.
“It’s all about the faulty judicial system,” Sarmad summed it up. “Life imprisonment is understandable but how do you bring back someone who has been given an unfair verdict? There have been instances where the reversal of a death sentence has been issued but delivered a month or two after the death sentence has already been carried out.”
No Time For Sleep will be a cross between reality and just enough fiction to make the 24-hour performance possible. A functional toilet has been created on set, and elaborate sound design has been developed to lend sonic dimension to the immersive experience. Prisoner Z will hear mosquitoes whining in his cell, the sound of the Azaan in the distance; he will possibly hear his own breath and voices in his head too.
“Man experiences 5 stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance and possible hope. In this situation there is only resignation,” Sarmad concluded.
Man is also known to err and until a system so fool proof that a faulty verdict is considered impossible is established, the Capital Punishment seems like a fate worse than death. Since only the President of Pakistan can excuse a prisoner on death row, maybe President Alvi will take note and issue a moratorium on the death sentence again.