To some, the idea of art therapy as rehab in Riyadh sounds like a story that would headline The Onion. But art therapy is serious business at Saudi Arabia's experimental rehab center for former jihadists, some from the Guantanamo Bay detention center. From Jihad to Rehab, a PBS production featuring Canadian journalist Nancy Durham, offers a rare chance to see these detainees in treatment as they sit at long tables with pastels in hand, intensely engaged in the the art process.
My well-regarded colleague Dr. Awad Alyami is the detainees' art therapist and is one of the most passionate advocates for the transformative power of art in trauma recovery that I know. Alyami, Director of Art Therapy at King Fahad Medical City, studied art therapy at Pennsylvania State University and has become a global voice for the use of art as therapy for what may be some of the most complex clients a therapist may see. In fact, initially he was reluctant and even a little frightened to undertake work with the detainees, even though he has extensive experience treating traumatic stress and mental illness. Once you see Alyami on film waving his arms in the air like an orchestra leader, motivating convicted jihadists to draw their feelings-- well, he is an intrepid and enthusiastic traveler into psychological terrain not often attempted.
Islamic law prohibits the depiction of people or animals in artwork so drawings are generally abstract, at times integrating text from the Koran or other sources. The calligraphy and depictions of sunrises and flowers do not really reflect the darker emotions confronted in treatment and are
images Western therapists might not expect to see. In fact, some might define the content of their artwork as being "in denial" of the crimes committed. With these individuals, it's the process of making art and Alyami's careful interventions to help these men examine the consequences of past actions and discussion of their art that are the core of their art therapy.
Interestingly, Dr. Alyami does not use the word "art" with his clients. He refers to what they're doing as "making things with your hands." The word "art" in Arabic doesn't mean only drawing or painting, it means dancing, singing, and other art forms and in many cases, "art" has a negative meaning in parts of Islamic society. In essence, these men are engaged in "making things with their hands" in order to put their anger out on paper rather than acting it out as terrorists.
Truth be told, there is more to this rehab program than just art therapy; there's religious instruction, psychological counseling, team sports, and other interventions. The goal is to help the detainees ultimately restart their lives, including marriage, new jobs, and buying a car. This is rehabilitation, Saudi style, and other countries are taking note of this model for addressing terrorism in therapy because the program addresses both theological issues as well as psychological needs of detainees. While long-term outcomes of the experiment remain to be seen, it's exciting to imagine that ultimately art may be, at least in part, a potent form of counterterrorism.