Photo by Vikesh Kapoor
I was seated in the Winningstad Theatre, in Portland, Oregon, attending the US premiere of Leila’s Death, at the Time-Based Art Festival. Presented as a “concert, dance, and lamentation,” Leila’s Death uses the Arabic ataaba song structure, along with contemporary dance, to express loss and grief, both for a family and a disappearing tradition.
I’d been unfamiliar with this tradition before attending the performance, having only read a few introductory press releases and reviews. I knew Leila’s Death was a sort of elegy to the practice of professional mourning—particularly in Shia culture—but, being a Westerner and having no religious affiliation, I approached this performance as an outsider, as a spectator to an unfamiliar culture.
But prior knowledge or familiarity proved to be largely immaterial. The language of grief, loss, and mourning transcends culture and even language. When the performers walked onstage, took their places in the center, and sang, in Arabic, a recitation to the Prophet Muhammad, I wasn’t thinking about language barriers or Islamic traditions or cultures. I was thinking about my mother.
The language of grief, loss, and mourning
transcends culture and even language.
My mother passed away nearly a year prior, after battling cancer for the better part of four years. Though we had lived on opposite ends of the country—she in Michigan, I in Portland—I was able to be with her during her last four weeks. I was with her as her body stopped responding to chemotherapy, as she lost an unthinkable amount of weight, as she was transferred from home hospice to inpatient hospice care. I was with her the night before she gave up the long fight, when enough was finally enough.
My mother died in her sleep, in the early morning, while the stars were still out. Later that morning, after my brother and I spoke with the nurses and cried over her bed and said goodbye, we went out for breakfast. We then returned to her house and puttered around. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We’d had our mother with us our entire lives, since the day we were born, and now she was gone.
There were no instructions for what came next. There was no one to speak for us, to hold us, to mourn for us. What saddened me, nearly as much as losing her, was that there was no one here to sing her praises, to recount her life and her triumphs and, most important, to provide comfort to my brother and me.
All of this came back to me as I sat in the theater, nearly one year later, watching the performance of Leila’s Death. Focusing on the very personal story of an older woman named Leila, it is the story of a mother, her three sons, and her many sorrows, but it is as much about Lebanese cultural heritage as it is about one woman’s grief. Mourning, as practiced by Shia Muslims, is centuries-old, dating back to the original schism between Sunnis and Shi’ites, all the way back to the creation of the Shia people themselves.
Professional mourning dates back centuries
and has been recorded in many cultures across
the globe, but the practice is slowly and quietly disappearing.
On October 10, 680 CE, Imam Hussein ibn Ali—grandson of the Prophet Muhammad—and a small group of family and followers traveled from Mecca to the town of Kufa, on the bank of the river Euphrates. In Kufa, Hussein had been informed he’d find support in his campaign against Yazid I, who was considered to have illegitimately seized the Caliphate, following the assassination of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet. Hussein and his group were apprehended before reaching Kufa, at the nearby town of Karbala, by Yazid’s army, who killed and beheaded Hussein, massacred his companions, and took the women and children as prisoners.
The Battle of Karbala, as it is commonly known, has for centuries been commemorated each year by Shia Muslims, as a public day of mourning. During the Ashura commemoration, devout Shias mourn, recite poetry and lamentations, strike themselves on the chest and head, and weep tears of sadness and grief for Hussein and his family.
Following the martyrdom of Hussein, monologues and dramatizations recounting the battle were performed in public by professional storytellers. This was part of a wider, largely Eastern tradition of professional mourning, in which the survivors of a recently deceased family member would hire a professional mourner to sing lamentations for the benefit of the family. Professional mourning dates back centuries and has been recorded in many cultures across the globe, but the practice is slowly and quietly disappearing.
Of all artistic or creative forms, dance is themost intimately connected to the body. Chahrour believes dance to be the most intimate of all the arts, and the most honest.
A graduate of the theater department of the Lebanese University in Beirut, choreographer Ali Chahrour weaves his cultural and religious heritage into his work, using dance as a means to address the intersection of the body and the spirit, the earthly and the holy. The performance focuses on Leila, among the last of Lebanon’s professional mourners, known as a naddaba. As she sits in a chair at the front of the stage, Leila begins with a monologue recounting the loss of her parents and siblings. She eloped with Mohamed, and soon her husband also died, leaving her alone with three sons, portrayed by Chahrour, and musicians Ali Hout and Abed Kobeissy. After losing her parents and siblings, she explains, Leila became a professional mourner, as a means of supporting herself and as a distraction from her own sorrows. After delivering her monologue, Leila—who has spent years mourning for others—goes on to spin on the stage, wave her arms, and wail for her dead.
“I will sow my sighs, morning and night,” she sings, “It is I, your mother / Oh, son, hear my lament.”
Leila’s voice is powerful and commanding, though hoarse and often pained, from countless years crying for others.
“In her voice, she carries a lot of grief,” Chahrour tells me during our interview. “You can feel it’s a voice that is tired from lamenting. It’s like someone lamenting for one-hundred years—you can hear it in her voice.”
Hout and Kobeissy—on percussion and buzuq, respectively—perform from either side of the stage, while Chahrour joins Leila in the center. Leila sings lamentations as she slaps Chahrour across the face and on his forehead. Chahrour gradually begins to take over, slapping himself, falling to the stage, and writhing in manic movements suggesting self-punishment, self-flagellation, and, ultimately, self-martyrdom. In choreographing this performance, Chahrour says he had to disregard all he’d learned about dance, and allow Leila to direct and guide the movements. Art, specifically dance, often transcends formal training. It can be used as a tool for catharsis, and as a means of expression otherwise forbidden in some societies.
“I think we use art to do everything that we are not allowed, or that we are afraid to do, in our daily lives,” Chahrour says. “Expressing grief, and linking emotion to movement, is something that only dance can accomplish.”
Of all artistic or creative forms, dance is the most intimately connected to the body. Chahrour believes dance to be the most intimate of all the arts, and the most honest.
“I feel like the body can’t lie,” he says. “If the body lies, you know it immediately.”
Leila’s voice is powerful and commanding,though hoarse and often pained, from countless years crying for others.
In addition to being a personal lament, Leila’s Death is also a response to local sociopolitical demands to steer mourning practices away from family and friends, and toward collective martyrs. Rather than gathering in a home and mourning for a loved one, state pressures compel the faithful to instead sing ataaba for political figures.
“We have the right to take this moment, to say they don’t have to die for political reasons to be heroes,” Chahrour says. “It’s very important, nowadays, to find a moment just to sit, to lament, and to cry. And to [take] the time to say, they are not numbers. They all have their stories.”
Throughout history, the role of the professional mourner has traditionally been filled by women. While such a responsibility might be a grave and unfair burden for women to carry alone, Chahrour explains that this tradition dates back centuries. The Battle of Karbala—the most significant moment in the story of the Shia people—needed to be preserved, and only women were strong enough to shoulder this great responsibility.
“In the Shi’ite ritual, the main story of the whole family of the Prophet Muhammed was transmitted through the women, because all the men died,” says Chahrour. “So this power—I believe it’s a power—of expressing sadness and expressing weakness, it’s a very strong power that man can’t do in the death rituals.”
“She is crying for everyone, after the death of all the men,” Chahrour continues. “But if she didn’t cry for them, no one would remember them. It’s like the story [had] never happened. If the sister of Hussein—son of Fatima, daughter of Muhammed—didn’t transmit the story, the whole ritual, the whole sect of Islam would not exist.”
When we perform, people say they missthis need of just sitting and crying, or feeling grief, or remembering a person.
Chahrour conducted extensive research during the planning of Leila’s Death, drawing on religious texts, regional politics, and contributions from his immediate family and neighbors. Much of the performance addresses issues particular to Shia customs and Chahrour’s native Beirut. From the chants and psalms to the Prophet Muhammed, to the music and movements, Leila’s Death is largely a culturally specific work, as Chahrour intended. But, as he brings Leila’s Death outside of Beirut theaters and to international audiences, he’s seen people of all cultures and backgrounds respond to the work. Even without the cultural context, or a grasp of the language and traditions, the need to cry and mourn, and the desire to connect with others who are also grieving, is a universal language and a global need.
During the performance at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre, subtitles were projected onto the wall behind the stage, translating the Arabic speech into English. From time to time, the projector would malfunction, leaving the audience quite literally in the dark. When this happened, my attention would be drawn back to the performers and the rhythm, rather than the words, of their dialogue. It was at these moments that I found myself affected most, my thoughts drawn inward. My thoughts soon returned to my mother, to her long battle with cancer, and our final moments together. Without knowing the words to the songs the performers sang or the prayers they recited, I invented my own, reinterpreting them as lamentations for and praises of my mother. Though the words may have been different, the sentiment was the same, as I believe all of us in the audience that evening had felt.
“I was surprised with all the touring that there is something in common,” Chahrour says. “I imagined that when we performed in the US, there would be a big difference in how people received the performance, that there would be this distance in cultural issues and references—these very emotional issues for us. But I discovered that when we performed here, and when we performed in Europe, that there is a global need to go back to this grief, and to take a moment to think about the relation of the way of crying. When we perform, people say they miss this need of just sitting and crying, or feeling grief, or remembering a person. And, for me, it’s a beautiful way to remember the person.”