‘Leila’s Death’: a celebration of a culture of celebrations

(via skoun.net)

Ibrahim Diab

Even here, all other members of her family precede her, and Leila arrives last on stage. They always go first—she is used to this. She, a woman who has gradually lost every member of her large family, now joins her three sons on stage at Al Madina Theater, seemingly preparing for her own death.

“Leila’s Death” is a “concert/dance/lamentation,” as director and choreographer Ali Chahrour defines it. Leila, the 50-year-old mourner (‘naddaba’), along with musicians Ali Hout and Abed Kobeissi join him on stage to reenact the local approach to death and martyrdom.

Here, Chahrour does not create a ceremony; he simply directs it. With an approach not unlike that of Marcel Duchamp, he shows us that art is not always made, but can be also found. He brings the theatrical elements of typically Shi’a ceremonies to the stage.

The ceremonies, as Chahrour proves, are innately abounding in elements of dance, music, and poetry. However, some work still needs to be done to fit a stage, and we mostly find these elements wisely stretched or thinned to this purpose.

The musicians do not suffice by themselves in their live playing for Leila. They are her sons here after all, and accompany their brother Ali in parts with dances. Leila dances too, exaggerating the lamentations of the ceremonies and their gestures, and giving them enough thrust to occupy the space around her in a dance of voluminous, yet unpretentious, movement.

The men walk onto the stage. Leila joins them, and sits on a chair in front of them in a shot similar to a family portrait. Slowly, the men start chanting a traditional chant of funerals, typically sung to a deceased parent. Leila joins in, chanting to martyrs. The contradiction here comes slightly jarring: Who has lost whom?

As Leila starts turning around the stage in her amplified lamentations, the answer is soon to be revealed. She chooses instead to sit and tell us, the audience, her story.

Breaking more than lightly tabooed matters of stage and performance in her environment, Leila does not find herself out-of-place. Although Chahrour strips her of her usually female audience, he offers her another, different one here. She, herself, is still Leila, a mourner doing what she usually does.
Leila, the actress, is almost Leila the character. She tells us how she has slowly lost her parents, her many siblings, and her husband to death. The husband, whom she had eloped with, left her three children. On stage, they are Chahrour, Hout, and Kobeissi.

She begins with her ‘Ataba’ (songs of reproach) again. At this point, the stage visually reveals the plot. One would easily notice how Chahrour has been singled out spatially from his family, and appears detached. In fact, he probably seems too detached, somewhat jeopardizing the identity of the performance. Ali’s dancing was hoped to come and give more energy to the melancholic piece, but his contributions were both too scarce and humble.

Oversimplification stalls the show sometimes, yet understandably. What can be done in the paralyzing presence of such raw folklore? Luckily, the performance still has ample momentum to drive the show through.

With Chahrour’s spatially-portrayed death, he becomes a matter of glorification. At this point, Leila becomes inarguably the master of the show. She exposes how the ceremonies become more about the family than the deceased, with elegies becoming matters of personal pride as opposed to pleas and reproaches for the dead.

Leila chants as she slaps Chahrour, taking her ‘Ataba’ to a physical level. He is dressed in glorious white, and lies on the floor as she spreads flowers over his grave. The stage is fully lit, and Leila chants in full voice: “I have buried him, I have buried him,” she sings.

With no indication as to the cause of her son’s death, we wonder whether he is indeed a war martyr. Chahrour is silently reclaiming the term “martyr.” Is every dead man not a martyr of his body? Of his loved ones? Can’t the dead be only their loved ones’ dead and only so, stripped of sociopolitical dressings? Can’t a mother alone lament her son the way Leila capably took the stage alone to cry for her child?

The musicians leave their instruments and join their brother. They turn like the arms of a clock, hand in hand around the chanting-mother in the center of it all. With this clock’s time passing around her, they slowly lie on the floor one by one. They spread their dead bodies one atop the other like dominoes, all the way up to their lonely mother’s feet, who has retaken her original seat on the stage. Leila, who has lost her parents, siblings, and husband, has now lost her children.
The lights go off. The show ends. Leila begins to die.

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