Finding hope in the throes of violence

BEIRUT: Twenty years ago, a young woman named Zahwa vanished: one day she was there, the next gone. It was as though she had never existed, recalls Lara Kanso, who has never forgotten her friend.

“Zahwa was very quiet, very low profile,” she says. “She didn’t have the right to leave her house, but she fell in love with someone, and that didn’t please her family, I don’t think. Then she disappeared. ... She was killed.”

Zahwa, who was only 20 years old, had married her lover secretly just two days before she vanished. No one was ever held responsible for her death.

Two decades on, Kanso – founder of the boutique events company O de Rose – felt compelled to speak out about the brutality Zahwa and other women face in today’s Lebanon, whether victims of honor killings or domestic violence.

“I’ve wanted to talk about her all my life,” Kanso explains. “I didn’t see how I could do it until the day I saw the documentary about the gang rapes in Egypt. ... One woman attacked by maybe 100 men in Tahrir. I saw that documentary and I was so shocked. I went many nights without sleeping and Zahwa reappeared – the memories were very strong.

“I’d already decided to make a performance about violence, and when I saw the documentary Zahwa was very present in my thoughts, so I decided to talk about her also. Since then I’ve been working on a performance. It’s taken one year and two months. It’s horrible, because since I decided to talk about Zahwa we’ve seen many Zahwas in Lebanon.”

Driven by the wish to pay tribute to her friend, Kanso came up with the idea for “Les Noces de Zahwa” (Zahwa’s Wedding). Blending multiple disciplines, the performance consists of three individual scenarios, united by a shared visual aesthetic and the common theme of violence against women.

The performance – which stars Marwa Khalil, Wafaa’ Halaoui and Dalia Jabbour – opens with a dramatic interpretation of a text by author, poet and Al-Safir culture editor Abbas Beydoun. Beydoun was inspired to write the piece, which mingles poetry and prose, after Kanso told him the story of Zahwa.

“There are three scenes,” Kanso explains. “Each scene is constructed around a text.

“The first scene is where we celebrate Zahwa’s wedding. She was married, but she never had a wedding, [so] it takes on a sacrificial air. I worked around [Beydoun’s] text. Here Zahwa is the woman, the body, love, desire.

“Afterward, Zahwa becomes Mother Earth and we talk about the suffering on earth, using a text by Mahmoud Darwish.

“In the third movement, the woman becomes the mother, and for this we worked on a text by Marguerite Duras, ‘The Death of the Young British Pilot.’”

“This is woman, for me,” Kanso adds. “She’s love. She’s desire. She’s beauty. She’s fertility, because the earth is our mother, and she’s like the Virgin Mary. For the third scene I always have [Michelangelo’s] La Pieta in mind.”

The hourlong French-Arabic performance will include film projections, live music and a contemporary dance performance choreographed by Japanese artist Kazumi Fuchigami. Artist Jean-Marc Nahas will also draw live on stage, creating visuals relating to the theme.

“Nahas’ work speaks powerfully about violence, about torture, about sorrow and about violated women,” Kanso explains, “so I thought it went very well with Zahwa.

“I realized that we could establish a dialogue [among] all these artistic forms and the texts. ... There is a quality of beauty throughout, visually and aurally, but it’s not a play. It’s a performance. It doesn’t have pretensions. It’s something very simple.”

The issue of violence against women has been highlighted in Lebanon’s conventional and social media in recent months. The deaths of Roula Yaacoub in July 2013 and Manal Assi in February of this year sparked a national outcry.

Last weekend more than 2,000 people participated in a march in Beirut, demanding the adoption of a draft law to protect women from domestic violence.

Increased awareness of the issue is a step in the right direction, Kanso says, but more needs to be done.

“We cannot say that things haven’t changed [since Zahwa’s death],” she continues. “Media is important, and the NGOs are very important too. We cannot hide anything anymore, and I think that women have changed a lot and men too. The whole society has changed, but not enough. I think every step is important, every word is important. We have to keep acting, keep talking and help each other.”

Although based on a tragic story, “Les Noces de Zahwa” aims to send a positive message.

“For sure it’s a tragedy,” Kanso agrees, “but without hope, I can’t do anything. We need hope and I will end with hope. The performance will finish by transforming Zahwa into a little girl. ... She is resuscitated by art, theater and the love that we have for her.”

“Les Noces de Zahwa” will be on show at Theatre Monnot from March 13 to 16. For more information, please visit

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 12, 2014, on page 16.




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