Last Friday, a celebration of the life of Leila Tannous-Dawton ONC, organised by the British Lebanese Association, took place at the Embassy of Lebanon in London.
A speech for Leila written by Professor Suheil Bushrui of the University of Maryland who was unable to be present due to circumstances beyond his control was read on his behalf by Sir David Miers, former chairman of the British Lebanese Association. My own contribution was a short address to commemorate her life and our friendship as I knew it.
For the benefit of those who were not present, here is what I said.
Excellencies, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen – having perhaps outlived my sell-by-date at the age of eighty-three, I feel privileged and honoured to be invited to say a few words about a remarkable lady whose sheer presence turned darkness into light and despair into hope.
She was an irrepressible icon to follow and emulate – a great example of a woman destined to leave her distinctive mark in whatever direction she opted to take. She was truly unforgettable.
In essence, she remains a national treasure for her admirers dotted in many parts of the world; a guiding light in an era where things that matter are sacrificed for the sake of personal enrichment.
As we are here to commemorate and at the same time celebrate the life of Leila Tannous-Dawton, I shall therefore refrain from mixing my words with regrets or a measure of sadness – for her life was well lived, full of zest and inner contentment, which we all hope and aspire to achieve one day.
I met Leila when we were both of a certain age, having forged our way to become respectable oldies yet not bereft of our youthful enthusiasm, which throughout the years never dimmed nor lost its intensity.
Leila was a woman of many parts. She saw life on a grand scale, always hungry for knowledge with a capacity to absorb and dissect information and, above all, she was gracious enough to share her vast experience with others.
Her generosity of spirit was legendary. There was never a hint of a whinge or a whiff of pessimism in her outlook on life, except perhaps when she encountered mediocrity or faced undignified behaviour from those of us who should have known better.
She was proud of her Lebanese roots and fought tirelessly to acquaint the West with our rich heritage, be it in science, literature, astronomy or last but not least our warm and renowned hospitality.
I loved this luminous woman with every bone and breath in my body, for she reminded me of two earthy old ladies who lived in Nazareth; unlike Leila, they were illiterate, but nevertheless had great wisdom gained from a hard and harsh life, and to whom I owe everything I have ever accomplished. My little book, The Old Ladies of Nazareth, bears witness to that.
For the last few years, before Leila departed to her heavenly abode, I rang her at least twice a week and had a meaningful conversation that one could call enlighteningly gossipy – and I felt relaxed and the better for it. Her voice was music to my ears, and believe it or not I felt nourished by its resonance.
Do I miss her, you may ask. Of course I do. But I know that her spirit never left us. All we have to do is look up to the heavens and talk to her. I am convinced that she can hear us and feels with a certain pride that her life on earth made her so many friends, and that her legacy will shine interminably for generations to come.
Leila, I bid you au revoir – but not goodbye – for I know deep in my heart that we shall meet again.
In the meantime, please keep your eye and vigilance upon us, lest we lose our way. You have been our guiding spirit for so long that the mere thought of its absence will leave us with a vacuum hard to bear.
However, I know for a fact that your watchful perseverance will save the day and our loss be thus redeemed.
And as I conclude this brief address, I would like to acknowledge that Lisa Zakhem’s tribute to Leila was straight from the heart, beautifully expressed and surpasses anything I could say or do. God bless you all.