Leila Tannous was born in Bishmizzine, a village near Tripoli in the Koura district of North Lebanon, on June 1, probably in 1919. The youngest in a big family with two brothers and five sisters, Leila graduated from the American University of Beirut with honors in Philosophy and Political Science.
Brought up in a Christian household, in the Eastern Orthodox rite, Tannous was a strong campaigner for women’s rights, liberation, and emancipation, founding and editing a Beirut journal called Woman’s Voice between 1944 and 1947.
When she met Bernard Dawton, a former British Officer stationed at an oil company in Lebanon, they quickly decided to marry, although Leila was reportedly already engaged to a Lebanese man at the time. She and her new husband then moved to London where she lived with his parents for a short time. To note, they did two marriage ceremonies, in the Orthodox Church and then the Anglican Church.
Tannous began as a newsreader in the BBC’s Arabic Service in 1947. She served at the BBC in multiple capacities all throughout her career until her retirement in 1984. During her time at the station, she was involved in various aspects of broadcasting, as a political commentator and as a producer of current affairs and arts programs.
Leila Tannous is known to have broadcasted translations of Shakespeare and encouraged writers to create new plays in Arabic. Tom Stoppard, early in his career, was one of the writers she commissioned, his work duly translated into Arabic. As a newsreader, she helped to develop a standard “BBC Arabic” that could be readily understood from Iraq to Morocco.
One of the highlights of her incredible career would have to be after the incident of the Gulf of Sidra in 1981 when she was one of two hundred journalists invited by Colonel Kaddafi to hear his protest.
From the moment Tannous arrived in London, she made her home between Warwick Gardens and Drayton Gardens. A continuous stream of visitors reportedly stayed with her, some of them for months, and her home was quite traditionally Lebanese and hospitable according to her colleagues.
“Don’t come to meet me if you are not staying,” Tannous would tell potential guests. People who stayed at her esteemed residence included intellectuals, academics, politicians, prime ministers, potentates, and business leaders, from many parts of the Middle-East.
In 1984, Tannous was a founder member of the British Lebanese Association, an association with the aim of promoting understanding between the people of Britain and Lebanon, and to forward cultural exchanges.
Furthermore, in order to prevent Lebanese children in London from losing contact with their own culture, she set up, and for 25 years ran, the Saturday Arabic School, which embraced all ages, from three to 18. English pupils also attended.
According to her own account, the most important aspects of her life were always her homeland and her family, all the more so after the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975.
Leila Tannous’s energy and light remained strong to her very last days. Her husband passed away in 2002, she followed in 2013. She is outlived by her two sons. This remarkable woman from our northern Lebanon is regarded to-date as the “First Feminist Voice” of the BBC.