Sporting a casual tank-top, effortless up-do, and one of the now ubiquitous face masks, Marie-Lou Nahhas radiates positive energy, and approaches life heart-first. “You know, I’ve never seen people who love life as much as Arabs; they love their community, their culture, and they continue this circle of rebirth, dying and continuously being born again,” she says with a hint of nostalgia and pride. As a member of the Lebanese diaspora, Nahhas, who emigrated to the United States for university, always felt emotionally and mentally bonded to the Arab world. Now, she’s returned to Lebanon to be more involved regionally as both an actress and activist.
Nahhas made a splash on the final season of Netflix’s cult series Orange is the New Black in her role as Shani Abboud, an Egyptian woman exiled by her family for her sexuality, who escapes illegally to the United States after being subjected to female genital mutilation. She is then arrested by ICE and detained at the women’s prison where the show takes place. Despite her trials, Shani displays a capacity for love and kindness. This role compelled Nahhas to consider, along with the writers and director, the way Arab women are represented, especially on American television. She dedicated herself to portraying Shani with authenticity and complexity, while dealing with charged topics, including social and reproductive rights for women. “It’s a complex story that has a past, present, and future,” Nahhas explains. “She’s not passive; Shani makes her own decisions. She believes in love, and passion.”
Much like the character she played, Nahhas is a multidimensional figure who oscillates between two equally complex worlds. While the United States is where she was educated and landed her first major role, Lebanon is her home country, and remains a constant presence in her life. As the country began to descend into difficult times, she felt instinctively that she needed to return there, in order to shed light on the topics closest to her heart through her role as a public figure. Refreshingly, Nahhas maintains a belief in the ability of the arts to impact humanitarian causes; a belief that has led her back to her roots. “The way I see life and move through life is through love. It doesn’t mean that you don’t show the negativity, but it’s been seen that negativity doesn’t move us forward,” Nahhas explains.
Nahhas has dedicated considerable time and effort to learn about controversial topics related to sexual health and gender inequality. When asked what causes she plans to pursue, Nahhas has a clear answer: “All of it together, especially women’s rights. Not from an oppressive point of view, or an aggressive one. We have rights, and we have to keep showing the new generations the true essence of being a woman. The rights for all the generations, my parent’s generation especially. They lived through the war. It’s about really giving them their rights and raising them up in life, while giving them the freedom to live the way they want to without fear.” This unflinching positivity Nahhas exudes in demanding a more compassionate life, for those in her home country, in the surrounding region, and worldwide, might be exactly what is needed in the coming months.