Mishka Mojabber Mourani's BALCONIES reviewed January 2011 JOURNAL OF MIDDLE EAST WOMEN'S STUDIES


Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir

Mishka Mojabber Mourani. Beirut: Dar An-Nahar, 2009.

ISBN 978-99530-74-257-1

Reviewed by Megan Khairallah

Part memoir, part photo album, and part varied collage of poetry, reportage, and correspondence, Mishka Mojabber Mourani’s autobiographical work Balconies cannot be confined to a specific genre. Appropriately so since the multilingual Levantine persona that emerges from this short but multifaceted work moves, shifts, and changes within the various political climates and urban landscapes she has observed and experienced.

Mojabber uses the metaphor of the balcony to represent a space that is neither “inside” nor “outside.” It is a space that provides the security of the living room, as well as connects her to the different social and political realities of the streets below. The balcony is a constant physical feature in the landscape of her life as she moves throughout the Levant because of war, political upheaval, or familial decisions.

The balcony is both living space and observation point: on the balcony the older generation tell their stories, share their family recipes, do their shopping, and commune with the street below. It is the family vantage point. But from this vantage point one also observes the changing course of history and politics, the comings and goings of occupying armies, the traumatic events that will cause the constant uprooting, disruption, and migration of these families.

The balcony then, is an extension of the “inside” family. Writing in English, Mojabber recounts the family stories shared in Greek, Arabic, English, and French—indicative of this multicultural, multinational Levantine phenomenon—stories that paradoxically represent the only stability and the focal point of her childhood: the tapestry of her composite identity.

From the balcony facing out, Mojabber mostly tells with a mixture of anger and nostalgia the stories of the many wars she herself has witnessed. She observes changes in weather that reflect the marches, processions, bombing and shelling in the streets below. Having been forced to leave her childhood Egypt because of political turbulence, she lived through most of the war in Lebanon, she has witnessed much violence and destruction, and recounts these “war stories” as tales that not only need to be told, but as “histories” that that must be remembered.

Among these tales is the story of Nabil, an adolescent boy tempted by an apple offered to him by the invading Israeli soldier. Both writer and reader sit at the edge of their seats wondering whether Nabil will succumb to the temptation. When he finally does take the apple, we still feel, despite our disappointment, that Nabil has always been in charge of the situation. As the reader sits on the balcony with the narrator watching Nabil, she becomes part of the story and hence a witness to the history of the war.

Though this text does deal with war and displacement, these stories are all parts of a larger search for an identity that is constantly being redefined within the different politically charged landscapes. As a blond, blue-eyed child and adolescent growing up in the Levant, Mojabber is constantly asked to define who she is, where she comes from, where she belongs, or as she aptly phrases it: “Transact with my ‘otherness’.” Her Greek family, Arab heritage, and native English place her as neither a “local” nor a “foreigner.” When Mojabber is asked to hide her “Lebaneseness” in order to blend into her Australian school, the reader can feel her adolescent self struggling to define her identity in defiance of labels. Her family finally decides to remain in Lebanon despite living through the seventeen-year-long civil war, and the war becomes another part of her multifaceted identity.

Mojabber observes, remembers, and recounts parts of her life in this emotionally written work. Though the text is a sensitive exploration of the creation of identity, it is also a cultural document of growing up as the political individual that a Levantine life necessarily creates. In Balconies we hear many voices and the sounds of many lives. It is about war, exile, and the meaning of identity and plurality. It is a work that explores memories, it opens up spaces where self-representation is explored, played out, negotiated, examined, but never captured in totality.

Monday, December 28, 2009


December 14, 2009 Magda Abu-Fadil

Director of Journalism Training Program at the American University of Beirut Posted: December 13, 2009 04:27 PM

Balconies: Mishka Mojabber Mourani's Extended Self in a Mediterranean Memoir

It's a labor of love for Egyptian, Lebanese and Greek balconies, interspersed by wars, displacement, marriage, birth, death, fond family souvenirs, and an experience that is uniquely Mediterranean.

And it could only have been written by someone quintessentially Levantine half-Greek, cosmopolitan, well traveled, multilingual, and, who's felt most at home on balconies in Alexandria, Beirut and Athens, despite an emigration hiccup to Australia, and back, in her late teens.

"I had an 'aha!' moment about the balconies," explained Mishka Mojabber Mourani about going through family pictures she cherished that were all shot on various balconies around the Mediterranean as she sought a framework for the book that had been writing itself for two decades.

What reinforced it was a trip to Dubai two years ago and realizing there were no balconies there.

"Isn't that amazing? There's a functional reason (the oppressive weather). Any balconies they have are purely decorative and they serve no purpose," she said, adding that balconies were very much part of who she was. "You can't live without one."

Mourani (née Marie Christine Mojabber) is the elder of two daughters born to a Lebanese-Syrian Christian father and Greek mother in Egypt's second city, Alexandria, made famous by Lawrence Durrell's quartet.

"The people of the Mediterranean consider their balconies natural extensions of their homes, and their balconies are vital to their personal spaces," she wrote in the preamble to "Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir."

Levantines -- people from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine -- use their balconies as social and breathing spaces, confessionals and a means both to distance themselves from, and become participants in, occurrences marking their lives, she noted.

In Mourani's case, those balconies also witnessed wars, civil and otherwise, exile, and the meaning of identity and plurality.

The last conflict she endured was Israel's onslaught on Lebanon in July 2006 during which she saw Beirut being pounded and the capital's port targeted, a few hundred yards from her sixth-floor balcony.

"My child trembles in my arms. She has not said a word. She looks up to me, and I see her eyes have become those of an adult," Mourani writes of her then 'tween daughter Cara. "She takes me by the shoulders and says, 'Promise you will get me out of here.'

It was gut wrenching for Mourani, who had lived through the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, and seen IDF troops under her balcony.

She took Cara to safety in California, where Mourani's sister lived and had returned after being trapped in Beirut with her husband and two children that summer while on a visit.

Mourani's earlier balcony also had its share of strife.

Militiamen, who broke into her family's home, used its exposed location during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war to shoot at their enemies.

But all is not grim. Mourani warmly recalls idyllic summers until she was 15 with her mother Katy's family in the Athens suburb of Nea Zmirni, sitting on balconies listening to family members reminisce about Egypt's "good old days" where they had grown up.
Mourani and her sister Carrie would go out for treats with older members of their Greek family and be taken to open air cinemas showing movies appropriate for children's viewing.

At the time the sisters were the youngest members of a wide circle of loving people encompassing three generations, Mourani wrote.

"It's very much part of who I was," she told me referring to that side of her family and chuckling about "hand gestures that don't appear on paper."

She recalled her Greek relatives giving endearing diminutive names to people, foods and things and said she looked forward to the day she and Carrie would become "yiayiathes" (grandmothers) who bestow blessings the way her grandmother, mother and aunt always did and do.

She sent a copy to her aunt Dora in Greece for the latter's 95th birthday.

The petite Mourani is a sensitive poet, a wife, a mother, and a resilient down-to-earth woman with a healthy sense of humor.

She is senior vice president of International College, a leading private school in Lebanon, who helped keep the institution running through the country's various upheavals.

Mourani recounts going straight to her balcony, her sanctuary, to inspect her plants, after a partial mastectomy and radiotherapy in 2001.

"The panorama of our public wars cannot be complete without a glimpse of the inscapes from my personal balcony."

She winds down her book with a moving letter to her late father.

"I am sitting on the balcony you loved so well and look at the flowers you tended with such care. I took them for granted until you left us," she wrote longingly. "They are still here, in mummy's care."

Now Mourani grows her own, she adds, and knows the secret that every bloom brings.

"It is a blessing. A message of grace."

"Balconies" was published by Lebanon's Dar An-Nahar, which will market it in Europe and promote it during Beirut's International Book Fair next week.

Mourani hopes to have the book published in the U.S. and Canada where large Lebanese and Greek communities live.

"I'd like that for my father and for my uncles," she concluded.


Tes Balcons

Chère Marie-Christine

Depuis plus de quinze ans, et comme par apparitions soudaines, tes circulaires signées me faisaient méditer sur le nom propre que tu tiens; je me disais souvent que les noms épousent le profil de celui qui les porte, le mien, trop anonyme et bizarrement mathématique, me rendant perplexe. Je continue souvent à être bombardé par des questions du genre: Libanais? Grec? Et moi de défendre et de localiser une ville natale inscrite sur ma carte d’identité(Bashoura), et de me vanter d’un libanisme frôlant la xénophobie.

J’ai réalisé avec le temps qu’au lieu de devenir mon nom, c’est plutôt mon nom qui m’est devenu! Je ressens souvent que je suis plus digne que ma Marque déposée, mon code alphabétique, je deviens de plus en plus indépendant de mon nom, au point qu’en l’écoutant dans la bouche des autres, je me cherche pour m’appeler moi aussi.

Le tien m’a toujours intrigué: MMM, concordance et similitude, mais aussi une étendue, et au fur et à mesure que ta connaissance dans tes dimensions professionnelle et personnelle me fut plus ou moins accessible, j’ai découvert que Mishka est le nom de ton personnage, alors que seul Marie-Christine est celui de ta personne et c’est en ta qualité de personne que tu devrais être adressée, surtout pour te lire.

C’est de Marie-Christine qu’il s’agit dans “Balconies”, bien que Mishka en est le voyageur insatiable, Marie-Christine reste la destination.”Balconies” est dans cette optique le retour de Marie-Christine, qui sur les balcons de la Méditerranée se miroite pour retracer les soupirs d’une vie pleine de séparations et de plaies.

J’ai lu “Balconies” et je te le dis sans te flatter- moi qui ponds des poèmes depuis des décennies et en lis depuis le décès précoce de mon père: je n’ai jamais croisé une image poétique aussi puissante que celle de Dieu qui déplace ses meubles! Pourvu qu’il ne déménage pas, les occupants de sa demeure devraient alors moins joliment expliquer les tonnerres à leurs enfants.

D’ailleurs, c’est au gré des tonnerres que tu vagabondes dans tes textes antidatés et à suivre tes rêveries, on a souvent l’air de vivre dans un temps cyclique et d’osciller sur la balançoire de l’éternité plutôt que de supporter la stupidité du temps linéaire.

Ton temps est spatial, très spatial, urbain quand il se lamente sur les dents cariées de Beyrouth, et viscéral quand il se remplit d’impressions méditerranéennes, de la poussière d’Alexandrie ou des saveurs des shishas, ou bien du seul sorbet grec qui entretenait ton enfance dans la fraîcheur.

De ton balcon, tu déplores le décès des jardins, une adolescence urbaine nous a condamnés à conserver éternellement des dents de lait urbaines, notre capitale paraît-il souffre d’une grave dyslexie architecturale, et comme les orthophonistes appelés à la réparer sont occupés à dévorer les ressources des ONG au détriment de nos villes, nous resterons à jamais, comme Cara, les binoculaires entre les mains, les témoins de l’inhumation de la plus belle ville au monde sans avoir même le temps de soupirer.

Ce pouvoir de quitter Beyrouth pour s’exiler à Beyrouth, Beyrouth est la plaie et la cicatrice, la nostalgie et l’oubli, et finalement, et peut être avant tout, l’identité et l’impossibilité de l’appartenance.

C’est à cette identité que se réfère Nabil, oui, Nabil doit résumer par son attitude, la résistance pacifique contre la barbarie. Résistance du Verbe et du regard, seuls armes efficaces pour une nation ne pouvant sans se disloquer s’adapter ou imiter les militarisations de l’Etat en vogue dans la région la plus démocratique au monde !

Seul le visage maternel est dans « Balconies » un refuge, le tien, dans toutes ses variations et dans tous les climats, les villes se métamorphosent et le flanc maternel reste la Capitale de l’espérance, le pays où nous retrouvons la chaleur de la natalité et la limpidité du sourire. « En compagnie des femmes », première trace poétique dans ton livre, la femme est aux confins de la prose, seule la poésie rime avec sa tendresse, et ça me donne la ferme conviction que les mamans n’allaitent pas seulement les enfants, mais les soirées, oui, mais bien au-delà aussi, elles allaitent la destinée toute entière et, à travers la sève maternelle tu respires Dieu ; les rituels sont ton ascension, tes plaies sont tes prières, et au lieu de te prosterner, tu médites et redécouvre dieu dans la robe de tes souvenirs.

Mars 2005: le peuple est l’âme de la nation, les dirigeants en sont les démons; juillet 2006: nous sommes les artisans de l’incertain, les couturiers de la déchirure, depuis que nous étions des nomades éparpillés appelés approximativement un « peuple ». Octobre 2006: à te lire décrire Mar Nkoula, on a l’impression de déguster le brouillard d’un passé trempé de miel et de vinaigre, mieux encore, on te voit dévoilée, contrairement à la coquinerie féminine, en maquilleuse de décades; ton âge n’est plus celui du botox et des corrections fessières des temps hollywoodiens qui nous font rater les rondeurs des femmes habituelles, mais celui qui sans complexe morphologique, badine avec l’âge. L’allusion à l’époque de l’épicier avant l’invasion des grandes surfaces ainsi que la nostalgie du panier précédant la technique des ascenseurs panoramiques, redéfinit ton visage de femme, dont la fermeté cache non sans effort un cœur fragilisé par la distance et des yeux toujours prêts à pleurer.

C’est de cette bénédiction maudite que je souffre, moi, chère Marie-Christine, de n’être pas précisément de quelque part, ce quelque part qui est partout , ailleurs et nulle part, et quand on insiste, Bashoura devient mon fief, mais au fin fond de ma tristesse, je sens couler en moi, le sang de toutes les capitales.

Etre de nulle part et de partout aussi paradoxal que cela puisse apparaître me donne un plaisir presque pervers, celui d’épouser l’humanité et c’est ce détachement qui constitue en somme notre appartenance.

Ton point « bleu » finalement est comme tu l’as excellemment décrit, ton « ornement » et ta « médaille » et c’est à lui que tu dois tes écrits et tes poèmes car, rappelle-toi, l’homme est un apprenti et la douleur est son maître, ne le perds pas de vue ce point « bleu », et sache que beaucoup n’ont pas eu la chance de le voir dessiné sur leur poitrine et ont raté la chance de s’agripper à l’index de leur père pour traverser la rue de la destinée.

Roni Alpha

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Balconies" is here!

Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir is a collection of vignettes, reflections and fictional memoirs seen from the balconies of the Mediterranean. People who live in the three cities the author chose - Alexandria, Beirut and Athens - use their balconies not only ornamentally, but also social spaces, vantage points, and extensions of their private lives. The book is an exploration of identity, exile, war and what it means to be a Levantine.

Mishka Mojabber Mourani: Book talks in California

The Glendale Central Library hosted a reading and discussion of BALCONIES as part of its author events on Wednesday August 18th.

The WAAAUB chapter of Southern California hosted a well attended reading and discussion of BALCONIES: A Mediterranean Memoir at the Calabassas Club on August 8, 2010.