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.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Delivered at the International Book Fair – BIEL
DECEMBER 17, 2009

I wish to comment on a few themes that Mishka has dealt with and that hold a distinctive flavour, a very special significance for me.

The first one, obvious but subtle, is the theme of balconies, a very inspiring theme indeed. These balconies represent a space that is both exterior and private, under the sight of everyone and yet protected. Balconies allow you to be home but oriented towards the outside world, attentive to the many noises of the city, or to the subtler pulse of the village. They provide you with a welcome break in the activities of the day, a bowl of fresh air, an inflow of life.

One goes out on a balcony to get in tune with the world, to find out what the weather is like, in which direction the wind is blowing, if the streets are quiet or agitated, if the night is falling, if the air is soft.

In times of war, one stands on a balcony with anxiety and apprehension, to grasp the tempo of the day, violent or calm, nervous or healing. And in times of peace, one sits out for a while in order to dream a little, to enjoy the simple pleasure of being still at home but yet outside, in an in-between space that allows thoughts to wander freely.

But balconies are also a space of social and economic exchange. While on your balcony, you can check if the neighbours are in, and if one of them happens to be outside too, then you can exchange a few words, inquire about the price of vegetables and share the latest news about the neighbourhood or the rest of the world. Women stand on their balconies to hail peddlers pushing their carts, hawkers advertising their wares out loud, or tinkers who will give their saucepans a second life. And it is from balconies that baskets swing down and climb heavily back up with their precious goods on board.

Balconies are the Mediterranean signature of façades and walls. They assert the architectural identity of a city, its specificity, its language, and this language is common to all the countries whose shores are rocked by the soothing rhythms of tideless waves.

The balconies Mishka brings to life before our eyes make us travel with her around these many shores, and into these infinite moods.

The Mediterranean shores are the perfect transition for the second theme I wish to comment on, the theme of identity.

Mishka speaks of identity in a peculiar way that comes at the right time to remind us of how complex identities are, how questionable are any attempts to simplify them, and how doubtful are the enticing slogans that seem to advertise a univocal definition of identity.

This book is a testimony to how identities are built through crossbreeding and blending. It points out to what extent interconnection and integration are the essence of identity and its raison d’être. It underlines the fact that identities are never ossified, never a finished product that one would inherit when born into a certain social group, to be kept intact in order to protect it from impoverishment. It celebrates identity as an ongoing process, that it is built everyday and that it is enriched everyday.

Identity she tells us is not negatively defined, through subtraction or division, a neither/nor process. Rather it is defined through addition, acquisition, multiplication, and conjunction, because it is an and/or process.

And what she refers to as her Levantine roots are a beautiful example of this complexity, a complexity that makes our worlds richer and more fascinating, that makes them a better place to live in.

The third theme is that of war and exile. She speaks of how the many wars and exiles that she has experienced have made her not weak or fragile, but stronger, even more humane and generous. And this is probably what is most striking, in her book as well as in her personality.

When she describes how school children came smiling each morning and that she was there for them, when she speaks of the esprit de corps that existed among teachers of all sects and backgrounds, when she writes « And so it is that my grand-parents’ exile 100 years before came full circle, and the various identities we assumed on the journey blended into a multicultural fabric informed by tenacity and resilience, » we are deeply moved and deeply admiring. Tenacity and resilience are some of the fundamental ingredients of Mediterranean culture at its best.

Mishka dons her various lives and selves like a cloak that embraces her otherness, like a cloak that reveals the beautiful person that she is. She adds her stone to the construction of a world where each one’s otherness is perceived as a jewel, as one of the voices of a choir.

And we are sure that not only her own child but all the children that she has guided and still guides into adulthood, "will revel in the possibilities that lie in the future because of the past."

Delivered at the International Book Fair - December 17, 2009

I would like to quote John Steinbeck on his view of reading. He wrote, “A story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or what he can from it and thus changes it to his own measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their own mesh of prejudices, some paint it with their own delight.”

It is true that Mishka explores the themes of identity, war, exile, and balconies. But what mesmerized me in this anthology, (I see it more as an anthology than a memoir, although it is probably a little bit of both) is something quite different. Her portrayal of perspective through the backdrop of different settings gives this collection a view into how we can be simultaneously the same and different. There is a kind of duality between her connection with others and her individuality. Her poem “To Dora, Eva and Anita” illustrates this very aptly. [p. 37-38]

In the company of women,
Mothers and sisters all,

I learned to work a hook
To knit the past with no. 4 needles
To needle-point my reality.

In the company of women,
We spun our yarn
To the rhythm of stories
Weaving our perceptions
Into our truths
With brightly colored threads.

In the company of women
We fashioned the notions
Of our silk and linen history
With the cross stitch patterns
Of our ergo-cheiro,
Our hands’ work.

Laughter erupting
Gossip shared
Tears wiped away
Wisdom passed on
While the needles worked.

In the company of women,
Stories were told and retold
Were made myth by retelling.
Women in the warm afternoon
Weaving the woof and warp
Of who we are.

The skills of family
Passed on by deed and word,
In the company of women."

Mishka here recognizes and comes to terms with her heritage yet all the while recognizes her individuality in the line “Women in the warm afternoon weaving the woof and warp of who we are.” Each stitch represents a unique step in the path of the knitter."
Something else I found remarkable was the humor sometimes interspersed throughout the recollection of the war rather than a dreary description of how glum everything always was. For example, from the selection “When will we forget?” , she recounts a cartoon she had drawn of herself. [p. 82] But the moments are not always humorous, for there is indeed the tone of regret and sense of loss. Her poem “Nature Morte” exemplifies the nostalgia for normalcy as it is viewed in peacetime or in ‘civilization.’ [p. 66]

We, in Lebanon, no longer write
About eternity and butterflies.
Is it because art, too,
Can only be the lot
Of those who are 'civilized'?
And are we to be, with this, too,
Quite satisfied?
Is endurance, then,
The subtraction of poetry

From one's precariously committed existence?

Perhaps the most poignant comment on the war is taken from “Negotiating War,” [p. 56] in which there is such melancholy, but melancholy combined with reflection. It begins with “The wars of our world have punctuated my life” and after a brief chronology of the wars that compelled her family into exile in one form or another, she ends with until 1975.The next fifteen years of my life were spent  undergoing a war that I never understood and never accepted; in doing so, I came to terms with it.
My life has been punctuated not by the wars of my world, but by my coming to terms with them.
The inscapes of past wars are ensconced in my memories for better and for worse.
But July 2006: This last war I cannot come to terms with.
I see it through my child’s eyes.
The new landscapes, impetuous, sear my brain."

The final point that drew my attention was in fact at the beginning of the collection, in her piece entitled “November 2005,” where she encapsulates her vision of the war/s. [p. 18]

Beirut knows no twilight, that stretch of time and diffused light after the sun has set. There are no in-between times in this city of contradictions and contrasts. Twilight is a time of nuance, this city has none.My memories are not bitter. I even find myself nostalgic for the clarity that was created by the urgency and intensity of those unsettling years.
The point of nostalgia is that you have survived the past: It’s not that you have forgotten what you went through- it’s remembering feeling what you went through and knowing it isn’t there anymore. It is about having overcome the gratuitous past because the future is viable.

Beirut has lost its gardens but not its fragrances. The fragile jasmines, absurd in this city bedecked with tortuous vines of electric wires, work themselves loose at dusk, carrying in their fall fragments of memories of what was, what isn’t, and what always will be.
The war is no longer with us; its remnants are. Buildings blotched in grey shed their skins, uncovering other shades of grayness. These buildings, inhabited by those who can no longer allow themselves a coat of paint, or who no longer feel the need for one, resign themselves to the patina of nostalgia, surrounded by the spanking new leviathans of steel and glass that mark the new Beirut.

It is difficult to learn a new city. It is more difficult to unlearn an old one. The new spaces of Beirut suffocate me with their impetuosity. Their detachment provokes me. I find refuge in the barely perceptible yet unchanging scent of heedless jasmine.
The languid jasmines on my balcony shiver slightly in the September breeze, auguring an autumn that insinuates itself gracefully into the city. I scan the unkempt city spread out before me: buildings in irregular rows like teeth in a jaded mouth, some caried, some filled, some capped, and others incongruously implanted for being too tall and too white.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

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

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

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 'ah-ha!' 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.

Mourani, right, with father William Mojabber and sister Carrie on their Alexandria balcony in 1956 (Mourani)

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."

"Balconies" book cover painting by Samir Khaddaj

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.'"

Cara Mourani watches Israeli shelling of Beirut port from her balcony, July 2006 (Mourani)

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

Israeli tanks in Beirut, 1982 (Mourani)

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.

Greek balcony 2008 (Mourani)

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.

Mishka Mojabber Mourani (Abu-Fadil)

"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 distributed 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.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A bird's-eye view of identity, exile and war



A bird's-eye view of identity, exile and war

Mourani’s “Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoire” is an anthology of her reflections

By Randa Azkoul Soubaih

Special to The Daily Star
Wednesday, January 06, 2010

BEIRUT: Those who remained in Lebanon during the Civil War know the significant role that balconies played in the various conflicts. On the higher floors of buildings, they provided convenient sniping vantage points for the various militias. On days when there was no shooting, balconies provided a respite for the inhabitants of a building, a place they could communicate with the outside world after cowering for nights in basements to avoid shelling and shrapnel.

Mishka Mojabber Mourani’s new book “Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir” is an anthology of reflections, some expressed in letters or poems, others in short stories, and yet others in vignettes.

As the title suggests, balconies play a central role. They serve as backdrops against which the characters play out their roles and sometimes even assume the role of characters themselves. The recurring image of the balcony links the disparate fragments that make up Mourani’s book.

In addition to reflecting the political climates and urban landscapes of the various cities in which she has resided, the book explores three main themes: exile, identity, and family ties from a gender perspective.

Mourani’s family, owing to various political and educational circumstances, moved from Egypt to Lebanon, to Australia, and back to Lebanon. After such an uprooted childhood, it is ironic Mourani chose to stay put during Lebanon’s fifteen-year Civil War, when many others fled. She “stuck it out,” and it is this experience that provided her with the impetus to put pen to paper, exploring the effect of exile and war on her cast of characters.

Identity, often claimed as the raison d’être of the Lebanese civil strife, is a prominent theme of the book.
“This book is a testimony to how identities are built through crossbreeding and blending,” said author Georgia Makhlouf in a discussion at the launching of “Balconies” during Beirut’s 2009 International Book Fair. “It points out to what extent interconnection and integration are the essence of identity … It celebrates identity as an ongoing process, that it is built and enriched everyday.”

The theme of identity is interwoven with an examination of the role of women in the maintenance of the fabric of families in times of crisis.

As the book progresses, the balcony becomes the embodiment of Mourani’s own self, its fragmentation as well as its wholeness. Ostensibly, the war has shredded her life and it has hijacked her multiform identity, but by remembering her past and by weaving her tale, she has reclaimed her life and her existence.

“Balconies” ends with a posthumous letter from Mourani to her father, a fine demonstration of the author’s tenacity and resilience. She alludes particularly to International College, the school where she taught throughout the war and where she continues to work.

The esprit-de-corps that Mourani describes among the school community is a poignant example of a communal feeling that cuts across all the barriers of sectarianism. The identity that was created within the school community, serving as it did students from every socio-political faction and religious sect, shows an inclusivity that was totally lacking in the simplistic representations that fuelled armed conflict outside the school walls. It is this revelation which makes the book ultimately optimistic and uplifting.

Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir is published by Dar An-Nahar and is available in all discerning bookshops.


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.