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.

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.

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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.