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.

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.


1 comment:

  1. Mishka
    Salams ,
    You are leading a very fruitful life
    الله يعطيك العافية
    Very nice balconies , title and contents


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.