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.