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.

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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.