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.
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.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
At the mercy of the political upheavals that unnerve her world, she recounts her experiences as a child and then an adult, relocating to Beirut from Egypt and later emigrating to Australia, only to return to Lebanon just as the embers of war were being fanned. As a survivor of a fifteen-year war that devastated her beloved Beirut, Mojabber Mourani derived purpose and optimism from her work as an educator at International College.
Throughout the book, she also celebrates life, resilience, and hope in the face of adversity and instability. She explores the theme of family and the significance of a Mediterranean heritage. She tells her stories because they need to be told, and because they need to be passed on, documenting the process of identity formation and the choices that her multiculturalism impose on her as events change her life.
Balconies also explores cultural and gender issues and observes the interactions between the urban landscapes and political climate of the cities she has lived in. The various vignettes and observations in the book are held together by the unifying thread of balconies. The author observes that the great and ancient cities of Alexandria, Athens and Beirut place a unique emphasis on their verandas: the place from which one sees the world. They are the vantage points and social spaces of their inhabitants, but also private spaces for reflection and introspection. Describing her love affair with Beirut, a city of contrasts and contradictions, the author also attempts to explain how urban dwellers negotiate their communion with nature.
Balconies is a book about the complexities of life, and the defining moments that make us who we are. It is, above all, a book that celebrates survival, diversity and resilience.
Excerpts from Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir have been translated by Aida Y. Haddad and have appeared in the daily Al-Hayat. the author has been invited to speak about the book in the US, including book readings hosted by the World Alumni Association of AUB and the Glendale Public Library in California.
Mishka Mojabber Mourani has published a collection of poems, Lest We Forget, Lebanon 1975-1990, and co-authored a series of four grammar and writing text books, Highlighting the English Language Program, as well as several articles on education, culture and current affairs.
In 2006, her short story, 'The Fragrant Garden,' appeared in a collection entitled Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women, published by Telegram Books (London, 2006). The story was selected for inclusion in a a book entitled Lebanon Through Writers' Eyes, published by Eland (London, 2009).
Most recently, Mishka Mojabber Mourani's work has appeared in an anthology celebrating Beirut and published by Assabil in 2010 entitled Habiter Beyrouth? Parcours d'ecriture, on the occasion of Beirut being declared Book Capital of the World.
Mojabber Mourani, Mishka. Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar An-Nahar, October, 2009 -101 pages
ISBN 978-99530-74-257-1 - AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.COM
Mishka Mojabber Mourani: Book talks in California