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.
Friday, October 1, 2010
In the past year she has published BALCONIES: A MEDITERRANEAN MEMOIR [Dar An-Nahar, Beirut 2009] and her work has appeared in LEBANON THROUGH WRITERS’ EYES – an anthology published by Eland, UK in 2009, and, most recently, HABITER BEYROUTH? PARCOURS D’ECRITURE [Assabil, Beirut 2010].
When the war ended in Lebanon in 1991, Mishka Mojabber Mourani published a poetry collection – LEST WE FORGET: LEBANON 1975-1990. She has also published a short story in HIKAYAT: SHORT STORIES BY LEBANESE WOMEN [Telegram books, UK] in 2006.
BALCONIES: A MEDITERRANEAN MEMOIR:
Mishka Mojabber Mourani's Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir is not only a memoir but also a collage of photos, letters, fiction and reportage. In it the author explores the themes of war, exile, identity, heritage and multicultural identities. Mojabber Mourani is a Levantine: a citizen of the eastern Mediterranean who speaks five languages and who was born in Egypt of Greek and Lebanese parentage. At the mercy of the political upheavals that rattle her world, she recounts her experiences as an emigrant to Australia, and as a survivor of a fifteen-year war that devastated her beloved Beirut, deriving purpose and optimism from her work as an educator. Throughout the book, she also celebrates life, resilience, and hope in the face of adversity and instability. She tells her stories because they need to be told, and because they need to be passed on. She consciously documents the process of identity formation and the choices that her multiculturalism impose on her.
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 introspection and reflection. They are also the urban dweller's means of 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.
Mishka Mojabber Mourani: Book talks in California