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.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Fragrant Garden


Published in
Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women [Telegram books, London, 2006]
Lebanon Through Writers’ Eyes [Eland, London, 2009].

We sat in the garden, an anomaly in this city of unruly concrete invaded by trash. Gemmayzeh, just beyond the Beirut city center, had been too close to the demarcation line during the war. As a result, the area had been left pretty much to its own devices during the fifteen years of war. While the war raged, the hundred-year-old alleys and traditional Lebanese houses were abandoned, or occupied by cowering people, who had nowhere else to go. The rebuilding that immediately followed the war caught up slowly with this quaint neighborhood.
Some of the old houses had been rehabilitated by an enterprising woman who was keen to preserve what was left of her Beirut, and turned into expensive villas for rent. We were invited to the home of some friends who lived in that area overlooking Gemmayzeh. We found them sitting in the garden with some guests. It was a lovely October evening. The jasmine was still in bloom and the air was heavy with the scent.
As was often the case when Beirutis got together, the conversation somehow managed to turn to the war years, even though the war had ended some 25 years before.
“The other day my daughter asked me if the war had left any scars,” said a lawyer who had lived part of the war in Tripoli and had spent some time in Paris. “Their teacher had been talking to them about post traumatic stress disorders, about the lost generation…”
“What did you tell her?” asked an attractive woman in her 50s who was a sculptor.
“I was taken aback by the question, actually. I didn’t think that I was scarred. And then my daughter asked me a curious question. ‘What about Teta, your mother. Did the war affect her?’ And suddenly, I started to weep. My mother had died, and I had not been able to attend her funeral. I had never come to terms with that.”
“I feel like I wasted my youth…” said the sculptor, “I still can’t account for those 15 years of war, or even the years that have followed. Many of my friends never married, and this in a culture where women marry young.” She turned toward me, “Where were you during the war?”
“I lived in Beirut throughout.”
“Here in Gemmayzeh?”
“No, I lived in West Beirut. I moved here after I got married. The war had ended.”
“I went to Paris soon after the war started,” said our hostess. “I couldn’t risk staying. My son was just born, and my husband’s work could as easily be conducted from Paris, so… but tell me, was it really a horrible time throughout?”
I thought for a moment. “There was much that was terrible, yes, but yet, in an odd way, there was something about the experience that was singular. I have never lived as intensely as I did during the war.”
“Perceptions were heightened, experiences were more vivid. I can’t explain it. I felt I was really alive. I wrote - mostly poems that were compact expressions of what was happening. I looked forward to going to school and to being with the kids I taught. There was an exhilaration to our every day lives… I have not felt that way since the war ended.”
My husband added, “I remember the summer of 1989. I was one of the few people left in Beirut. My wife’s family had gone to the US and had left me the key to their apartment, on the 6th floor of a building in Zarif. I offered to feed the cat and water the plants while they were away. My sister and her family had gone to the North, and she had left me the key to her place on the 7th floor of a building about a 10-minute walk from the Zarif apartment. She, too, had a cat. I lived on the 11th floor of a building in Kraytem, about a half hour away from both houses. By then the war had gone on for 14 years and in spite of being a Maronite, continuing to live in West Beirut was the only choice for me.
The shelling that summer ravaged the city. Fuel was scarce, and basic amenities were unavailable. I had developed a ritual. I would climb down the 11 floors of my building, walk to the Sporting beach club, and swim for an hour. There was no power most of the time, so the elevators did not work. The beach was also a good place to take a shower, albeit with brackish water, since there was no running water in most of Beirut. Occasionally I would play chess with some of the regulars there. Mostly I would don my mask and flippers and go skin-diving, relishing the submersion into the dim and muffled quiet of the Mediterranean.
In the afternoon I would walk to my sister’s house- there was very little fuel and taxis were a luxury. I would climb up the seven floors to her apartment and feed her cat, then walk down the seven floors and head toward Zarif to do the same there. Then I would take the thirty-minute walk back to my building and climb up the eleven floors. We developed different ways to make the trek up the stairs easier. Keeping a steady slow pace helped preserve energy. I also discovered that counting backwards how many floors were left rather than how many I had climbed, was somehow more encouraging.
In the evening, I would meet my neighbor, a gnarled, gruff Sunni who worked at the port of Beirut, on the landing between our two apartments. The landing was the safest place to be as we were separated from the outside by three walls.”
Conventional wisdom in wartime Beirut held that shells usually penetrated one wall, sometimes two. The landings of buildings, like underground garages, were the community centers of wartime Beirut. People who barely acknowledged each other in peace time, found themselves spending long, intimate evenings together, united in the need for preservation and survival.
“My neighbor and I found we had a lot in common and had long discussions over a bottle of whisky in the dim light of a battery-powered lamp. He would tell his friends confidentially that he really liked that Maronite neighbor of his, ‘an excellent young man, were it not for his name!’” The guests in the garden chuckled. My husband’s name literally means ‘The Maronite.’
He continued, “Funny thing about all this is that when the horror of the shelling stopped, and a cease-fire was agreed upon that eventually led to the end of the war, I was miserable. Many of the people who had stayed behind had the same reaction. Instead of feeling relieved or overjoyed, I was discomfited, lost. People started coming back from wherever they had taken refuge, and normal life resumed. I couldn’t take it. My space was being invaded by all these people who returned from cities where normalcy was taken for granted. They had no idea what every shell hole in the wall or pothole in the street meant. The pace of life quickened and became banal. Life became busy again. It actually made me nauseous.”
Our host shook his head, “and here we are twenty-five years later still coming to terms with this war which touched us all.”
The delicate jasmine blooms shivered in the fall breeze, wrapping us in the perfume that only Beirut jasmines give out. The white flowers fell gently into our laps while we sat in silence in that anachronism of a garden.

                                                    Mishka Mojabber Mourani                                   Revised Fall 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016


Times Literary Supplement (London):
TLS Travel 14 May 2010
T.J. Gorton and A. Féghali Gorton, Editors.
Eland Books, 2009.

For a young country, Lebanon has an impressively long history and a surprisingly rich literature. The modern state was only created in 1920, carved out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in a high-handed late imperialist way that has ensured generations of conflict. But while their independent state is young, the people of Lebanon can trace their story – and stories about them – back at least 6,000 years.

The earliest entry in this anthology, almost 4,000 years old, from an Egyptian named Sinuhe, tells of conflict – he is in exile from his homeland after the death of his master, the Pharaoh. The second entry, some 800 years later, tells of an Egyptian trading mission looking for cedar to build a ceremonial barque for Amun, the great god of Luxor. Trade and conflict have been the two defining themes of Lebanon ever since, from Ramses II to Napoleon, from the death of Prime Minister Hariri to the opening of the Beirut Farmers Market.

However curious the earlier writings, the anthology becomes more fascinating as it moves into the modern era. Lady Hester Stanhope, niece and hostess of Pitt the Younger, emerges as a star of the nineteenth century, both for her writing and for what was written about her. An eccentric who had completely misjudged the nature of the Bedouin when she set herself up as queen of the desert city of Palmyra, she understood enough about the warring Druze to live for many years in ever-reducing circumstances in the Lebanon mountains. Others found the country more difficult to see – the French writer Lamartine peered at Mount Lebanon through the mists; but T. E. Lawrence saw it, as so much else, with stunning clarity and his assessments were unerringly right: Beirut, he thought, would have been “bastard French” without its American college and Greek harbour, and would have been no more than the doorway to Syria had it not been for its intellectual freedom and its wealth.

The compilers of this collection, one Lebanese-born, both Beirut-educated, have cast wide for these fragments, which they have fashioned into chronological chapters, culminating in writing by the likes of Gérard de Nerval and Flaubert, Mark Twain and Pierre Loti. These are followed by brilliant sections on identities and war. The obvious chroniclers of the country’s more recent tragedy are included, among them the long-term hostage Brian Keenan and the journalist Robert Fisk. But some of the more powerful words come from less-familiar Lebanese voices, from writers such as the poet Nadia Tueni, who recognized that “We did not know how to read the omens / in those dead birds in the bottoms of their cages”, and the West Beiruti Mishka Moujabbar Mourani, whose elegiac stories heard in a fragrant garden capture some of the spirit of the post-war city.

Anthony Sattin

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.