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.
Monday, September 19, 2016
TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT review
TLS Travel 14 May 2010
T.J. Gorton and A. Féghali Gorton, Editors.
LEBANON THROUGH WRITERS’ EYES, 296 pp. Paperback.
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.
Mishka Mojabber Mourani: Book talks in California