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Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir by Mishka Mojabber Mourani

by Susan Abraham

Mishka Mojabber Mourani’s book, Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir, pulled me back in time to early memories of my childhood in Singapore. I too have drawn my first childhood memories from the whispers of a modest balcony.

I remember staring with infinite curiosity at an elderly couple in the block ahead who sat like shadowy silhouettes on the balcony of another flat, eating, drinking and talking. Night after night, they appeared animated and subdued by turns. Sometimes, they laughed loudly and once, there was a quarrel. Secret stories played before my vision like a silent movie reel and remained floating in my subconsciousness until I came upon Mourani’s powerful remembrances of family life in wartime. A string of floral, festive balconies, scene to countless family gatherings, became her immortalized family diary.

A particular passage highlights those memory triggers we all experience. In January 2009, Mourani stares down a street at a sixteenth-century, red-roofed, traditional Lebanese home. She watches silently as an old lady lowers a basket while a vendor waits patiently to put something in it. She recalls a similar scene in 1962, when her mother once communicated with an elderly grocer on the telephone and then lowered a wicker basket in exactly the same way. Slowly, it rose again, filled magically with tomatoes, newspapers, and cigarettes.

Mishka Mojabber Mourani is a prolific writer of both prose and poetry. Born in Egypt to Greek and Lebanese parents, she takes us on a carousel spin through memory and history recounted in a series of flashbacks of different balcony episodes collected from family, friends, and forgotten homes.

Mourani’s colorful, decorative balconies in Egypt, Greece, and Lebanon offer an alluring glimpse into the lifestyles of Levantine families in the old Middle East. Through matchbox stories and poignant reflections, Mourani measures the aftermath of dislocation and ruthlessly uses her favorite spaces to pursue an individual identity that would, in later years, make for a somewhat settled tranquility within a bruised spirit. The slim paperback is made up of essays, journal clippings, old photographs, e-mail messages, and even Skype conversations between friends. The dates are not in order but the neat maze constitutes a careful, contemplative memoir. Landscapes and settings shape sentiments. One senses Mourani’s demanding desire to share lost truths with the reader.

Mourani’s account also marks a significant historical journey through exile into various lands and the harsh truths of brutal wars and lost roads. The young Mourani and her family were forced to move countries for political reasons when Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952. The young adult would be hastily transported from Alexandria to Greece and eventually onward to Beirut. Later, there would be a temporary emigration to Australia before the sentimental call of Beirut beckoned Mourani’s mother with a wrenching homesickness. On their return to Beirut, the family would find themselves locked in the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990 and that would, at times, threaten the very fiber of their existence.

In those years of a lawless civil violence, even the beloved balcony held a threat. Mourani writes, “The armed men spent three days in our home. The battle was vicious. The men settled in our bedrooms that extended to the balcony overlooking the narrow streets of Zarif and shot at their enemies-de-jour who obliged with equal generosity. They kept us in the kitchen.”

Yet, so robust was the family’s love for Lebanon, that unlike many who emigrated to the Gulf, the United States, and Europe, Mourani and her parents weathered shootings, bombings, long hours of basement refuge, and years of shells that tore cruelly into homes and human skin like paper.

In those years of a lawless civil
violence, even the beloved
balcony held a threat.

Balconies as an architectural structure didn’t just help Mourani meditate on all things beautiful, lost, and forgotten. They didn’t just remind her of faded family gatherings where her uncles told stories and smoked cigarettes while her aunts and cousins laughed, feasted on traditional fare, rested after elaborate church ceremonies, and made merry together in a time of war. They weren’t just hurried alternative replacements for shelled walls and torn down rooms as evident in a few of Mourani’s tragic photographs. Her favorite scent of jasmine conjures up the beauty and comfort of Beirut balconies. She writes, “Beirut knows no twilight, that stretch of time and diffused light after the sun has set. 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 tall fragments memories of what was, what isn’t, and what always will be.”

These balconies also offered Mourani a powerful survival mechanism. The outdoor solace rendered breathtaking views of nature that acted as a friend and helpmate through sad and stormy years. Through long and careful observations of changeable scenes on the streets below, the writer’s journal was soon filled with poignant, ready-made stories for the future. Mourani describes the irony of how developing a liking for the rolls of thunder and flashes of lightning in the wide skies later helped her bear the harsh sounds of shelling and bombing. In another anecdote, she recounts, “The breeze swept through the pots of basil and jasmine, filling the evening air with scent…then my uncle told his story…‘Never light three cigarettes with the same match. Because in the war, if you kept a match long enough to ignite three cigarettes, you were inviting a sniper to shoot at you.’”

She observes how Israeli soldiers insensitively manipulated the Lebanese people including their children down the nearby streets. Through leaning forward on her balcony and studying militia movements and processions with a keen eye, Mourani was able to sum up new national events before official announcements were made in the media. All that with the help of only a modest balcony.

In another episode, Mourani’s uncle shared his terrible depression after being forced to kill someone. Her aunt came and placed a hand on his shoulder. Her grandmother sat a little distance away on the balcony, watching silently. Though no words were spoken, Mourani’s balcony would instantly record the different rising emotions from that piercing silence.

Mourani talks about friendly old neighbors, shopkeepers, and beautiful Lebanese homes—close to where she lived and that are no more— with heart-wrenching sentiment and a clear sense of loss. She laments the new buildings that block treasured views particularly that of the sea. A new inner dialogue begins within her. Did Mourani’s philosophies change because the landscape had changed for her? Was she a different person because her balcony no longer held the same views?

When do you belong to a city?
When does a city belong to you?

Mourani ends her memoir aptly with an immensely loving tribute to her father. She recaptures special affectionate episodes and his zealous sacrifice for the family. He did not once fail them. To happen upon this chapter, is all at once deeply tender and moving. Mourani writes under his photograph, “I am sitting on the balcony you loved so well and look at the flowers you tended with such care. I took them for granted until you left us. They are still here, in Mummy’s care. And now I grow my own, and know the secret that every bloom brings. It is a blessing. A message of grace…”

In a poem called “Belonging” from her most recent book of poetry Alone Together (Kutub Publishers, 2012), Mourani asks, “When do you belong to a city? When does a city belong to you? Is it when you still miss the pictures of your parents’ wedding that were destroyed in the fire after the shelling in 1989? Is it when you can no longer see the sea from your mother’s balcony? Is it when the lightning that fills the horizon is God’s own fireworks? Is it when your balcony is bathed in sunlight like no other?”[1]Mishka Mojabber Mourani and Aida Yacoub Haddad, Alone Together (Beirut: Kutub, 2012)

Through its deft compositions and profound study of individual identity, Balconies helps answer these wistful and sometimes sorrowful questions.

Mishka Mojabber Mourani, Balconies: A Mediterranean Memoir (Beirut: Dar an-Nahar, 2009).

 

References

References
1 Mishka Mojabber Mourani and Aida Yacoub Haddad, Alone Together (Beirut: Kutub, 2012)
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