“Bayt Byoot”: Playing House
I’ve been thinking a lot about houses this year. Not only because I’m in my late twenties, sick of packing-moving-unpacking-repeat, and living in a country more panicked about its housing shortage than its homelessness crisis (but guess how many homes the Queen owns). As it happens, after a decade of treasured solitude, I’ve had to move back in with my parents… into their one-bedroom house, intended for ‘retirement for two’ and instead suffocating with ‘lockdown for three’. I’m grateful to have a roof over my head while the outside world goes all Resident Evil, but some days I’d be happier in my own cupboard-under-the-stairs (still a Slytherin though).
I grew up in a spacious house with a steep staircase, off which every one of us had at least one bad fall (ever the overachiever, I broke my forearm when I was one). My siblings and I have, for years, talked about buying back our childhood home, even though it has aged badly and is now multiple times more expensive (thank you, gentrification). We get upset any time we drive past our old house and slow down to longingly stare at it. We’ve romanticised it as our forever home, even though it now looks like it could very well be haunted or rodent-infested (or worse: not for sale). Practically, logistically, financially, even environmentally, it would be ridiculous of us to buy back this house. But sentimentally, we agree, “it’s where I am in all my dreams.” It’s likely the common setting of our individual nightmares too, but we’re roof-only-half-rotting people when it comes to this.
There’s something surprisingly sad about the physical permanence of something you feel you’ve already lost. It’s still there, just not for you. My aunt passed away last month, and the thought of setting foot in her ‘empty’ house makes my heart clench and my mother cry. She will forevermore be absent from the house ‘where she lived’, and that is what makes its continued presence so painful to us.
My great-uncle passed away last February, after spending years building a big summer house in a quaint little village (aren’t they all). The layout of the upper floors was split into six suite-like sections for each of his sons and their families, as he would excitedly explain while showing us around. But the first time his sons gathered in that house was when his coffin was carried there before burial. And it was so cold that night, they all slept in the living room to share the space heaters. Nobody has gone back since. Everybody has agreed to sell.
Perhaps we put too much pressure on places like houses having to serve a poignant purpose, as though finding the ‘perfect’ structure will somehow give our lives order or brick-and-mortar contentment.
In Arabic, one of the most common words for ‘house’ or ‘home’ is ‘bayt’, which is also - often interchangeably - used to mean ‘family’ (sort of like ‘House’ Stark but much less dysfunctional). As with most Arabic words, ‘bayt’ (and its countless conjugations) is versatile and polysemic. ‘Al-bayt baytak’ is the equivalent of ‘mi casa es su casa’. ‘Bayyat al-bayt’ means ‘he built the house’. Among the alliteration and double-entendres is the expression ‘bayt byoot’, which means ‘playing house’. If taken literally, the words simply mean ‘house of houses’ (hello, planet earth). If only it were as simple as that, though: finding houses in which to play house. There may be no such thing as the end-all house of all houses (sorry, childhood home and however many of the Queen’s), but is a home really what we make of it regardless what it’s made of? (Architects, proceed…)