The new Arab home as a political tool

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The setting was casual, and our table at the reopening of a leftist bar in Beirut was a miniature scene from a contemporary Arab home that seems to be developing. On my left was a Syrian-Palestinian émigré who is trying to reconstruct the void in her self-respect after being forced to leave her home, Damascus, through writing and hands-on activism. On my right was another that seems to just be staring into the void in space. In front of me was a Palestinian-Jordanian artist whose art is a constant discussion of the possibility/impossibility of building without a land. Her fiancé’s sister who sat next to her is a brilliant Tarab singer in her twenties, whose Tarab bothers the young man on her right, a thirty-something-year-old Syrian man who fled from Syria after being in prison for three years. He thinks techno music is more suitable for our violent, rapid times. As the DJ plays Oum Kolthoum, we all cheer to a voice that remains our common denominator and unanimously disagree with the fleeting techno theory.

It’s sometimes hard to be a young person that is interested in identifying himself as an Arab. Besides the fact that this region has been an ongoing war zone for consecutive generations, it’s actually hard to identify with enough solid facts that unite the whole region. We can sing along to the same music. We identify similar enemies. We can speak, read and write in Arabic, yet even for the hardcore pan-Arab aficionados like me, there are still a lot of gaps in this concept of a unified Arab identity for this generation. There’s a lot we don’t know about each other. There’s a lot we don’t have in common. It’s an exciting, swelling curiosity that has an opportunity to suffice parts of its thirst on a table in a bar in Beirut gathering confused young Arab refugees, because ironically this city is currently the safest of its neighbors.

“Do you like these tiles?” I ask the girl on my left as part of casual Arab architecture research I infuse into most of my conversations. The floor of the renovated bar is tiled with what we used to call “terrazzo” tiles in college, and what is called “Baladi” or “local” tiles in Lebanon and Jordan. The mainstream use of this tile is a contemporary cheap flooring option for those who do not want to use hideous Chinese ceramics, and it was originally invented by Venetian construction workers who used to make the tiles using marble scraps, gathered from their upscale jobs, with a clay base. If you live in Lebanon, it’s basically the tiling of the terrace of your parents’ childhood house.

“Toilet tiles, you mean?” That definitely caught me off-guard.

Toilet tiles? Existential crises that only architects could relate to run through my head. I custom-make these beautiful tiles and convince my clients to use them in their bedrooms, living spaces, and for the wild at heart, their salons! The gorgeous diversity and tangible detailed individuality of every manually made tile is of awe-inducing exquisiteness. Both confused, thrilled, curious and keen on not belittling the spatial value of the toilet, I decided to take her answer as a tip of a hypothesis that thought-of architecture which aims to build a home could be a lead to building a sense of pan-Arab identity and belonging.

The mere fact that we both looked at the same object and had two completely different perceptions of it is the most natural thing in the world. But to blow that up into a discussion of the possibility of building a space that would naturally feel like home for both of us is definitely interesting. To me, “thought-of” architecture, a rare commodity nowadays, is the production of space after deliberate, thorough, and detailed design processes catering to a specific context. What if we, the people, become the context of a contemporary Arab architecture movement? Could that add to what we could have in common? Would that make us feel at home in each other’s homes, and is that even interesting as a hypothesis?

Within the ongoing monstrous real estate movements all over the Arab world, the question of “how to create a home” definitely needs to be put on the table. In this part of the world where ownership of land and space is at the forefront of our battles, be it the liberation of our nations from dictatorships and apartheid or our fight for accessible public space, the question is definitely important. In this part of the world where contemporary architecture is both a political gentrification tool as well as a studied attempt to aesthetically become part of the civilized world through imposing their architectures on our lands, the question of the possibility of us, the Arab youth, becoming its main context is indeed important.

In Lebanon, we have been through the processes of programmed aesthetics in architecture to enforce certain alien identities too many times. After our most notable 15-year civil war that ended in the nineties, downtown Beirut has been reconstructed to resemble the city’s colonial era. Beirut’s seafront is being designed to emulate skylines of cities in the Arab Gulf whose skylines are being designed to emulate glass-clad cosmopolitan Western cities that have nothing in common with them – except extreme capitalism perhaps. The state of Arab architecture is a mess. The new buildings of Amman are horrendous, and its old are intelligently beautiful. The same goes for Cairo. We are at a point where context is a key subject to discuss.

Whether you feel like you are sitting in a Syrian toilet in one of my designed living spaces or not remains a possible hint for a conversation icebreaker. The importance of thinking of the possibility of a common Arab home, or a common aspiration in the Arab world to create homes out of our private and public spaces is something as important as traditional politics. Space has the power to empower those in it. It has the capacity to create an energizing mood for the daily mundanes as well as hefty decisions in our striving towards better worlds and better lives. It is not naïve to propose that well-designed spaces could be the main constituent of an upcoming Arab Spring sequel. If contemporary Arab architecture could provide us with a sense of being at home, wouldn’t that dilute our differences that only seem relevant in archaic, irrelevant models of traditional politics?

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut.

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