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Over five days, six artists were brought together to participate in an online collaborative project. Meaning ‘my home is your home’, the concept for Bayti Baytek arose from conversations between Young Shubbak about quarantine experiences; what we were doing, watching, listening to, and what was missing from all the content we were consuming. Since physical gatherings were deemed impermissible and creative outputs relocated to the digital realm, we found that our physical surroundings were then being ignored. Bayti Baytek invited three pairs of artists of MENA heritage from around the world to meet and create a piece responding to the theme of either a kitchen, living room, or bedroom, and enable audiences to experience it virtually, while reflectively re-inhabiting their own physical space of home. Home became a unifying feature to bring together artists from different parts of the world; from different disciplines, and different working methods. And thus Bayti Baytek was born.

It’s the day before the last release of Bayti Baytek’s three collaborations. I’m on a Zoom hangout with the Arab British Centre and our final artist pair, Doha Aboelezz and Reem Karssli, and producer Layla. They’re speaking about the process of collaboration and what realisations they made in relation to the theme. Inspired by the panelists’s conversation, the Zoom audience begin to share  what home means to them. Many say home lives in people, places, memories, emotions. Many specify their mother, or their homeland. One person got it spot on when they said that home is in our language. And it tied everything together for me.

I thought about both the jokes and  arguments with my brother, the compassion and bluntness in conversations with my mom. I thought about summers when the extended family packs into my grandparents’ house in the Lebanese mountains, and the love that lives in, “Good morning, you’re up early” as I wake up at 8am and shuffle to the kitchen where they’re having breakfast.  I thought about the balconies or the living room couches where we talk until 3am.

I thought about the lack of language. How home lives in the space for stillness, far from the discomfort we’ve associated with any emptiness that pries into our hustling cities. Home is where we speak truths without fear, the people in it we love unconditionally, arguments and resolutions boil and settle with love. Retreat, security, return. It is why we find homes in our houses, and sometimes not.

Recently, I’ve been trying to write about my childhood home in Msaytbeh, Beirut, where I lived until I was eight years old. The house was demolished so that a building could be constructed in its place. I’ve been trying to access my memory of this house that shaped me in the years where I was learning about what space even is. A place that I cannot physically revisit.

Dough

Peter Rabbit left his old house in Msaytbeh where he and his friends
once would catch ladybirds in the garden.
Somewhere in the bushes is a lost turtle, or some frogs that his grandpa
brought him one day in a water tank, and his brother had released.
The garden stopped being tended to. The branches and vines grabbed
for any empty space in the same backyard his parents were married in.
The same backyard where he would joke about having been at the wedding,
clapping for his parents as they hold a sword, together, slicing through layers of cake.
He joked about how he remembered seeing his aunts and uncles
in their teenage years, chubbier and younger, and younger.
And although Peter Rabbit didn’t know how much his aunts and uncles knew,
he could tell they knew less at that wedding.

He took photos outside the door of that house before his first day of school,
grinning with glimmering teeth before they were spoiled by sweets and alcohol.
And at the top of that door marks the print of a tradition from his parent’s wedding,
a ball of dough that the bride punches on the doorframe.
If it sticks, the marriage is successful.
If it falls, it’s not.
Peter Rabbit found out recently that the dough was peeling
upon the first stamp to the door,
it needed extra work to stick to the frame of the household,
it was sinking off gradually and inevitably.
He still thinks about the ladybirds in the backyard,
the faint memory of bugs that can be beautiful
but endangered,
and Peter Rabbit still believes in their luck anyways.

And I remember throwing a blanket over myself and crawling through the corridor like a worm. Or sitting in my parent’s room and reciting ‘Eenie meenie miny mo’ to choose which pair of earrings I wanted to wear next. Instructing my friends that would come over about the proper way to eat their rice and spinach. 

My brother says he remembers the kitchen distinctly. My mom says she remembers the cats that would run through the gate. And my dad’s been there since he was getting in trouble with his father for bullying his siblings, running around the long dining table to avoid the belt.

Our houses are saturated with memories and personalities. We’re in constant dialogue with a space that we carve out and design as it simultaneously hosts and holds us. Can our own identity be traced into our homes? What do physical imprints mean for our existence beyond just being spaces that we occupy? What happens when they’re gone? The three Bayti Baytek works offer a reflective, intimate insight into the artists’ relationships with their homes, which then provoked these thoughts. The artists found a way to gather and manifest all the emotions, energy, and intensity of over familiarising oneself with a home during quarantine. Disruption, stillness, solitude in Studies on a Comfort Pillow. Familiarity, imagination, possibility in A Space in Time.

Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days|
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.
Let’s go back to that.

Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armour everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.

I first moved to London in 2018, which feels like a mammoth city upon first arriving. I found this poem to share with a friend who made me feel at home in her kitchen flat at our university accommodation, despite any homesickness, despite any cultural clashes.

And gradually, I started finding the festivals where Arab artists and art-lovers can rejoice. I remember going into the green room at Arabs Are Not Funny to say hi to the comedians, and Aser invited me to be part of the photo even though I had nothing to do with the event. Or upon watching X-Adra, which I loved, and there was food and drinks in the back room. I kind of just walked in and no-one really said anything, just smiled and spoke. They welcomed me in. Bayti Baytek.

So how do you bring this unconditional cultural generosity in the arts when we cannot physically share our spaces? The three artists for Bayti Baytek hold the essence of Naomi Shihab’s poem in their pieces, by inviting us generously and unapologetically into their space. A generosity, which is otherwise natural in the MENA region, feels important during a time where our familiar ways of connection lack.

Moreover, this whole project felt important to be coming from Arab voices.
There was something familiar about retreating to the home and hiding.
Mattresses in the corridor.
Going into the electricity room of our great aunt’s house and waiting.
Card games with the family to pass the time. Fear and grief.
Something that we’ve experienced and understood in the Arab world for time and time again.
Loss and oblivion.
And yet, strength, resilience, dance, and celebration.
Community, neighbourhood, brutal compassion, memory
and hope.

There will always be a political element. There will always be more to consider. I speak about homes as something we all share. And what of people that are homeless? We speak of confinement as a new reality. And what of the migrant domestic workers under the kafala system, what of Gaza, what of domestic abuse? To talk about them all at once is impossible, and risks us spreading too thin. I don’t mean to throw these issues into the thoughts I express arbitrarily. However, questions like this are important to consider when approaching any piece of work. This is an invitation to the audience: that when engaging with pieces of art, and any aspect of media or communication, to continue investigating and interrogating. All art is inherently political. No matter the content, it always performs the radical act of posing questions about the reality we live in.

Bayti Baytek came about from what we already know; the physical distance we’re experiencing, between artists and audiences, between ourselves and loved ones, is challenging. But surely there has to be a way where we can still feel some togetherness? Out of all the dissonance, what do we share? Can that include our homes? Can we share them without physically visiting each other’s, and without neglecting our own?

Riwa Saab | Young Shubbak