A Word for Home: On place, language, and new ways of seeing

Home has as many definitions as there are people.

It was a lesson I’d started learning long before I came to Lebanon for my month-long residency at Beit al-Atlas, an artist house in Beirut where I gave a series of bilingual writing workshops for local artists in January. But my time in Beirut forced me to think about home and about place in new ways. As someone who was born in America and grew up in the Syrian diaspora, the concept of home was already fraught for me. It had become even more tangled as I’d spent longer periods of time outside the US. Where, exactly, do I come from now? Our relationships to place are affected by our identities and by the places (and people and languages and diasporas) that we come from.

"Home has been an evolving concept, to be redefined and carried with me as I move through the world." - Zeyn Joukhadar

"Home has been an evolving concept, to be redefined and carried with me as I move through the world." - Zeyn Joukhadar

Within the quiet magic of the afternoons we had together at these workshops, music in the air, mana’eesh in our hands, and the house’s two dogs nuzzling our knees, we held space for the ways that home can be a source of freedom, a prison, a person, or even a language. We examined the ways that home is a relationship, a sense of being seen or not seen, accepted or rejected or molded or erased. For me, too, home has been an evolving concept, to be redefined and carried with me as I move through the world.

I stood on the balcony of Beit al-Atlas. I looked at the wool-grey sea and asked myself: What had brought me to Beirut? What relationship did I have with the city and its residents? What would it mean for me to call this city home, if even for a short time?

When I cross borders, language itself can be a home. The familiarity of a language, even if it isn’t my mother tongue, can be a comfort. When I’m learning a new language, I imagine myself building a house, erecting the walls and adding the roof as I learn the grammar and other basics. It isn’t until I have these basics down that I can settle into the house; that is, to force myself to form sentences as I speak them, to not translate in my head, to make myself think—and feel—in that language.

Because language can be a home in this way, it was important to me that we conduct our workshops at Beit al-Atlas in both Arabic and English. It was important to me that our work be accessible to both English- and Arabic-speaking readers. I, as well as the other members of the house, wanted to ensure that no one’s voices or ideas were privileged over others just because they felt more at home in one language than another.

Growing up Syrian American, I was constantly aware of the ways in which my family didn’t fit people’s expectations. I’ve written about aspects of this experience before, in the Paris Review and in Salon, and it has been a major theme in many of my short stories. My Syrian-born father experienced a lot of racism and Islamophobia in America, and by the time my sister and I were born, he had already decided not to teach us Arabic. He must have believed it would make it easier for us to belong.

But belonging is not that simple. The Arabic I heard at home but was not allowed to speak stuck in my ear, incomplete. I sometimes think of my Arabic as a part of myself that I water and nourish like a plant now. Neglected, there are parts of me and of my heritage that will wither, but they won’t disappear. Our roots and our experiences, like the people we meet and the places in which we find ourselves, become a part of us.

As I’ve grown, I’ve embraced the fact that I can build a different future for myself than the one my father feared I would have, even if I don’t fit into the places he expected me to. I can shed other people’s expectations and limitations. I can direct my efforts toward developing the parts of myself that I value, like my writing, my family, my friendships, and the languages I choose to speak. And by being authentically myself, I can connect with others and encourage them to be authentically themselves as well.

Language is not a goal in and of itself, but a door. Language is only as good as what it’s used for: to tell a story, to comfort, to connect. I speak five langauges and understand several more for the same reason that I write: I want to connect with people who are different than me, including people I might never otherwise meet who read my writing. I want to hear from them. I want to open myself up to other ways of seeing.

I’ve lived a nomadic life for a year and a half now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it never gets easier to leave a place, to leave a project, to part from friends. Every person I had the privilege of meeting during my residency in Beirut left their mark on me in their own unique way. I learned much from their words and stories, lessons I’m taking with me as I move on to my next horizon, my next project, the rest of this still-new year. The words that I was entrusted with still echo in me. I’m grateful that I had the chance to hold space for those words, for those worlds, for those cities that exist in people’s hearts. In that house in Beirut, I hope we succeeded in building a home infinite enough to hold all of us, if even for a few afternoons.
About Zeyn Joukhadar

Zeyn Joukhadar is a Syrian American writer, a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), and the author of The Map of Salt and Stars. You can learn more about Zeyn here.