Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What's "home"?

Dalal holding me on Aunt Emily's balcony as Asma looks on
When does a house or a flat become home? Having moved around so much and lived in so many houses and flats, I've had enough opportunity to wonder about that. Home is not only a country or a building, but also a sentiment and I subscribe to the cliché that “home is where the heart is.”

In Utopia, maybe there won’t be passports and residence permits and we could all move around freely and with a sense of belonging. Maybe the question “Where are you from?” will fade away… In the meantime, our mobility has increased as have our places of residence.

One place that has remained a constant throughout the years is my late Aunt Emily's flat in Beirut’s Hamra district. And as I plan a visit there to meet up with my sister Asma and get together with family and friends in Lebanon, my first thought goes to that anchor, which has been taken over by cousin Lillian.

Houses were temporary when I was growing up. But every two years, we went back to Beirut for two summer months and stayed at Aunt Emily’s. She in turn visited us in each country we moved to.

In the garden in Baghdad
The first house I vaguely remember was in Baghdad. It's a bit blurred, but there was a garden -- there has to be a garden as my mum Vicky loved gardening, flowers and plants -- a very big kitchen and a huge terrace where, like everyone else in the city, we slept in summer. The summer months were like a camping trip. All the beds were moved to the roofs and terraces and covered with mosquito nets. We also had the advantage of live music entertainment from the Ali Baba Club opposite our house.

In Tunis, we relocated three times. The first house was in Sidi Bou Said. The second was not far, in Amilcar. It was two symmetrical houses turned into one, so there was two of everything. The back garden ran parallel to the little train track that I mentioned in an earlier post (“I have a dream,” Sept. 21). At first, the rumbling of the passing trains kept us awake at night, but we soon got used to it. We finally moved to a villa in La Marsa. These three suburbs were about 60 kilometers out of the capital Tunis. I loved this last house. It was on one floor, roomy and had a huge garden full of fruit trees and spacious enough for our menagerie. We had oranges, lemons, peaches and strawberries aplenty and we would put a basket at the front gate for passersby to help themselves. All the rooms branched out from the central dining area where we spent much time. I loved my bedroom because it had two huge brown well-worn leather armchairs. That’s where I sat to read and dream, next to the window overlooking the garden.

Vicky and Aunt Emily enjoying a cup of coffee
When we moved back to live in Beirut, it is of course at Aunty Emily’s that we made a six-month pit stop while looking for a flat and then furnishing it. Vicky had finally realized her lifelong dream of going back home to live in Lebanon and be with her sister Emily, and brothers and family. It was fun furnishing that flat. Short on cash, as usual, we headed to a secondhand depot then run by Boutagy in Tall al-Zaatar to choose a sitting room, tables, chairs and other essentials. For the bedroom furnishings, I was lucky to have a friend at Universite St. Joseph who was going out with the son of the Sleep Comfort owners. So we got some good deals on those, topped up by a trolley as a gift. All our pieces of furniture were in excellent condition when we pulled up stakes and left in 1991. The trolley, which I now have with me here in Dubai, was perfect for Vicky’s 5 p.m. high teas.

With Aunt Emily at a wedding in London
Once we settled in Beirut, passing by Aunt Emily’s was a daily requisite. Emily and Vicky -- or Heckle and Jeckle as we affectionately called them -- were joined at the hip. Because the location of Aunt Emily’s flat is so central, all the “aunties” would pass by. In the morning it was coffee time, before lunch a glass of Sherry was always on offer and in the afternoon, tea. The ladies also gathered there to play cards on occasion.
Certain meals stick to mind and have never been the same. For example, on Fridays (no meat day) we knew there would be Mujaddara (mashed lentils) for lunch. Aunt Emily used to pour it into individual soup plates and serve it with a delicious salad.

When I went back to Beirut last November after a long absence, it was with much hesitation for so many reasons – chiefly because Emily and Vicky were no more.

But arriving at what we still call Aunt Emily's felt just right. It was like finding your childhood security blanket hidden in a chest. Everything felt the same and I expected to find the two sisters sitting there sipping their Sherry! Of course, some furnishings have been replaced or moved around, but it is the same feeling of history and past times, good and bad. Now, the mantle has been passed over to Cousin Lillian, and with her sister Dalal and Asma, the four of us spent the most hilarious two weeks. We laughed and cried and played pranks and sat up long into the night eating ice-cream and chatting and just enjoying being together again.

I’ll get to the London flats in another post. But “home” is surely “where the heart is,” and so you can have several. For now, I plan a visit to Beirut with excitement and I look forward to going "home," and being enveloped by the love and caring that I feel there with my sister, my cousins and friends. See you soon!