Making a Home of Language

When I first envisioned creating a series of workshops for Beit al-Atlas, I began by thinking about place. What had brought me to Beirut? What relationship did I have with the city and its residents? What does it mean for me to call this city home, if even for a short time?

This is why I decided to focus our writing workshop series here at Beit al-Atlas on the theme of “home.” As someone who was born in America and grew up in the Syrian diaspora, the concept of home is fraught for me. It becomes even more tangled when I spend periods of time outside the US—where, exactly, do I come from? Our relationships to place are affected by our identities and by the places—and people and languages and diasporas—that we come from.

This month, I spent 4-5 hours each day working on my Arabic so that I could connect more deeply with workshop participants whose first language was Arabic, and also to connect more deeply with myself, my family, and my heritage. Sometimes, language itself can be a home. When I’m learning a new language, I imagine myself building a house, erecting the walls and adding the roof (pronunciation, pronouns, conjugation in the past and present tense) and filling it with furniture (prepositions, the first few hundred nouns, words for time and feelings and food). 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 in that language. It’s only after I’ve begun to really live inside the house of a language that I can add comforts like curtains, a bookshelf, perhaps a nice lamp or a colorful carpet, building my vocabulary and gathering expressions and conventions as I go.

Because language can be a home in this way, it was important to me that we conduct our workshops here at Beit al-Atlas in both Arabic and English. And, because it was important to all of us to reach out as well as to welcome in, we held our second workshop near Burj al-Barajneh rather than in the house. It was an honor to hear the work that came out of that workshop, and to hear as much of it as possible without translation.

It’s important to me and to everyone at Beit al-Atlas that the final product of our workshop series reflects the place and the languages it was produced in. For this reason, we plan to translate the pieces we choose for our “zine” (a mini-magazine; we’ve coined the word “مجيلة”, a diminutive of مجلة, for this in Arabic) as much as possible between English and Arabic. We want the content of the zine to be accessible to non-English-speaking readers, and to ensure that no one’s voices or ideas are privileged over others just because they feel more at home in one language than another.

I hope you’ll join us for the third and final workshop in our series, which will take place at Beit al-Atlas tomorrow, January 27th, from 11-2 (writing/drawing portion) and 2-6 (assembling the zine). (Beit al-Atlas would also like to thank Prototank for helping to fund our production of the zine!) Feel free to drop by anytime during the afternoon that you would like. We’ll be spending time writing new work for the zine, creating drawings and spoken word performances, and finally putting our pieces together to assemble a zine that hopefully reflects all of us, as well as the city that brought us together.

This is the second part of a 3-part series of essays about my residency at Beit al-Atlas. Read the first essay here.  Read the third essay here.

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