Shatila has pushed me to redefine my understanding of many words. Among them: house.
I first noticed a wrinkle in my understanding of this word not, as you might expect, wandering through the five story buildings that are the houses of Shatila themselves, or pondering my own living situation in one of those buildings as I lay sweating through another nightlong power outage. Rather, this particular epiphany struck in the classroom.
We were working on pairs of rhyming words, illustrating each on a set of cards. One of our favorite pairs was mouse and house.
What struck me is that all the kids drew the type of house you’d expect to see in your average American school: a pentagon-shaped two-story building with paneled windows. Looking at these drawings, you could almost imagine green lawns and picket fences around them.
This I found puzzling on numerous levels: even if their families were flush with cash and land and space to build their dream homes, chances are quite slim that my students would live in houses that remotely resembled the ones they had sketched in crayon and marker. Traditionally homes in the Middle East (to indulge in a broad generalization here) don’t look like much from the outside, reserving their beauty and splendor and taste for the inside – that is, for the part one must be invited into. Even the biggest mansions I’ve seen in the Arab world have mostly been walled in discreetly behind gardens and high trees. To advertise wealth on the front of one’s home would be to invite hasad – envy (when you think about it, it’s really quite a silly place to concentrate one’s wealth).
Then of course there is the somber and particular meaning of the word “house” in the context of a refugee camp. Shatila was established for the very purpose of housing refugees – in some ways the word “house,” as a verb, is synonymous with the reason the camp exists (as such) at all. At the same time this meaning gestures towards the houses in ’48 Palestine that so many in Shatila still carry keys and deeds for. The current state of these houses is the reason the houses of Shatila are necessary, and renders these two types of “houses” equal and opposite, in a way. And it left me wondering, if the houses of America and Palestine are so different from the reality and function of “house” in Shatila, perhaps they overlap in a hazy ideal of where one’s family really ought to live?
Because I was curious, too, as to how such a specific (and Occidental) image of the house came to be imprinted in my students’ minds. Television? Cartoons? Movies? Advertisements? Storybooks? The textbooks UNRWA uses in their schools? I felt vaguely imperialist, dramatic as that sounds, as the kids colored in their pentagonal houses. This style and frame of house seemed to carry so much baggage with it: it’s the type of house you build out of wood or brick (most houses in Shatila are cinder block; even traditional houses in this part of the world tend to be made from mud or stone); it’s the type of house that one might associate with a postwar nuclear family…and so on.
Teaching “house” with this image in hand I felt as though I was not only reinforcing the uncomfortable reality that English is an essential element of their education and career prospects, but also introducing my own cultural baggage to the situation somehow. Of course no language is free of cultural baggage; my teaching of English couldn’t be wiped clean of these things entirely. But the question of how to engage this question – of houses and housing – remains an open one to me. The baggage seems heavy indeed, but with just two hours of class time a day, I simply moved on to box and fox.