“Hm, there’s nothing especially pretty about the local architecture, is there?”
This comment from a visitor a few years back is a pretty good summary of how most Westerners feel about our local houses. Cement rectangles finished in plaster, paint, and tile maybe aren’t exactly something to write home about. Aesthetically, it’s like the sharp corners of the 1980s have been awkwardly wed to hints of Islamic and communist design. And yet, there a quite a few aspects of these houses that we’ve come to appreciate. As with so many other areas, the culture has even seeped into into the architecture, leading to houses that themselves communicate things about their environment and the people who live in them. Despite their challenges, my family continues to live in a typical house here, our third one now since moving overseas. Here are a few things I now appreciate about local houses.
A Separate Hosting Room. Most houses here include a room for hosting guests who come visiting. This room is typically well carpeted and the walls are lined with either couches or with local sitting mattresses. This hosting room is usually separated from the rest of the house by a door and often has its own entrance. This allows guests to be honorably hosted, but also contained out of sight of the necessary workings of the household and hospitality. The meal will often be served in this same room, with a long plastic or fabric table cloth laid on the floor. Guests can also sleep in this room, with the sitting mattresses doubling as beds and with the door providing adequate privacy. This compartmentalizing of hospitality means hosting is much more practical since all the required household business can still happen out of sight, even when guests are present. Just make sure one of the family members is in there with them, the guests are munching on something or someone’s working to bring tea or snacks, and the TV is on.
Diverse Toilets. Many local houses will now have both kinds of toilets, western and eastern. An eastern toilet is also popularly known as the squatty potty. It’s basically a porcelain hole in the floor complete with side treads for your feet so that you know you’re positioned correctly. I’m not going to go into details but let’s just say that it’s ideal to have both kinds of toilets on hand, both for hospitality and for dealing with different kinds of sicknesses! There’s also often an extra guest half-bath in the courtyard, just outside the hosting room, so that guests can use it without needing to pass through the family part of the house.
Flat Roofs. The flat roofs of our region mean that you have an accessible area for placing water tanks, random supplies (but only if they can survive the blistering heat), and air conditioning/heat units. The roofs also make great places to step out onto for a quiet moment or to sit around a fire at night. In the past, many families would sleep on their roofs during the summer, since the night air was much cooler than the air inside the cement house, which had soaked up the heat of the sun during the day. Many locals will also use the roof as a good place to hang up, beat, wash, and dry their Persian carpets, and sometimes to hang their laundry.
The Practical Kitchen. Why have only one kitchen when you can have two? Many local houses have two kitchens, one which is kept spotlessly presentable for guests, and one which is used for the messier stove-top cooking and food preparation. This second kitchen is called the practical kitchen and it is often built in a different room which is only partially sealed to the outside air. This is so that the heat of the stove can escape without being trapped in a house which is already overheating in the summer. Our practical kitchen contains our stove, our hot water boiler, and a chair for when my wife needs to find a quiet place to pray out of sight of the offsprings.
Courtyards. Though much smaller in modern houses than they used to be, courtyards still provide a vital space for the family to work and play with the privacy provided by a high wall and gate. The courtyard is considered part of the house so it gives the women of the family protected access to sunlight and often a small garden/yard area and a cement or tile floor where they can do necessary work. Like many locals, we are working hard to turn our small tiled courtyard into a small garden of sorts, a green refuge from the dust and cement of the city.
The Hamam. This room is a fully tiled space that is used for showers. Why limit yourself to a small tub and curtain in the corner when you can have your own tiled sauna room? Locals will often put their water boiler beneath the tiled floor so that the floor itself is heated as well as the water. As a Westerner who greatly appreciates hot showers, I have to say that the shower experience of the hamam is far superior to the Western-style corner or tub shower. That is, unless it’s like our previous house, where the floor of the hamam was somehow conducting electricity!
Light Wells. What do you do when you live in a country with inconsistent electricity? Build houses with light wells throughout, a shaft that goes up to a skylight on the roof, so that most rooms have access to some kind of window that receives natural light. In the dark of winter these light wells can make all the difference.
Local houses are quirky, no doubt. The quality of construction is not very good so things break all the time. I am nearing the completion of about a hundred small repair repair projects in the house where we currently live. In one sense, it would be much simpler to live in one of the new Western-style apartment towers that are being built. And yet there are things about these houses we have come to really appreciate. We can see how they have been built by a people who really care about guests, about family, about comfort, and about making the best out of an unreliable infrastructure. They have their own charm, even if it takes a while to recognize it.
And if I ever build my own house in the West somewhere, count on it, I will be including at least one squatty potty.