What makes a house, a home?

September 10, 2011
Human beings mark and give meaning to the borders of the places they occupy. Their presence overshadows the space they live in as much as they are impacted and regulated by the space that surrounds them.  And a house is one such primary space. It maintains and transfers values as it is shaped by those who reside in it while it also outlines the day-to-day of its inhabitants. A house is an intimate place that rises in aesthetic and material worth when it becomes home to the ideals of its inhabitants and a shelter to their hopes in the shadow of peace and comfort. 
Iranian houses whether modern or traditional are in a way built, designed and chosen with an eye on the dreamy combination of such comfort, beauty, harmony and hygiene. In fact, the location of a house, its surrounding neighborhood and its interior design is mostly a strong, though not very reliable signifier of social, financial, family and intellectual status of its inhabitants.  Urban life and apartment culture has, however, altered any rigid categorization of space and values associated with houses.
Whether as apartments or mansions, modern Iranian houses generally consist of a few main and regular sectors regardless of their differences in terms of size and shape. First and foremost, is the salon or otagh-e- paziraei (literally, the ‘hosting’ or guest-welcoming room). The paziraei room is the first and largest visible space after entering the house. Here guests and visitors are welcomed and entertained by the host and therefore, the best of the house, the best of the furniture and appliances are placed in this room.  The Persian rug or carpet is an essential part of this section, both for its aesthetic and material value. Even if the floor is tiled in ceramic or stones as in more modern homes, the Persian carpet with its range of colors and patterns is still the soul of the room for it enhances the beauty and harmony of other decorative objects. Sometimes, the carpets are framed and pinned to the wall as they can represent a unique array of colors and patterns just like a painting. Considering the amount of time and effort put into weaving a carpet and the energy and the strength of the fingers that skillfully weave it, one could say that Persian carpets resemble miniature paintings and intricate works of art that somehow get trampled under our feet. 
The sofa, couches and the dining table are also set in this room. Of course, there are variations of these arrangements based on taste and sense of space. Sometimes the dining table is partitioned away from the paziraei room or in more traditional homes people still prefer to sit and dine on the floor after spreading the traditional sofreh (table cloth) on the carpet. They use big traditionally designed cushions, known as ‘poshti’ to support their backs against the wall. The paziraei is also the room which receives most light in the building. Big luster lamps hanging from the ceilings and large mirrors, sometimes with delicate Persian calligraphic designs on them help to enhance the sense of space and lighting in this room. 
The paziraei can be considered the most significant room as it represents the home within the house to visitors and guests who are highly esteemed in the Iranian culture. ‘A guest is the beloved of the Lord’, is in fact a popular saying and it is believed that receiving guests and the warm hospitality of the host could bring ever more blessings to the house and its residents. 
The kitchen usually faces the paziraei room or is adjacent to it. Almost all modern houses have open kitchens which is obviously the impact of western architecture. While open kitchens metaphorically connect the heart and head of the house, one could say that they are not exactly in concord with the Iranian and Islamic culture as an enclosed kitchen would give the woman of the house more freedom and less distraction to carry on her chores. For a Muslim woman it is more challenging to observe hijab (Islamic covering) and do her household chores at the same time before guests. 
The next important sector is of course the bedroom with sleeping beds otherwise traditionally, a toshak (sleeping mattress) is spread on the carpet along with the pillow of sweet dreams at night and then folded and placed back into reality the morning. 
There are many variations of and optional additions to all these sectors depending on one’s taste and financial status but all in all, one could say that what actually makes a house into a home is the universal element of love among the inhabitants, and hope that while this love is nurtured and sheltered within the walls of the house, it eventually grows beyond the confinement of time and space and it simply becomes home to the human heart. 
Aesthetics and purpose in traditional Persian houses
As opposed to the culture of apartman-neshini (living in apartments and flats) some people also have the fortune to live in actual houses where sense of personal space and individual freedom are naturally greater in comparison. These houses, mostly built in more than one or two stories are somehow the remnants of older traditional Persian dwellings.
These houses are mainly known for their hayat (back or front yard) where usually a small garden is maintained. The hayat is the connecting space between the inside and the outside and one can say that poetically it serves as a link, a sort of platform of dialogue between the exterior and the interior architecture, the life within and the life out. Sometimes people grow their own vegetables and sabzi khordan (edible greens eaten in handfuls along with main meals). Ideally, there is also a howz (a small central pond) sometimes filled with little fish and there is a little fountain that runs in the summer and spring making the water pond an aesthetic focus of the yard and also a source of humidity for the surrounding atmosphere. In the summer, fruits like water melon and cantaloupe are ceremonially left in the water to cool. Wooden beds or chairs are set in the yard and one can enjoy the seasonal cool of the mornings and evenings while reclining to sip tea or bite in the fresh flesh of a cool watermelon. In addition to the bathroom indoors there is also usually another one situated in the yard for convenience. 
The house also typically has a zirzamin (literally underground, cellar) which is also used as a storeroom. In an apartment setting residents are usually given an anbari (stockroom) to store their stuff in the parking lot. The rooftop of the house is not left without purpose as well. In summer nights, sometimes people spread their mattress on the rooftops and sleep outside to beat the heat and watch the starry skies of summer before closing their eyes. The rooftop and the yard are also used for drying clothes on a rope line. In an apartment setting, sometimes the clothes are dried on a cloth stand in the balcony. 
While living in a large house has its own advantages, its maintenance and security is also a challenge. The younger generation prefers to live in apartment complexes which are more affordable. Luxurious penthouse apartments are also currently in trend, particularly in the northern parts of Tehran where the air is less polluted, due to proximity to the surrounding mountains.
Apartment culture and rationalization of space 
The apartment as a living space came into existence in Iran about sixty years ago. The concept of building one house over another and making sensible use of space in the shape of what we know as apartments today seemingly came into concrete existence in the early 1960’s. This was a great shift of house values and codes of behavior for Iranians who were used to living in large spaces and big houses usually in the form of joint families. 
There is a saying in the Persian language ‘Chahar divaari ekhtiyaarist’ which literally means that the four walls of one’s home is the actual domain of one’s authority and therefore the owner of the house can exercise his will power within the realm of this confinement.  It was axiomatic that this motto could no longer be applied to the new form of urban living and those who still wished to follow the tradition of living in big houses in the apartment living system were faced with new challenges. The large space of big houses obviously granted more individual freedom and meant less social restraints and regulations for the inhabitants but with the growth of apartment living, more consideration for the ‘other’ and self-restriction eventually became unspoken codes of behavior. 
On the other hand the culture of apartment dwelling has its upsides too. For instance, one could say that it somehow provides a good environment for extending the social web of families as people living in the same compound or complex get together more naturally as neighbors. It also indulges a sense of responsibility and cooperation among individuals. Usually there is a communal meeting where a representative or head is elected. During these meetings, paying the bills, settling arguments or renovation and other issues are discussed. It is also believed that people feel more socially secure in the closely knitted area of an apartment complex as compared to large and isolated houses. 

The closer realm 
Your neighbor, your shadow-mate 
The Persian word for neighbor is ‘hamsayeh’. If we break the lexical unity of this word and try to trace its etymology, we can clearly see the depth of the values that lie at the core of this entity in the Persian culture. ‘Ham’ is the prefix for ‘same’ or ‘communal’ and ‘sayeh’ is the Persian word for ‘shadow’. Therefore, hamsayeh (neighbor) is someone who shares and lives in the same shadow with you. 
While poking one’s nose into the affair of others is strictly forbidden, ethics strongly suggest that neighbors should know about the wellbeing of each other and rush to one another’s aid should illness or other misfortunes befall them. A good neighbor is trustworthy and reliable and keeps an eye on one’s property in one’s absence. When you meet them in the corridors or the stairs they never hesitate to greet you and say hello. If there is a social or religious function, neighbors are the first to be offered food or sweets. And if one neighbor is planning to host a big party or celebration that may involve a lot of commotion, they apologize and inform the others in advance and if possible, invite them to the gathering as well.  In fact the opinion of one’s neighbors about one’s character is still so valid to this day that when seeking a future spouse or employee, the key to finding answers about their background is their neighborhood. 
The rat race of modern life and apartment culture, however, has obviously modified the codes of neighbor decorum to some extent but good manners and values always have and will stand the test of time.
1- It is not uncommon to see words from the holy Quran (for blessings) or a few verses of classic Persian poetry framed and placed on or above the door of Iranian houses.
2- Iranians take their shoes off outside the house. They mostly walk barefoot in the living rooms or wear comfy slippers while indoors. 
3- Apartment culture and urban living in Iran generally do not welcome house pets but it is not uncommon for people to own cats and dogs when they have a yard. 
4- Until early 1950’s bathrooms and washrooms were situated outside in the yard and separated from the main part of the house. Before this people used to go to Communal Bathrooms (hamaaam e omoomi) to bathe and this had its own rituals. Men and women would bathe on different weekdays. Svanta and incense were burnt in the bathing quarters and male and female workers (known as dallak) were assigned to help with the process of bathing. The history of communal bathrooms in Iran goes back to 3000 years.
5- In Iran most lavatories have squat toilets with a tap and a hose but more modern households have both Iranian and western toilet systems.
6- Modern houses today have central cooling and heating systems for summer and winter, but not so long ago people used to sit by the traditional korsi to warm themselves in the winter. The korsi consisted of a low table with electric heating or the traditional brazier with hot coals which was placed under it. The table was covered with thick quilts hanging from all sides and people covered their laps with the quilt to keep themselves warm. 
7- Hygiene and cleanliness are the most fundamental aspects of an Iranian home. Cleanliness is in fact the signature trait of the faithful in religion. Before festivals and other occasions like the Persian New Year (Norouz) Iranians go through a ‘khaneh tekani’ ritual (literally, shaking the house) which means cleaning the house from ceiling to the floor and making everything spick and span from the top to the bottom.
8- In older neighborhoods sometimes the 13th house on the street is marked as (12+1) and number 13 is not even mentioned presumably due to Triskaidekaphobia (fear of number 13).

Bizarre Buzz!
The Lilliput of Iran in adobe abodes
Situated in the south of Khorasan province is the remote village of Makhunik renowned for both its dwellings and dwellers. The average height of the residents is about 140 centimeters. The village has a population of less than 700 people. Houses are less than 2 meters in height and each one covers an area of 15 square meters. The wooden doors of the houses are less than one meter in height and one must bend in order to enter the house, usually after climbing down one or two steps. These habitats are built closely at foothills and are deep in the ground. They have no specific geometrical shape like rectangle or square and are designed quite arbitrarily. Each house has a kitchen, a bedroom and a barn. The main materials used are stone, timber and wood logs.