Lebanon’s War-Torn Past

It is impossible to read Anthony Shadid’s painful account of restoring his ancestral house in Lebanon without an awareness of the author’s premonitions of his own mortality.  Days before the publication of House of Stone, Shadid died of an asthmatic attack, just as he was fleeing Syria, where he had been reporting on the uprisings.  How ironic that he had escaped several more dangerous situations during the years of his exhaustive reporting on the Middle East, that it was his allergies to horses that provoked the attack as he was about to reenter safe territory in Turkey. The loss to journalism of one of its preeminent correspondents is incalculable; the loss to his family, his friends, and the abrupt end to his short career (he was still a young man) is much worse.

The account of rebuilding his ancestral home in Jedeida Marjayoun (in southern Lebanon, close to Israel) is counterbalanced with Shadid’s history of his own family, beginning with his great grandfather, Isber, and following the patriarch’s children who immigrated to the United States, mostly to Oklahoma.  For Anthony Shadid, that meant a childhood in the United States and English as his first language.  The passages of family details (especially his grandparents, Abdullah and Raeefa) are interwoven with the account of house reconstruction, beautifully chronicling the themes of migration, exile, and return—plus the eloquent recapturing of the sense of a distinct space known as home.  As Shadid states in the introduction, “Home…is…the identity that does not fade.”

When he began the renovations on the house in Marjayoun, Shadid was on a year’s leave from the Washington Post and recently divorced.  He undertook the project knowing full well that title to the property was—according to the deed—“in the name of ‘the heirs of Isber Samar.’  These came to twenty-three far-flung, combustible cousins, spread across Lebanon, Brazil, and five states in America….  Each of my father’s generation had inherited 104 shares, give or take a few tenths.  I could boast no more than 35 shares, but only if my portion of 34.78 was rounded up.”  Thus, the undertaking could be disputed by members of his extended family.  Worse, many people in Marjayoun could not understand why he would want to undertake such a project.

Marjayoun, which historically had played a major role in the country’s development, had fallen in size to a mere 800 people.  The house itself—like so many others—“reminded me of scenes from Baghdad days after Saddam’s fall,” that is, in total disarray because of on-going strife in the Middle East, especially Lebanon’s Civil War.  “The no longer thriving Marjayoun survived on the aid, remittances, and the generosity of its expatriate children.”  Still, one of the other remaining villagers told Shadid, “Our values matter, and we can’t lose them….  Marjayoun has lost almost everything, but it still has those values….  These cultural things, time will not erase them easily.  Did I tell you our house in Marjayoun is older than America?  Four hundred years.  It might sound silly, but I’m proud of it.  Get help and give help.  Human values, not money values, technological values, machine values.  These things are worth something.  This culture matters to us.”

In spite of difficulty with workers, with materials, and red tape, the Shadid house was restored and Anthony began to experience the positive aspects of space, home, and heritage—not the negative patterns of the country’s endless wars and declining identity.  In 2008, when the renovations were nearly complete, he observed, “As I sat there, the porch lights highlighted the virile green of the plum tree and the silvery green of the two olives.  I could see the faint outlines of the plants in the garden itself—the basil, the rozana, and the passiflora that Dr. Khairalla had given me.  The breeze was warm.  I had finally escaped from war.  The reverberations of explosions and the noise of helicopters were all but gone.”

Reading that passage is chilling in itself.  This distinguished war correspondent restored his age-old family’s residence, and in the process of reconstruction came to love the country that had been little more than a cipher for him.  He made a number of significant relationships with the people of Marjayoun and—above all—regarded the restored home as “a testament to our sprawling clan in Oklahoma City, which will always stay together even when it is apart.”  And the house itself, for all its scattered children, became enshrined as a metaphor for Lebanon itself.  But then it was back to work for the war correspondent and the house once again took on a new position: the symbolic place for Shadid’s own family, especially his own descendants, in the future.

Anthony Shadid: House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 311 pp., $26

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.






More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

September 20, 2018
Dean Baker
How to Reduce Corruption in Medicine: Remove the Money
September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
Mairead Maguire
Demonization of Russia in a New Cold War Era
Dean Baker
The Bank Bailout of 2008 was Unnecessary
Wim Laven
Hurricane Trump, Season 2
Yves Engler
Smearing Dimitri Lascaris
Ron Jacobs
From ROTC to Revolution and Beyond
Clark T. Scott
The Cannibals of Horsepower
Binoy Kampmark
A Traditional Right: Jimmie Åkesson and the Sweden Democrats
Laura Flanders
History Markers
Weekend Edition
September 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Carl Boggs
Obama’s Imperial Presidency
Joshua Frank
From CO2 to Methane, Trump’s Hurricane of Destruction
Jeffrey St. Clair
Maria’s Missing Dead
Andrew Levine
A Bulwark Against the Idiocy of Conservatives Like Brett Kavanaugh