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: firstname.lastname@example.org.