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Journey to the House of Stone: Where Past Meets the Present in the Levant

Anthony Shahid's House of Stone.

Anthony Shahid’s House of Stone.

From the Hamra section of Beirut—one of those must-see areas for tourists, full of cafes and honking cars and far less appealing to me than the beautiful Corniche–after a lunch of grape leaves, tabouleh, spicy potatoes (batata harra)- a favorite of my guide Karim- we set out in his black Toyota Corolla 2016 for Marjayoun. I’m again on one of my obsessive literary journeys, this time to visit the House of Stone built by Anthony Shadid  on his ancestral land in the south of Lebanon, an area which used to be largely Christian, but has since become a Shiite stronghold of the Hezbollah party.  Shadid, a Lebanese American of Christian background, was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer prize twice for international reporting, having written empathetically about the effects of the Iraqi war on its people, and was attempting to leave Syria in 2012 while covering the contemporary crisis, when he died tragically, supposedly of an asthma attack.

Ever since I read his beautiful, lyrical, haunting memoir about his quest to find his roots in the country his great grandfather migrated to the USA from, I became obsessed with wanting to see this symbol of one man’s determination to recover his past, and the past of his ancestral homeland, in a present riven by war.  His memoir intertwines his intimate journey with the challenge of rebuilding his great grandfather’s abandoned home, which in 2006 was hit and partially destroyed by a half-exploded Israeli rocket. The book becomes a chronicle of the chaotic history of one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world which, because of its geographic location has seen war throughout its centuries old history, and part of Shadid’s goal in the book is an attempt to better understand the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire and the ensuing consequences which have embroiled Lebanon and the region of the Levant  in an imperial game involving Britain, France, the US and their watchdog in the region Israel, ever since the beginning of the last century and lasting into our present time. Even as I pen this, US warplanes under President Trump’s directives, have started a bombing campaign in neighboring Syria, which was once part of Greater Lebanon—or was Lebanon part of Greater Syria? Borders remain porous, reminders of the careless carving up of once autonomous regions into spurious nation states modeled on those of the Western powers who became imperial masters after they defeated the Ottomans who had ruled the Levantine region for centuries.

Leaving Beirut on a Friday afternoon we meet tons of traffic, which my guide tells me in a matter of fact tone, is par for the course in this city of 2.5 million where urban planning simply doesn’t exist. Surely this is one of the unfortunate results of a 14 year civil war aided and abetted by Israel, Iran, Syria and the USA, with the presence and intermittent fighting between Israeli army and Hezbollah militias still ongoing? Karim blames it on corruption of all state actors. In any case, “rush hour” here extends continuously from 9-6 pm 6 days a week! 11 am is when the traffic really gets going and the only quiet day when Beirut apparently turns into a ghost city is Sunday, a family day when everyone stays home and the workers who come into Beirut from the surrounding towns and villages thus contributing to the traffic, also stay home and off the roads.

My guide is a charming young Beiruti man born and raised in Calgary CA,  back in his native country trying to make his fortune in the tourist industry which is at this time suffering due to the recession that hit around 2007.  He tells me that life is tough for most young people as there are virtually no jobs save in the service industry, and that the average salary is around 800$ a month. As we drive out on the highway headed south to Saida, Tyre, Nabatieyeh, Marjayoun, he points out signs advertising the International School of Chouifat which is apparently the most prestigious primary and secondary school in the country founded by Jesuits in 1886; students who graduate from this elite school often end up at the American University of Beirut which is the most sought after university in the Middle East especially for its Medical school- which costs 45,000 $ a year to attend. Who can afford this price ticket in a country where the average salary is 800$ a month, I wonder?

En route we stop at Shamsine bakery for kuneffeh, which I’ve been hankering after since I got to Beirut . Sadly– they’re out! It’s a very popular sweet and this bakery is supposedly known for it. So instead we get some namourah which is delicious; I try the kind with rice pudding in the middle and it’s pretty divine! The best bakery apparently is the two hundred year old Abdul Rahman al Halab bakery so I’m planning to get some boxes of my favorite Lebanese sweets from it to bring back to Abu Dhabi…a modest desire compared to those who Karim tells me travel straight from the Rafik Hariri airport in Beirut to the town of Tripoli in the north, where the original monsieur Halab built himself a qasr (castle)– from profits of his sweet business. Folks head back to Beirut from there laden with at least 500$ worth of sweets for friends and family!

Soon, we enter and drive through the southern towns and hamlets of Sidon, Saida, Nabitieyeh and I realize we are in Hezbollah –controlled territory by the overwhelming visual presence of posters on lampost after lamppost, billboard after billboard, of young bearded men wearing rolled up keffiyehs around their necks, with the Hezbollah symbol of the rifle held aloft in the background, and the word “Shaheed” in Arabic lettering as an identifier written across the bottom.  These are the martyrs of the Lebanese-Israeli war of 2006 mostly, as well as those who have died in Syria more recently, sent there by Hezbollah to counter the Sunni militias. The visual onslaught of so many young men glorified in death, together with military checkposts reminding us of the underlying and ongoing state of insecurity and conflict in the region, contributed to my sense of growing unease about this personal quest I was on. Which I realized ofcourse—was also a deeply political one.

Sure enough, as soon as we pulled up at the largest (in) security checkpoint yet, the last one before the road on this stunning mountainous terrain wound upwards to Marjayoun and other hilly hamlets, we were stopped by security officers who, pointing to me, ask my guide who I am, where I’m from, and on learning I’m  “Pakistani American”—ask whether I have a pass to enter this border zone area with Israel. My guide is convinced they’ve stopped us and made us get out of the car because I was snapping a photo with my cell phone of a larger-than-life poster on an electric pole next to the checkpoint, of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini –not of Hassan Nasrallah, but of the father of the Iranian revolution, resurrected like a Lazarus in all his white bearded glory! Whatever the reason, we were detained for a couple of hours, during which I tried my best to convince them with Karim’s help, that I was a “mashoor musanifa”—his words, not mine– as he kept flashing my wikipedia page at them! In all honesty, I kept saying I was just a scholar and professor who occasionally wrote freelance essays for newspapers and zines about topics of cultural and political interest.  The head guard however, seemed to think I was a spy since, when we tried to get an army officer my guide’s girlfriend knew, to call and intervene on my behalf, the guard told him he couldn’t just accept his word and let me though as I was “taking photographs”—not a sensible move on my part, obviously. Basically—the head guard told Karim I would need to secure a formal pass from their office in Saida in order to get through, which wasn’t going to happen that day as the offices were all closed, it being almost 6 pm.

We turned around finally to go back to Beirut- very disappointed, but Karim promised to try and get me a pass the next day and bring me back if I could spare the time.

Armed with my passport copy, Karim drove back down an hour and a half to Saida the following day, while I went to attend a session featuring my dear friend Nawal el Saadawi at a conference on sexual harassment in the Arab world at the American University of Beirut. After spending a wonderful day with the 86-year old leading lady of Arab feminism who spoke out in favor of pre-marital sex in the Arab world and a hijab-free culture to a cheering auditorium full of young Arab students of both genders—I returned to the hotel to be greeted with the good news that Karim had managed to secure me a pass!

Next morning, with just a few hours to spare before catching my flight back to Abu Dhabi, Karim picked me up at 7 am and we drove through torrential rain back on the now traffic-free highway toward Marjayoun.

This time, we succeeded in getting—finally!—my longed-for kunnefeh from the Shamsine bakery, prepared as a breakfast treat: the cheese-filled choux pastry wrapped inside hot bread which is somewhat like Pakistani naan bread—and I told Karim this reminded me of our own heart-attack-inducing breakfast from the Punjab comprising halwa poori: semolina pudding and deep fried bread devoured by millions as a weekend treat!

I also now began to feel like a traveler rather than a tourist—recognizing the turn-off to the Chouf mountain where my old friend Ralph who I found thanks to Facebook after 35 years—had taken me the day before to visit his house of stone, in the mountain village of Deir al Qamar, a former stronghold of Turkish Emirs and an area that is home to the Druze community though ofcourse, this being Lebanon, other religious groups also reside here, including Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims. After the difficult years of the civil war, and ongoing Israeli attacks in the south supposedly in retaliation for Hezbollah incursions/rocket attacks–minority communities are beginning to feel as though they can return and build homes to start living in harmony again. This is the hope that Ralph expresses to me, even though when friends and family found out he and his wife intended to build a summer home here several years ago, they were not at all sanguine about the wisdom of such a move. But as I sat with him soaking up the sunny view of the mountains from the terrace of his home, enjoying mint tea made with fresh mint from his garden, munching on freshly baked maanishey filled with the garden’s herbs and prepared so lovingly by the Syrian couple who are the house’ caretakers, I prayed to all the gods that it be so…..

The same sentiment of hope washed over me as we passed little hamlets in the district of  Marjayoun as we headed for the hilltop municipality of Jedeidat, where Shadid’s house was supposed to be located.  Burj ul Malook, Cleiyya, Debbine,  Deir Mimas, Deir Syriane;…all pass us by, as Karim drives on with a sense of mission to get me to where I want to be; he feels his reputation as a tour guide is on the line, constantly apologizing for having not known about the need for a pass and having “wasted” my time on our first failed attempt to get through the checkposts. I can’t seem to convince him that I had quite enjoyed playing Matahari….

The rain was coming down pretty hard as we pulled into the little village square of Jedeidat, and Karim just pulled up to the side of the square, where we both jumped out to see if anyone on this wet, chilly Sunday morning was around to point us in the direction of Shadid’s house. One store seemed to be open, so we went in and Karim asked the woman there, in Arabic, if she knew about Shadid and his house. Having met with folks at a nearby gas station who had never heard of him—making me feel like we’d come all this way for nothing—it was exciting to hear the woman say she’d heard the name. We were making progress—and I could see my young guide brightening up. The woman pointed to what seemed to be an office of some sort diagonally across from her store, and Karim now tells me…”she is saying those guys there knew him.”

I feel my pulse racing as we dash across to them, soaking wet now despite the umbrellas we have, because the rain is heavy, there is wind, and rivulets of water are creating big puddles that we cant avoid stepping into. “Ahlan” say the two men to us, looking up quizzically at Karim, then me, wondering who we are and why we are in their sleepy hamlet so early on a wet and windy Sunday morning. Sure enough, they have heard of Shadid and as I listen to them say something to Karim, gesticulating toward a gas station down the hill past the square, I tell him to also ask them if they’d heard of Dr Kheirallah, the village doctor who was the epitome of the cultured and helpful Arab man who befriends Shadid and counsels him on how to navigate his relationships with more contentious characters in Jedeidat, including the testy foreman Shadid hires to rebuild his great grandfather’s house. People in general, according to Shadid’s own account, remained skeptical of his intentions and his mission to rebuild—no one though it was a wise thing to do given the political uncertainty in the area, and the difficulties involved in obtaining and transporting building materials necessary for the project.

“His clinic, madam, was right above this office” says one of the men, responding in English to my question. I’m so excited, I run out into the rain to snap some photos, but he tells us both to “Hurry and go find the owner of the gas station; his name is Hikmat, and he was Anthony Shadid’s friend. He is there in his house near the gas station, but he may leave soon so go now…he may be able to guide you to the Shadid  house too.”

“I’ve hit the jackpot” I think to myself. Surely this must be THE Hikmat Farha—who is one of Shadid’s few confidantes in Marjayoun in the book, with whom, as with others he interacts with—his relationship is a mixture of intimacy and irritation, closeness at a shared heritage, skepticism by locals like Hikmat of Shadid’s motives and his fanatic desire to build a house in a place folks generally fled from, not stayed in. Indeed, as Shadid reported from  Hasbaya in Lebanon in The Washington Post on August 13th, 2006, the same year he later started to rebuild his ancestral home in  what surely was an act of resistance,

Israeli troops entered Marjayoun at 3:30 a.m. Thursday. They had first seized Burj al-Molouk. Next was Qleia. The last, along a road stretching from the border, was the capital of the province, a faded, once-prosperous town that unfurls up a hill overlooking a valley carpeted in olive trees and the imposing, wizened peaks of Mount Hermon, known here as Jebel al-Sheikh.

These were the very towns Karim and I had passed on our drive up to Jedeidat this morning of Aril 2nd 2017.

Shadid goes on in his article from 2006, to quote Fouad Hamra, the town’s mayor “They came with the tanks, of course.” And he quotes the man we are about to meet:

“People didn’t dare leave their homes. ” Shadid concludes mournfully,

Nearly everyone has now departed the Christian town, where houses of cream stone and red-tiled roofs sit tucked in a southern corner of Lebanon, perched unfortunately along the Israeli border

And as Hikmat Farha is quoted once more in Shadid’s piece, summing up the fear that compels people to leave their homes:

Water was scarce, an irony for a town whose name means “field of springs” in Arabic. They had springs outside their homes, and they couldn’t reach them. Generators began giving out as gasoline ran short. And people decided to leave.

Everybody will say: ‘Why did they leave? How did they leave?’ ” Farha … called the question easy in hindsight. “Looking at the war with your eyeglasses on is easy,” he said. “But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s much more difficult.”

(The Washington Post, Aug 13th, 2006; accessed April 7th 2017 )

We arrive at Hikmat Farha’s house, clearly rebuilt and re-inhabited now after a decade, to find him and a friend of his seated in a cozy parlour around a woodstove fire. He remains guarded throughout our conversation, but is gracious in inviting us in and allowing us to get warm and dry off while serving us some strong Arabic coffee. He is bilingual in Arabic and English, and like the guards at the checkpost, wants to know why I’m interested in Shadid, how did I find him, who alerted us that Hikmat lived here and so on. The Israeli-Hezbollah conflict has left deep scars, but interestingly, neither Shadid nor Hikmat blame the Hezbollah for the ongoing state of conflict that erupt into hostilities and wars every so often, keeping this little town’s nerves constantly on edge.

Indeed, when I ask Hikmat pointblank what he thinks of the Hezbollah presence in town—as he sits beneath a large painting of the Virgin Mary on the wall behind him—he shrugs and says, “they don’t bother us.”  This is very much in line with Shadid’s observations on the occasion of the Israeli attack on Marjayoun in 2006:

Ever since Israeli forces left Marjayoun and the rest of southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah and its Shiite Muslim militia maintained a discreet presence. There were no retributions. There was no armed presence inside Marjayoun and other villages that belonged to Lebanon’s other sects: Druze, Christian and Sunni Muslim. Some residents said it was not Hezbollah that fired on the Israeli troops in Marjayoun [in 2006], but operatives of a secular, leftist party whose posters still adorn the sides of buildings and telephone poles across the region.

Nevertheless, the Israeli army attacks and invades Marjayoun and surrounding areas in 2006 citing Hezbollah hostilities,  and leaves devastation in its wake. That devastation has helped ignite conflicts beyond Lebanon’s southern border with Israel into neighboring Syria, aided and abetted by other regional powers as well as the superpowers of our neocolonial/imperial world, which has led in turn to the creation of the much-abhorred ISIS of today

Looking back at these antecedents of present-day conflicts, I turn once again to Shadid’s observations:

Memories run deep of the 18-year Israeli occupation over mostly Shiite villages. Often heard in today’s conflict is the idea that nothing can be gained without sacrifice, that the Shiite community has already proved its steadfastness by battling the Israelis…..

What Shadid says next brings up an eerie sense of déjà vu today:

There is a sense, too, that the war is not yet over. Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, vowed Saturday that while his group would accept a cease-fire, fighting would persist as long as Israeli troops were on Lebanese land.

“It is our natural right to confront them, fight them and defend our land, our homes and ourselves,” he said.

Unfortunately, today, it looks like Israel is hell-bent on escalating violent conflict in the region with an aim of destroying the Hezbollah threat it fears against its security from Southern Lebanon. Nicoloas Noe, writing in The Independent tells us

By operationalizing Israel’s full spectrum missile defense system this past weekend …

Israel will not only be well positioned to defend against Hezbollah’s main weapon – rockets launched against military and civilian targets – but it will also employ the unrestrained bombing of all Lebanese infrastructure and “supportive” civilian populations…ensuring that Hezbollah’s depth is thoroughly flattened and that other Lebanese turn on Hezbollah as a result of the widespread destruction.

Astutely, Noe concludes, that such an assumption by the Israelis is wishful thinking regarding the balance of terror. He reasons that:

First, a vicious bombing of all Lebanon will likely produce greater solidarity among Lebanese, rather than lead to any combination of ill-equipped communities to somehow confront Hezbollah. As the Israelis should have learned a long time ago, Lebanese attitudes quickly harden against any external power that persists in spreading widespread violence, no matter what the original (and usually disputable) “provocation” might have been by any Lebanese party.

Second, the Party of God [as Hezbollah is known]–is not the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which was expelled from Lebanon after the devastating Israeli invasion in the summer of 1982. It is a deeply rooted Lebanese party that has significant support among other confessions. As the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, has long reminded the Israelis, party supporters and especially its base among the Shia of Lebanon are not going to get on a ship and move to Tunis as PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat once did. Most will stay and fight for their land and their countrymen.

I think Anthony Shadid could sense this looming Armageddon which, especially with the current US regime’s unqualified backing of Israel in any conflict that occurs now in the Middle East, following on the Trump administration’s dismantling of rapprochement with Iran achieved with much diplomatic wrangling by the Obama administration—has seriously damaged any semblance of a balance of power in the region. The news this morning of US airtsrikes on Syria simply strengthens the sense of déjà vu I have reading and thinking about Anthony Shadid’s work and career cut so tragically short when he was only 43 years old.

Rather melancholically, as though sensing the Past intruding into the present in a seemingly never-ending pattern, Hikmat tells me, “My friend Anthony had an adventurous spirit, and he was certainly a brave man. But I believe he was also a stupid man.”

Without elaborating, Hikmat got up abruptly, said he would lead us to Anthony’s house, which I could see only from the outside as his widow wasn’t there this weekend, and the caretaker who had the keys couldn’t be found despite calls Hikmat had been making as were sipping our coffee. We could, however, wander about the garden Anthony had planted and where his ashes lay buried under an olive tree.

The sun had come out while we were inside Hikmat’s den. After thanking him for taking us to the house, I wandered into the garden, lovingly planted with shrubs and fruit trees and overflowing with lavender bushes blazing purple in the sun that seemed to be welcoming us to the house that Shadid never got to turn into a home, dying in a war zone just as construction was finally completed.

I realized as I said a little prayer under the olive tree beneath whose branches his remains have become part of the land he loved: Hikmat’s pronouncement of his friend’s stupidity was the biggest compliment he could give to the memory of a man he loved, who has become synonymous with the Land of Liban. Stupidity is another word for courage after all—especially if that courage means you risk life and limb to remain human in the face of an endless war that seeks to dehumanize us all.

On the way down from Jedeidat, as we exit the area of Marjayoun, we pass Jabl el Rihan where a large billboard warns the traveller, “this is an area of Zionist military operations.”

And so the world turns, till one day, it won’t.

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Fawzia Afzal-Khan holds a Phd in English from Tufts University, is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ, and currently a Visiting Professor of the Arts at New York University in Abu Dhabi. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com

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