'House of Stone': Anthony Shadid's homecoming, now heartbreaking
A great chronicler of the Middle East died this month while reporting from Syria. He leaves us a poignant, and typically vibrant, memoir of finding his roots in his ancestral home in Lebanon.
Sunday, February 26, 2012

There is a moment at the beginning of "House of Stone" that is classic Anthony Shadid, a flash of striking detail that makes a larger point about war and its impact on ordinary lives.

In 2007, as Shadid stood outside his great-grandfather's battered and abandoned house in Lebanon, he regards its most obvious flaw and remembers the daughter of the man who had built it. "I found myself wondering," he wrote, "what my grandmother would have made of the half-exploded Israeli rocket that had crashed into the second story of her father's house, taking out a good chunk of wall before bursting into flame."

That image -- a tool of violence invading a place of refuge -- represents one of the themes in the late war reporter's absorbing and poignant memoir.

"House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East"
By Anthony Shadid
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($26).

Shadid, who was 43, died Feb. 16 of an apparent asthma attack while reporting for The New York Times from Syria. His death makes reading this book a more somber experience, more so than even his exceptional journalism. This time, the story is also personal. Shahid's second theme is the quest for his family's history and how it intersects with the narrative that defined his career: the friction between the roiled world of the contemporary Middle East with a longing for the region's more civilized past.

The book opens July 30, 2006, with Shadid covering the kind of story that made his reputation, an Israeli bombing in the Lebanese town of Qana. On Aug. 10, the war hit his family's village of Marjayoun -- Arabic for "Field of Springs" -- and soon after he drove there to check on the villa of his great-grandfather, Isber Samara. His grandmother Raeefa lived there before she came to America. No one in the family had lived in Isber's house for more than 40 years; it had been looted in the 1975 civil war and trashed by squatters. Shadid takes in the rocket, then plants a skinny olive tree in the yard.

It is a hopeful gesture in a rootless life. Shadid, who grew up in Oklahoma, had just finished three years of reporting in Iraq. In 2002, reporting for The Boston Globe, he was shot in the shoulder by an Israeli sniper in Ramallah, and his marriage was rending from the risks of his job. One day he returns from overseas to his home in the Maryland suburbs to find the tomatoes ripening and the house empty, his wife and daughter gone.

Shadid yearns for bayt, which translates as "house" but means all the things the word can imply -- identity, security, family, home. In 2007 he takes a year off from The Washington Post, his employer at the time, and returns to Marjayoun to rebuild Isber's house. "I felt I could never really find home, not in Oklahoma, not in Maryland, not in Marjayoun," he says. "I knew I wanted my own sense of bayt, and this is what drew me here."

While he is there, he befriends the town's residents. Everyone tells him Marjayoun and its old ways are dying. And everyone awaits another war.

"House of Stone" unfolds in two parallel story lines: the rebirth of the house amid the tensions of the present and the journey of the Samaras and Shadids to the United States. The structure lets past and present run side by side, just as they do in life. It also underscores how long war has stalked the Middle East and how its people sense what it has changed.

Shadid had struck this theme before. In a story that helped to win him the second of two Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting at the Post, he wrote, "Nostalgia is perhaps the defining sentiment in a disenchanted Arab world, punctuating conversations in Cairo and Beirut as it does in Baghdad. It marks the fact that something -- a measure of tolerance, a more libertine life, the cosmopolitanism of a confident culture -- has been lost."

Everyone he meets in Marjayoun mourns what is gone, even as they wonder how to leave it behind. "The question is," someone asks, "do you keep living in the past, or do you look somewhere else? And if it's somewhere else, where is it?"

Two of Maryjayoun's residents reflect the end of the old ways. Hikmat Farha's father was one of the town's leaders; compared with his father, he has little influence. "Different men, different people, different world, different society, different mentality," he says with regret. Khairalla Mady, a doctor who once ran the local hospital, helps Shadid landscape the old house's lawn even as he dies of cancer. The scenes with the ailing doctor are among the book's most bittersweet and symbolic. Every time Shadid sees him, Dr. Khairalla is weaker, fading away -- "the tone of his whistling became almost plaintive, like a goodbye."

Despite its seriousness, it would be a mistake to ignore that "House of Stone" is also very funny. Shadid said writing a memoir felt strange after years of reporting, but you would never know it.

He depicts himself as a source of gossip and amusement to the locals, speaking Arabic with an Oklahoma accent, exasperated by their quirks. A relative next door welcomes him to the neighborhood by stealing plums from one of his trees: "When he had glimpsed me staring in disbelief," Shadid writes, "he brought them to me, still chilled from his refrigerator. His excuse: He had taken them only to wash them."

Much of the comedy comes from the clash between the Type-A American and the slow-going workers rebuilding the house. Abu Jean, the foreman and a wizard of cement, hair nearly black at 76, keeps telling his boss to ruq shwaya -- take it easy. Sitting on Abu Jean's porch, eating fruit and drinking coffee (for guests, there is always coffee), Shadid realizes he is beaten, "eating a banana while begging an old man for a plumber."

At times, the past clicks into focus. Shadid becomes fascinated with the floor tiles hidden under years of dust. One day while sorting replacements in the yard, an image strikes him: "It felt as though I was lifting history and putting it back into its place."

After nine months the house is nearly finished and Shadid, walking through it alone, glimpses the bayt he had been seeking. It is difficult to realize that he will never live there now or see his daughter enjoy olives from the tree he planted, as he had dreamed. Easier to remember him moving through the rooms after the workers have gone, marble polished, tiles shining, arches bending light, 7,000 miles from the place he was born, at home.

Leslie Rubinkowski, a former Post-Gazette features writer, teaches writing at Carlow University and Goucher College and is the author of "Impersonating Elvis."

First published on February 26, 2012 at 12:00 am
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