Rebuilding the World

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East 

By Anthony Shadid, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $26.00

 

The story of making a house is one of the great and ancient archetypes of literature. You could say that it is a story as old as writing itself, since the image of a house, or bayt, underlies the B in the alphabet that the Phoenicians, inhabitants of what we now call Lebanon, invented. The word “bayt” also means family, or clan. The title of journalist Anthony Shadid’s memoir resonates with both meanings. An account of rebuilding an ancestral bayt in southern Lebanon, it is a diary of architectural adventure, a personal record of family history, a subtle examination of intricate regional politics, and an Odyssean journey home.

Until a few weeks ago, House of Stone had a happy ending—a fulfillment, the house’s past, present, and future woven together in the form of traditional architecture. The new olive tree the author had planted was flourishing alongside the trees of his great-grandparents. In February, though, Anthony Shadid died on assignment for The New York Times in Syria. The rich consummation of the book’s final pages was transformed into destiny. His ashes have been scattered in the garden that he designed with a beloved local mentor and that he writes about with such radiance in the book.

Shadid’s reporting on the Middle East for the Times and The Washington Post was not only valued in the Western press; he was also respected in the region for his fine Arabic, his knowledge of history and local custom, and the integrity of his journalism. He was born and raised in Oklahoma, a descendant of the Samaras and the Shadids of Marjayoun, a town older than the nation where it is situated. Once a substantial trading crossroads in the days of its Ottoman prosperity, Marjayoun (“a gateway—to Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and Damascus, beyond Mount Hermon; to Jerusalem, in historic Palestine; and to Baalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town … this was a place as cosmopolitan as the countryside offered”) supported four newspapers in its heyday. It was and is known as a Greek Orthodox town, but it is also a mosaic of Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Maronite Catholics. Shadid’s Greek Orthodox great-uncle Hana sang the call to prayer from the town minaret, while Muslims broadcast Good Friday prayers from their restaurants in the heart of the town.

The Shadids and Samaras “were part of a century-long migration that occurred as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.” Like many others (the steerage passenger lists from the Titanic include large numbers of Levantine names), they left to avoid intensified forced conscription by the Ottoman authorities and outbursts of sectarian violence and banditry that followed the empire’s dissolution. They also sought to escape the loss of livelihoods when, in 1920, “France … created a country where none existed,” disrupting “history, tradition, clan, and commerce” previously unconfined by borders.

 The struggling Marjayoun to which Shadid returns in his memoir, with its power failures and simmering local tensions, has endured the Lebanese civil war and rounds of Israeli occupation and bombing, its people constantly deprived of their own world. Yet Marjayoun remains a locus of Levantine history, where conversations begin with explorations of genealogy, and the exquisite arts of peace have been perfected throughout years of violence.

 

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When the book opens, Shadid, recently arrived from three years in Iraq, is covering the attack on the village of Qana, one of the targets of Israel’s 33-day bombing of Lebanon in 2006. As the villagers comb through the ruins of their houses, uncovering the bodies of their dead families, Shadid is compelled to ask himself their question: How can we restore what has been destroyed? He makes his way to Marjayoun to discover the town square gutted by fires. Following a now-buckling asphalt road past cratered, bullet-riddled houses, he finds his grandparents’ house rent by a half-exploded Israeli rocket. Determined to make this soil yield something other than spent weapons, Shadid goes off in search of a shovel and digs deep to plant a tiny olive tree, “its trunk no thicker than a pen.”

Shadid’s account of restoring the house (“Bayt Sitti,” or the grandmother’s house, as he tenderly comes to call it) becomes the center of the book’s complex kaleidoscope of political and personal history. His quest and undertaking (which a fair number of Marjayounis consider insane, thanks to the complicated inheritance laws that ignite unresolvable family disputes) is to preserve its marble-floored liwan, or reception hall, its century-old iron railings, and its majestic traditional triple arcade of windows, but also to “re--
imagine” the house for his family. A friend quotes the proverb “A sliver of land can wipe out its people,” but Shadid persists.

 The healing of his house also becomes the discovery of a new way to write. Shadid describes how he had slowly come to feel that the craft of journalism shows us “the drama, not the impact … we never find out, or think to ask, whether the village is rebuilt, or what becomes of the dazed woman who, after one strange, endlessly extended moment, is no longer the mother of children.” As Shadid rebuilds the house, he is restored to his own life, in all the fullness of its relationships to past and present.

In the subtlest of his delicate metaphors, Shadid remakes the house from the very materials of shattered Lebanon, remnants of war reassembled in a structure of peace. He acquires the tiles called sajjadeh, “carpet,” as diverse and cosmopolitan as the Levant once was, from many sources: There are tiles from the destroyed houses of a Beirut Shiite neighborhood pulverized by the Lebanese civil war and Israeli bombs, and tiles from the controversial razing of Beirut’s old-town neighborhood and market by Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s Solidere company.

Reconstructing the house, Shadid starts to rebuild the world. We follow him through his often-comic navigation of the role of returning expatriate. He respects tradition but adapts it to his temperament. Endearingly unable to endure the violence of the olive harvest, he refuses to beat the fruit from his grandmother’s trees and gently handpicks the harvest instead, olive by olive.

Another excellent recent example of the house biography genre, almost an ironic companion to House of Stone, tells the story of Sledmere, a stately house in Yorkshire. The Big House (2005) is a memoir by Christopher Simon Sykes—grandson of Sir Mark Sykes, the co-author of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which dismembered the Ottoman East, or “Asiatic Turkey,” for the benefit of England and France. The undisturbed accumulation of centuries in treasures at Sledmere contrasts dramatically with the wounded house in Marjayoun. To read the books together raises a tragic question. Did the continuity of one house depend on the ruin of the other?

Still, the memory of an expansive, more generous world persists in Marjayoun. It is alive in masterly stonework and in the Levantine furniture that draws on all the trees of the region, “walnut, apricot, rose, olive, and lemon,” and on the waters of both rivers and sea, with different types of mother-of-pearl harvested from each. And it animates many of the people Shadid meets, especially Dr. Khairallah, an exemplar of Arab humanism. Dr. Khairallah has treated rich and poor and shepherded a hospital through war, occupation, and political betrayal, but he writes Arabic poetry on the walls of his house and crafts ouds, the Arab lute, for collectors and for his grandchildren. It is Dr. Khairallah, “the kind of man I wanted to be … gentle and kind, principled, ever curious,” who teaches Shadid to understand his garden. “I learned to respect the garden, where rituals and right actions prevailed.”

House of Stone is a tale of spiritual apprenticeship, in which a man learns the difference between bullets and chisels, bayonets and scalpels: between violence that is wanton and the artful demolitions that sustain life. As the builders set to work renovating Bayt Sitti, Shadid sees that “there was meaning to the destruction, an elegance of movement as the house hurtled toward its end and a new beginning.” 

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