A Mission to Restore a House and a Man

‘House of Stone,’ a Memoir by Anthony Shadid
February 26, 2012 |
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The pain and allure of departure, more than the satisfaction of arrival, run through the stories told in “House of Stone,” Anthony Shadid’s elegiac, heartbreaking memoir of the year he spent restoring a long-abandoned family home in southern Lebanon.
The book’s searching characters and mournful tone would be moving even if a reader had no knowledge that Mr. Shadid, a correspondent for The New York Times and perhaps his generation’s finest chronicler of the Middle East, died on Feb. 16 at 43 while on assignment in Syria. As it is, a book conceived as an introspective project of personal recovery — as well as a meditation on politics, identity, craft and beauty in the Levant — now stands as a memorial. It is a fitting one because of the writing skill and deep feeling Mr. Shadid unobtrusively displays.

“House of Stone” is an elegant narrative that creates unity from diverse elements, much like the Ottoman-era cemento tiles over which Mr. Shadid obsesses and bargains during one stage of his beguiling restoration work. The book tells the story of his family’s migration from Lebanon to Oklahoma early in the 20th century, and along the way it illuminates the consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s fall; the binding ties of bayt, or home and belonging, in Arab families; the workplace ethics of Mr. Shadid’s small construction site in Lebanon; and the flavors of that battered society’s bitterness and resilience.

At the heart of the book, Mr. Shadid’s third, lies the strong, open voice of its author. He is drawn to his family’s origins at a time when, after years of hard travel and conflict reporting at The Washington Post, he finds himself “stunned by war, and shockingly, no longer young, or married, or with my daughter.” He arrives as an emotional refugee in Jedeidet Marjayoun, a town not far from the Israeli frontier, where his great-grandfather left an empty house that Mr. Shadid partly owns by inheritance.

His new Lebanese neighbors quickly disabuse him of any fantasy that they will bathe him a restorative embrace. They make a sport of fleecing him and regard his desire to rebuild the home as “reckless, dangerous, and altogether ‘American.’ ” Yet Mr. Shadid is too much in need of a project that will calm and repair his injured self to care very much what they think. His motivation, he writes, is “bayt and the desire to resurrect what once stood for something.”

He hires Abu Jean, a 76-old foreman of formidable strength and erratic work habits. The supervisor provides a kind of maypole for the rest of the vivid characters in the book to revolve around. The men whom Mr. Shadid encounters wile away their semi-employed lives by smoking hashish, drinking Scotch and beer, cursing blue streaks and practicing arts both dark and sublime. Their coarseness and utter lack of sentimentality protect the book from preciousness. Meditative, affecting passages about landscape, gardening and olive growing flow into sections of exuberant profanity, mainly in the form of insults hurled by Mr. Shadid’s new acquaintances.

Shibil, an indolent townsman whom Mr. Shadid befriends, is “loquacious even if miserable” and in “uncertain health” probably because he “tosses sleeplessly most nights, enraging and then reenraging himself as he sorts through his pile of grudges, imagined slights and never-ending quarrels.” On a typical visit Mr. Shadid finds his friend “at home, standing on his balcony in boxers, no shirt, a Scotch in progress.” Shibil’s acid outlook seems to shelter Mr. Shadid, and the two of them pass much time together drinking and talking, to excellent effect.

Mr. Shadid spoke Arabic fluently as a second language, and throughout the book he probes its layers and resonant words. His artful writing is both simple and complex. His sentences are chiseled and plain, but he eschews straight chronology and formal transitions between past and present, slipping fluidly in and out of history. Because of this technique the stories of his ancestors fleeing the chaos that followed the Ottoman Empire’s collapse are not always easy to follow, but the overall effect is as pleasing as watercolor.

“House of Stone” wears its erudition about Middle Eastern history and politics lightly, but it makes room for Mr. Shadid’s trenchant assessments of the Levant’s lost tolerance and intense sectarianism. There are reprises too of some of the eyewitness combat reporting that Mr. Shadid undertook unflinchingly for his newspaper employers, including, early on in the narrative, a harrowing account of civilian deaths in southern Lebanon during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah.

As was often the case with Mr. Shadid’s reporting, his treatment of violence in “House of Stone” is subordinate to his concern for the Arab world’s humanity and enduring civilization. Mr. Shadid was deeply admired by many fellow journalists not foremost because of his intrepidness but because he illuminated, with empathy and persistence, subtle but vital questions about the world after Sept. 11, like cross-cultural blindness and the limits of globalization.

Mr. Shadid does not find everything he went looking for in Jedeidet. Yet he does manage, against the odds, to restore the family house, “in a gesture to history and memory, in the name of an ideal, however misunderstood.”

In the end Mr. Shadid realizes that he relishes the quiet life and creative projects he has organized in his ancestral town, but that it is not within him to give up his work as a foreign correspondent. He is uncertain about how to resolve this conflict.

“I should be in Beirut, I thought, working as a journalist, but another part of me was so wary of that old life of guns and misery.” As a witness to war he sometimes felt “emptiness, aridity, hopelessness, the antithesis of creation, imagination.”

When it comes time to choose between remaining in Jedeidet to tend to his olive trees or returning to the road with a notebook and laptop: “I wanted to do nothing more than move dirt from one place to another.

“And then I left.”

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