“House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family , and a Lost Middle East” by Anthony Shadid (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 311 pages, $26)
The Lebanese-American Anthony Shadid, a reporter for the Washington Post and, later, the New York Times, died while leaving Syria on Feb. 16, having suffered an acute asthma attack. He was, by all accounts, an intrepid, experienced and intelligent foreign correspondent, a man who ardently reported both the personal and political sides of the Iraq war and was later captured in Libya, beaten, then released by Gadhafi’s loyalists along with two of his colleagues.
Not unacquainted with the many dangers of war (having been shot by an Israeli sniper in 2002 on the West Bank), he nevertheless continued chain-smoking despite his asthmatic condition, right up to the end.
The posthumously published “House of Stone” began, Shadid writes, “as a passing thought” in 2006, when he visited the abandoned house built by his great-grandfather Isber Samara, a merchant and village leader in largely Orthodox Marjayoun (then part of Ottoman Syria), a crossroads town in Lebanon. Both sides of his family had come from Marjayoun, some leaving Ottoman Syria just after World War I when famine and political instability afflicted the whole region. Many of these Lebanese settled in Oklahoma City and Wichita, or in the Texas Panhandle, where they became merchants and peddlers as in the old country. Shadid means his memoir as a “testament to our sprawling clan in Oklahoma City,” as well as a treatment of village life, local history, and Lebanon’s tortured present in the context of a lost Levant.
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A year later, in August 2007, Shadid found his family home an abandoned, nearly wrecked mess, which had been looted by squatters soon after his grandmother Bahija died in 1965. In 2006 an Israeli rocket crashed into the second story. Shadid took a look at the house and, missing his daughter by his first marriage, his new wife, and recognizing the deep ties of his family in America with Lebanon, conceived the idea of rebuilding.
In a note to the readers, Shadid admits that the manuscript he sent to his editor at Harcourt was an “unwieldy mess.” Sadly, the book remains messy in print, at times disorganized, poorly written and confusing. Contorted phrases abound. Take for example, the time Shadid recalls sitting by a fire with one of the villagers. He writes: “We were hovering near an ujaa though the flames felt Sisyphean in their struggle with the cold outside.” This kind of writing is painful to read, and one wonders what kind of Sisyphean struggle Shadid’s editor endured just to shape up the prose. Moreover, when Shadid recounts the lives of the American emigrant Shadids’ and Samaras’ lives, encounters, and trials in Oklahoma and Texas, he imagines conversations, some of them stilted and plainly fanciful.
As difficult to follow logically are the historical recitations, set off in italics, which explain the political circumstances of Marjayoun and its people against the background of the Ottoman Empire, World War I, the Arab-Israeli conflict, colonial and post-colonial confusion, the jockeying of sectarian villains, leaders and demagogues, and American influence. Much of this material seems hastily assembled.
In another place, Shadid writes that Arabic is a “richer language then English” and “boasts a vocabulary that can convey any description in a single word.” This kind of hyperbole marks Shadid as a man writing in a hurry, heedless of each language’s long history and development, slang, over- and undertones (never mind Cervantes and Shakespeare), and the many nuances each native speaker recognizes in his own tongue. What Arabic speaker could compete with Cockney rhyming slang — or would want to!
For a nearly a year Shadid worked with locals to rebuild his house. Many of these craftsmen, merchants and laborers he describes as petty at best, exhibiting the gossipy, small-minded, lazy and mean-spirited traits inspired by the envy, spite and revenge-mindedness of the clan-based male-dominant social structure. Vendettas, lost in the fog of time, go on forever and the outsider is a spy or unworthy. Despite the physical beauty of the place (in south Lebanon, near the Syrian and Israeli border), Marjayoun seems a suffocating and dangerous place.
Finally, House of Stone has no photographs to document the progress of construction or its final product. Indeed, Shadid fails to mention what is to happen to the house once he leaves. There are no maps to guide the readers to an understanding of Marjayoun’s geographical place. And, rather astonishingly, no family portraits of any kind are included in the text.
Nevertheless, the great Lebanese families in Wichita and Oklahoma City will read House of Stone with great interest. Those Shadid, Farha, Elkouri, Khoury, Najim, Ayash and Samara (among many others) families have much to remember. They have a long and noble history, one stretching back to Bedouin times. Their accomplishments are reflected in those of Anthony Shadid, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his courageous reporting from the Middle East.