A house does not become a home until a family moves in, eats and sleeps there, tells stories. Fights and makes up. Plants a tree. Otherwise a house is simply a building. How long, though, can a house remain a home? After the children have left? After its builder has died? When the neighbors have moved away and the country where it stands is renamed? Is it still a home when it has been abandoned during war?
All of these questions were on Anthony Shadid’s mind when, in 2006, he took a leave from covering war in the Middle East for The Washington Post, to return to Marjayoun, his family’s ancestral seat, nestled in the hills outside of Beirut. In between marriages, cresting 40, Shadid’s plan was to bring back to life the magnificent home Isber Samara, his great-grandfather, had built more than 100 years before.
Another journalist may have stuck to this tidy story: a man in midlife, rediscovering his roots with a rag-tag bunch of carpenters, masons, and village sages, mostly in their 60s and 70s, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, forever ready for a coffee break and an afternoon-long argument about politics or the right way to repoint a stone.
As a journalist, however, Shadid - who died tragically of an apparent asthma attack last month in Syria - was never interested in the simple story. He had a beautiful gift for capturing the complex ripples of history in an everyday person’s story. By reporting on teachers and doctors, café workers and mothers across Egypt, Libya, and Lebanon, he captured the tumultuous post-9/11 decade in the Middle East, always looking at it in human scale, against the long context of historical memory.
And so “House of Stone’’ is so much more than a journalist’s midlife agonist. The book gathers the tale of the Shadid clan and their peripatetic journey, starting as Bedouin travelers in Yemen to Marjayoun, then part of Syria, and later to Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century. It tells how the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the carving up of the Middle East affected a family, Shadid’s family, and drew boundaries where none made sense. Finally, it memorializes the loss of the old Middle East; a cosmopolitan, multiethnic and religiously tolerant place.
This is not just the Arab world’s “Year in Provence.’’ It is as if Shadid has combined the breakthrough effects of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,’’ William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,’’ and Frances Fitzgerald’s “Fire in the Lake’’ into one enormously likeable book. It is a masterpiece, and a terrible reminder of what an empathic guide to the Middle East we lost last month with Shadid’s passing.
In part, it appears the dangers of the job drove Shadid to take the step back to write “House of Stone.’’ As the book opens, the Israeli bombing campaign against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 is at its height, and Shadid is racing from town to town in southern Lebanon, discovering whole villages flattened. Then he arrives at Qana, where 12-year-olds and babies are pulled from rubble, suffocated by exploding dirt.
Having survived being shot in the back by an Israeli sniper while reporting from a Palestinian city in the West Bank, and several years on the job in Baghdad, out of which grew “Night Draws Near,’’ somehow this is just too much. One dead child too many. Shadid drives recklessly through the days and arrives at Marjayoun to find its downtown smoking. Fighters allied with - or claiming to be allied with - Hezbollah had retreated there. Stores are indiscriminately destroyed. Upstairs, at his great-grandfather’s house, Shadid finds a half-exploded Israeli rocket piercing the masonry and scorching what remained.
For a book about Lebanon - a place thorny with conspiracy theories that frequently blame Israel, Syria, the United States, or all of the above for its destruction - “House of Stone’’ is remarkably lacking in anger. Shadid manages to drop quickly into a deeper story, which is what decades of this kind of intermittent conflict have done to the people who live there.
Some of them remain proud. Like Cecil Hourani, a Manchester-born ex-political fixer in his 90s. Educated at Oxford, he served in Cario under the British army, and later advised Tunisia’s president. In 2006 he retired to Marjayoun with plans to resurrect the town’s glorious past. He is forever scolding Shadid for a column he wrote in the Post on the town’s impending demise.
Others have a harder time conjuring a return to glory. Shibil, like Shadid, had returned to Marjayoun from Oklahoma, only he found himself gradually out of work and shunned by his brothers. He spends his days drinking whiskey, smoking joints, and nursing paranoias.
No other book on Lebanon has captured the warmth and insanity of the men who live there. The frankly homoerotic touchiness; the chuffing sarcasm; the tempers; the diva natures and dapper masculinity; the pride; the enormous hospitality; the prodigious amount of coffee they drink; the danger of negotiating with them; the incredible dignity; the shame.
This last aspect is something rarely written on, and almost never with such sensitivity. “After life is bent, torn, exploded, there are shattered pieces that do not heal for years, if at all,’’ Shadid observes. “What is left are scars and something else - shame, I suppose, shame for letting it all continue. Glances at the past where solace in tradition and myth prevailed only brings more shame over what the present is. We have lost the splendors our ancestors created, and we go elsewhere.’’
In many ways, “House of Stone’’ is a book about how to be a man. Shadid’s great-grandfather built a home that could stand the test of time, and when the times became too dangerous, Isber Samara was brave enough to let his family go to a new land for their own safety. Shadid uncovers and tells their stories in intermittent italicized sections that puncture the rest of the book with loss and longing. Their journeys to America are simply incredible.
What’s amazing about “House of Stone’’ is that Shadid’s journey back to where his family came from is equally moving. Watching the masons and craftsman who help restore this home Shadid learns the bravery to stay: a way that craft and pride can be a way beyond shame. It is beyond tragic he will not be able to inhabit this home. But with this book, he has done something remarkable: He has made it possible for all of us to live there.