Four prints by the 19th-century Scottish painterDavid Roberts hung in the Beirut apartment that I rented in the early 1970s when I was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Roberts produced them from sketches he’d made during his tours of what was then called the Near East.
One, “Sidon Looking Towards Lebanon,” shows a group of caravanners, garbed in turbans and the baggy trousers known as sherwal, resting beside kneeling camels and tethered horses on the Mediterranean shore. Serene, flooded with light, the scene captivated me, not only because of its artistry but because of the emotion it evoked — nostalgia for a Middle East (as the region is now inaccurately called) that had vanished decades before I got there.
The picture sprang to mind as I read “House of Stone,” Anthony Shadid’s wonderful memoir of the year he devoted to restoring his great-grandfather’s home in the southern Lebanese town of Marjayoun. His symphonic narrative strikes many notes — elegiac, ironic, angry, funny (in a rueful sort of way). But a yearning for the Levant that flourished under the Ottoman Empire runs throughout, a hymn for a world and a time not without tumult but far more civil, gracious and ordered than the blood-dimmed chaos of the present-day Middle East.
Shadid writes that he undertook the project to restore himself after years of chronicling the region’s conflicts left him “stunned by war, and, shockingly, no longer young, or married, or with my daughter, Laila.” He gives a strong impression that he had an even deeper motive than attempting to rehabilitate his soul and rebuild an ancestral home. He was trying to recapture an unrecapturable past, some of which, one suspects, existed as much in Shadid’s imagination as in reality. The house of his great-grandfather Isber Samara, returned to its lost glory, would be a monument to a bygone epoch.
Sadly, Shadid’s splendid account must stand as his monument. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former Washington Post correspondent died last month at age 43 while on assignment in Syria for the New York Times. He was leaving the country on horseback and suffered an acute asthma attack, apparently an allergic reaction to the horses.
His narrative moves along lines of three contrapuntal melodies, each with its own tonal colors. There is a family saga, a lament as Shadid reimagines his family’s life in Lebanon and their eventual displacement to America after the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I; an often humorous tale of his effort to rebuild the house, dealing with diva-like craftsmen, quirky relatives, an unstable political situation and town gossips, who whisper that he’s a CIA spy; and there is Shadid’s struggle to reconnect to his family’s history, a kind of pilgrim’s progress toward bayt, which means “house” in Arabic but connotes community, a sense of belonging.
Though a third-generation American, he felt deracinated by the breakup of his marriage and by his itinerant profession. As he writes, “I was a suitcase and a laptop drifting on a conveyor belt.”
Israel’s month-long war with Hezbollah in 2006, which Shadid covered for The Post and which devastated much of Lebanon’s south, seems to have been the inspiration for his rehab project. He found an unexploded rocket in his great-grandfather’s derelict home and came to realize that the house mattered to him: “I wanted it to survive.”
A year later, on leave from the paper, he returned to Marjayoun bearing the psychic and physical wounds of war (he’d been shot by an Israeli sniper in Ramallah in 2002), and some vague architectural plans in his head.
Right away, Shadid makes clear that his story isn’t going to be “This Old House” transplanted to the Middle East. He is going to paint on a much larger canvas.
In elegant prose, he conjures the Ottoman Empire of antiquity, a multilingual, multicultural realm that spanned three continents, unshackled by borders. In Shadid’s somewhat idealized rendering, the Ottoman world was one of dignity, time-honored traditions and grandeur. It was also a world where a poor man with ambition and drive could make something of himself.
Such a man was Isber Samara, a Bedouin determined to “take his place among the families that had looked down on his own” — that is, to become an Ottoman country gentleman. He made a small fortune as a grain merchant, and he built in Marjayoun a villa out of native limestone, with iron-railed balconies and capacious rooms resplendently tiled. Unfortunately, its completion coincided with the empire’s dissolution. The victorious British and French chopped it up into colonies and protectorates whose capricious boundaries eventually demarcated artificial states, giving rise to the modern Middle East — poisoned by toxic nationalisms and riven by sectarian wars, revolts, insurrections.
Isber’s house, Bayt Samara, intended to be the signature of its creator’s success as well as the center of his clan’s life, became a place to leave. The Shadids had already begun to emigrate to America, the new land of opportunity, and the Samaras followed.
Working from diaries, letters and the family lore he absorbed, Shadid describes his ancestors’ histories and departures in moving, mournful vignettes that unfold as his own story progresses. No less a go-getter than his great-grandfather, he suggests that his pursuit of success was responsible for the breakup of his marriage, leaving him homeless in a sense.
“Community is everything; home is everything,” he says. “If you have lost your own.”
Rebuilding the house is his way of reclaiming his place in the world, and more. Perhaps unconsciously, he seeks to resurrect, on one small plot of ground in one small town, a vestige of his great-grandfather’s era. That isn’t apparent to him at first. It is revealed as the demolition of what stands between now and then gets underway. Decade by decade, the house unveils itself, and Shadid begins to see into the past. “Perhaps because I had been so long discontented with the world around me, I increasingly turned my attention to Isber’s world,” he writes. “The house was still a remnant of another time, an artifact in a way.”
Marjayoun’s citizens greet the native son’s return with a mixture of mistrust and bemusement. They think he’s crazy. They point out that, as one of many heirs, he doesn’t own the house and therefore has no legal right to rebuild it.
Shadid forges on regardless. It is in his portraits of the townspeople and the workmen he hires that his talents fully blossom. He dissects them — their virtues, their quirks, their nurtured resentments — with a combined passion and merciless objectivity worthy of Flaubert. Anyone who has spent time in Beirut or Cairo or Damascus knows that the Arabs of North Africa and the Levant can be volatile. Shadid offers this economical explanation for the trait:
“To be born in these parts is . . . to savor the endless pleasures of discord. It is to feel, and often feign, useful rage. Anger diverts attention; as a ruse it can blur the facts of a losing argument or disguise one’s true motives.”
A novelist would envy his ability to capture a character with a few strokes. There is Shibil, a marijuana addict, with “dark hair cut short like a teenager’s and a swath of mustache trimmed with a precision he seemed to direct at almost nothing else.” Or the foreman of the construction crew, 76-year-old, chain-smoking Abu Jean, “who tended to remain almost theatrically engrossed in his own consciousness” and “had a habit of not answering questions, for whatever reasons.” Or Abu Ali, a black-marketeer and looter from whom Shadid buys a load of cemento wall tiles: “Slight and haggard, but with a hint of menace . . . Abu Ali had no office; he made deals in the midst of the rubble he created as he tore down historic buildings.”
Shadid is obsessed with these traditional tiles, for they are “vestiges of the irretrievable Levant, a word that, to many, calls to mind an older, more tolerant, more indulgent Middle East.”
His sketches of the tradesmen are marvelous and often hilarious: Malik, a self-proclaimed artist who lays the tiles; George Jaradi, a mason who refers to himself, royally, by his first name. The plumber, the electrician, the roofer — each considers himself a maalim, a master, and each has a maestro’s temperament. They exasperate Shadid with their meltdowns, their lack of promptness, their endless litanies of “inshallah” (God willing) and “boukra” (tomorrow).
And as always in Lebanon, there lurks the threat of war with Israel or with itself, fomented by sectarian warlords who knew that “their parasitic relevance depended on conflict.”
Against all odds, the project is completed in a year. Shadid then experiences an epiphany: “I had turned an abandoned house, disabled by war, into a place that exuded a kind of peace. Rather than a channel to the past, or a facsimile of it, it had become new, part of what was and what would and could be. . . . Sometimes it is better to imagine the past than to remember it.”
He also turned the experience into one of the finest memoirs I’ve read. It’s a shame, almost an injustice, that he did not live to see it in print.
HOUSE OF STONE
A Memoir of Home, Family,
and a Lost Middle East
By Anthony Shadid
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 311 pp. $26