...literally means "house" in Arabic. Due to the "root" structure of words in Arabic, there are additional connotations, and in this case, one of them is literally "roots": a sense of the community that nourished you. Anthony Shadid is an American of Lebanese origin; he is also a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times and the Washington Post. Like Alex Haley a generation earlier, whose book and TV mini-series is literally entitled Roots, Shadid went back to his ancestral home in the village of Marjayoun, which, in Arabic, means "Field of Springs." My pre-release Vine copy does not contain a map of the region, a deficiency that will hopefully be remedied in the final version. Nonetheless, I checked a map, because the village's location explains so much: it is only 10 km from Israel, and only 10 km from Syria, with views of often snow-covered Mt. Hermon. The Litani River is nearby, and after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Marjayoun was in the Israeli-occupied zone until the year 2000. Major Saad Haddad, of the South Lebanon Army, and an active Israeli collaborator, lived for a number of years in Shadid's ancestral home.
One of the narrative threads of the book, always printed in italics, is the history of the Marjayoun area, dating back roughly a century and a half. It is enough to make you nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire! The sharp political demarcations of today: Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan and Iraq did not exist. Marjayoun served as several cross-roads, and trading with the Bedouin (as well as the occasional raids) was frequent. The author works in the tentative link, seemingly of all the Arabs throughout the Middle East, that their family's northern migration dates back to the breaking of the Marib Dam in Yemen, as mentioned in the Koran, in the 6th Century. Shadid paints a picture of a much more tolerant Levant, where the ethnic and tribal groups largely co-existed. For sure though, grudges, vendettas, and open armed-conflict did occur. One of Shadid's better lines, perhaps apocryphal, is in conversation with one old man about the injury a person of another clan had done to his family, forty years before. Revenge? "No, it is still too early." Shadid could have tempered his nostalgia a bit more if he had specifically recalled the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, as one of the Empire's dying notes. Somewhat ironically, it is when the area fell under French and British "Protectorate" status, after World War I, that the lawlessness and out and out starvation forced so many of both sides of his family to emigrate: to Brazil, West Africa and the United States. In the States, they largely settled in Oklahoma and Kansas, and, in general, prospered. His grandmother, in particular, seemed to develop those Depression-era values of never wasting which led to their financial success.
The other strong narrative thread is Shadid's successful attempt, which commenced in August, 2007, and lasted a year, to restore the stone house of his great grandparents, Isber and Bahija. Dealing with contractors, and undertaking numerous financial arrangements, of a non-routine nature, can provide immense insights into the current state of the village, and of Lebanon as a whole. I recalled parallels with Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. For sure, Mayle had it easy by comparison, and the "ghosts" of his ancestors were not present. The characters on Shadid's project are rich and variegated, starting with the "foreman," with the mixed named that is symbolic of so much of Lebanon, "Abu Jean"; and anyone who has ever worked with contractors knows that "insh'allah" and "bukra" ("if Allah wills it," and "tomorrow") are universal constants that transcend cultural specifics. One of the greater anomalies in Shadid's project is that he did NOT (and perhaps still does not) own the house that he restored; rather he owned (owns) a fractional amount, along with all too many cousins, scattered across three continents. Surely the concept of "moral eminent domain" should be operative somewhere.
Other Marjayoun residents that Shadid portrays is one of the "last gentlemen of the Ottoman Empire, Cecil Hourani, who was born in England, and Dr. Khairalla, who ran the local hospital, and was tried for treason by Lebanon after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. He mentions, but does not elaborate on another famous man whose family's roots are in Marjayoun, Dr. Michael DeBakey. Underscoring the 6 degrees of connectivity theory, DeBakey, and his team, operated the heart program at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in the early `80's. Shadid's book resonated in numerous other ways, one of which is the aphorism: "Coffee without cardamom is like a bride without her gown" (p. 23). Another is the quintessential: Any American living, working, and who is actually INTERESTED in the Middle East has to be in the CIA!
A warm, lovely, insightful book, written by a man who has already been quite lucky on the battlefield. Go carefully. 5-stars.
Sadly, "House of Stone" reaches us as a posthumous publication of the greatly-honored veteran journalist Anthony Shadid. He was a newsmaker himself, as well as a foreign correspondent, based in Baghdad and Beirut, most recently for the New York Times. He twice won journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for International Reporting, in 2004 and 2010. He recently died in Syria, on February 16, 2012, of an acute asthma attack. His 2005 book, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, an empathetic look at what the war there has done to the Iraqi people, won the Ridenhour Book Prize for 2006.
This publication is at its heart the story of Shadid's rebuilding a house in Marjatoun, Lebanon, and for the most part resembles other stories of rebuilding houses in foreign climes, with chatter about contractors, subcontractors, and the purchase of tiles. Not too different from books about rebuilding houses in Provence, France, or Tuscany, Italy, except that Shadid is rebuilding his family home, from which his great grandparents left to come to America. He still has many relatives in the town, and, not too surprisingly, he has strong feelings about what decades of war have done to the town, and, in fact, the country of Lebanon.
He also has strong feelings about the Mideast, and delves back into its history. He explains that the Arabic Ottoman Empire at one time controlled in its entirety the Mideast, sometimes called the Levant. So that people were free to wander its lands and do business at will. But after World War I, the empire was broken up by the victors of that war, the United Kingdom and France, and artificial boundary lines were drawn between made-up countries. So that suddenly, there was a Lebanon. And even more suddenly, an Israel. And the Mideast has been a boiling cauldron ever since.
Prior to working for the NY Times, Shadid was Islamic affairs correspondent, based in the Mideast, for the Washington Post. Before that, he was Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press based in Cairo, and news editor of the AP bureau in Los Angeles. He spent two years covering diplomacy and the State Department for The Boston Globe. In 2002, in Ramallah, the Left Bank, he was shot in the shoulder by what he believed to be an Israeli sniper. On March 16, 2011, Shadid and three colleagues were reported missing in Eastern Libya, to which they had gone to report on the insurrection against the dictatorship of Col. Muammar Al-Ghaddafi. The Libyan government released the four several days later.
Shadid was clearly a man who put his money where his mouth was. He walked the walk, and talked the talk; devoted his life to throwing light on conditions in the Mideast. I admire him greatly, but, unhappily, I found this book difficult reading. It took me a long time to struggle through. And I feel I can recommend it only to those with a strong interest in its subject matter.