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House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East Hardcover – 28 Feb 2012
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From the Inside Flap
Evocative and beautifully written, House of Stone . . . should be read by anyone who wishes to understand the agonies and hopes of the Middle East. Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prizewinning historian and author of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate
In rebuilding his family home in southern Lebanon, Shadid commits an extraordinarily generous act of restoration for his wounded land, and for us all. Annia Ciezadlo, author of Day of Honey
In spring 2011, Anthony Shadid was one of four New York Times reporters captured in Libya, cuffed and beaten, as that country was seized by revolution. When he was freed, he went home. Not to Boston or Beirutwhere he lives or to Oklahoma City, where his Lebanese-American family had settled and where he was raised. Instead, he returned to his great-grandfathers estate, a house that, over three years earlier, Shadid had begun to rebuild.
House of Stone is the story of a battle-scarred home and a war correspondents jostled spirit, and of how reconstructing the one came to fortify the other. In this poignant and resonant memoir, the author of the award-winning Night Draws Near creates a mosaic of past and present, tracing the houses renewal alongside his familys flight from Lebanon and resettlement in America. In the process, Shadid memorializes a lost world, documents the shifting Middle East, and provides profound insights into this volatile landscape. House of Stone is an unforgettable meditation on war, exile, rebirth, and the universal yearning for home.
From the Back Cover
Anthony Shadids beautifully rendered memoir is a rich account of a mans gradual immersion into the world of the Middle East and the culture of the Levant, a kingdom almost unrecognizable today, where the rooms and hallways of his great-grandfathers house tell stories that will linger with every reader for decades. André Aciman, author of Out of Egypt
House of Stone is poignant, aching, and at times laugh-out-loud funny . . . Shadid's writing is so lyrical it's like hearing a song. David Finkel, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Soldiers
House of Stone is a haunting, beautifully realized piece of writing. Nick Flynn, author of The Ticking Is the Bomb
What a beautiful introduction to a world that I knew so little about. House of Stone is engaging, poignant, and funny." Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
I was captivated, instantly, by Anthony Shadid's lushly evocative prose. Crumbling Ottoman outposts, doomed pashas, and roving bandits feel immediate, familiar, and relevant. Lose yourself in these pages, where empires linger, grandparents wander, and a battered Lebanon beckons us home. Savor it all. If Gabriel Márquez had explored nonfiction, Macondo would feel as real as Marjayoun. Dave Cullen, author of Columbine
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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.
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.
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Born and raised in Oklahoma to second-generation Lebanese-American parents, Shadid was attracted to a different world, one that is not only thousands of miles away, but one hundred years back. In his House of Stone, Shadid described a "project" that he had undertaken. He moved back to his ancestral homeland in Marjayoun, south of Lebanon, and started renovating the long-vacant house of Isber Samara, his great grandfather.
"My family wasn't here," he wrote. "They had shown little interest in my project." Shadid said that on those occasions when he spoke to his daughter, Leila, she asked him what he was doing so far away, to which he answered: "Rebuilding our home." Shadid dreamt "of the day [he] would bring her... to a house she could call hers."
But why was Shadid exactly looking for a "house/home." What was wrong with Oklahoma where he grew up, or Maryland, where Leila lived with her mother, his ex-wife?
Shadid was not the first Arab-American to search for a place to call home. Before him, the late Edward Said, a Palestinian-American professor at the University of Columbia, published his memoirs in a book called "Out of Place."
And like Said, Sahdid mainly blamed the West for his lost home. Both men used their remarkably beautiful prose, ironically not in their native Arabic but in English, to describe the presumably harmonious Arab world that once existed before World War I, and before the colonials - first Britain and France and later the United States - wiped it out.
"Artificial and forced, instruments themselves of repression, the borders were their obstacle, having wiped away what was best about the Arab world," Shadid wrote. "They hewed to no certain logic; a glimpse at any map suggests as much. The lines are too straight, too precise to embrace the ambiguities of geography and history. They are frontiers without frontiers, ignorant of trajectories shaped by centuries, even millennia."
However, unlike Said who wrote about his displacement from the luxury of his Manhattan Apartment in New York, Shadid decided to do something about it. He immigrated back to Lebanon and was set to restore his ancestor's House of Stone to its past glory. "[I]magine I can bring back something that was lost," he argued.
That something was "Isber's world, which, while simpler, was no less tumultuous than my own." This begs the question: If Isber's world was disorderly, why blame the colonial borders for wiping "away what was best about the Arab world." And if Isber's world was already chaotic, why bring it back and insist on calling it home?
House of Stone is the story of Shadid's renovation project in southern Lebanon, interjected with his reconstruction of the history of his family in Marjayoun, and their emigration to the United States.
Along the way, Shadid narrated, mainly to a Western audience, the daily routine of his project, which included recruiting masons, haggling with suppliers and talking to friends. His narration, however, has a number of mistakes that gives away Shadid being a non-native. Despite his best effort to learn the Arabic language and culture during college days, Shadid still fell short of grasping all of the intricacies of Arab life.
For instance, when describing a fruit street vendor, Shadid wrote: "Bateekh, bateekh, bateekh, ala al sikeen ya bateekh," and translated it into: "Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon... a watermelon ready for the knife." While the translation might pass, Shadid missed the cultural nuance. When a Lebanese customer goes to buy a watermelon, he usually asks for assurances from the vendor about its "redness" and "sweetness." The vendor usually replies confidently that his watermelons are the best and takes out a knife offering to cut a small piece as a tasting sample to prove his claim. When vendors push their carts down the streets of Lebanon and shout "al sikeen ya batteekh," they don't mean "ready for the knife," like Shadid thought. Their "knife" call is an invitation to customers to challenge their claim.
In another paragraph, Shadid wrote: "In the Middle East, the tiles came to be known as sajjadeh, one of the Arabic words for carpet." In Arabic, at least in Lebanon, tiles mean blat. It is customary - especially in old houses - for tiles to be arranged in patterns to display nice geometric shapes, in which case they would be called "sajjadeh," or carpet.
Shadid died a few months ago because of his allergy to horses while being smuggled out of Syria where he had finished covering the ongoing revolution there. His book had not been published yet.
The book, his understanding of the heritage of his ancestors and their culture, summarizes his attempt to recreate what he thought was their better world, and live in it. That world, which perhaps never existed, he wanted to call home.
Shadid was cremated and his ashes thrown over the House of Stone and over the world that never existed, the world that he never barely got a chance to live in.
He weaves the home's history and his families and friends histories with that of Lebanon and the nation's history before, during and after independence. His writing also an overview of Lebanon's civil war.
While a glossary with some of Arabic words might have been helpful, the book was obviously a passion for the writer and hopefully most of the readers will learn and understand those words through the context of the book.
I'm traveling to Lebanon in sixty days to stay with a Lebanese friend and her family. Thank you Mr. Shadid for sharing part of your country with me. Rest in peace.