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House of Stone
by Anthony Shadid
Granta Publications, London, 2012, Hbk, 311 pages, ISBN 978 1 84708 735 5
Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, New York,
2012, Hbk, ISBN 978 1 84708 736 2
This third book by the Middle East reporter for The Washington Post and New York Times narrates events spanning a recent one-year leave he took from war reporting to oversee the rebuilding of his patrimonial home in Jedeidet Marjayoun, Lebanon. His great-grandfather Isber Samara, a merchant and self-made gentleman, had built the comely villa with a classic Arabic triple arch just after World War I, while the Ottoman Empire collapsed. During ensuing drought, starvation, and lawlessness, Isber encouraged several of his children to survive by emigrating to the US and Brazil. He died soon after construction of his home was finished, but his wife lived there a long time.
Anthony Shadid’s forebears prospered in Oklahoma and Texas as storekeepers and later as professionals. He strives to discover his roots and regain personal tranquillity after a recent divorce, a serious bullet wound, and twenty years of recording Middle East turmoil. Tracking the book’s subtitle are three story lines: 1) daily progress of the rebuilding project, 2) a hundred-year history of the Samara family in Marjayoun and the U.S., and 3) a profile of the surrounding region (once commonly called the Levant) during Ottoman, European colonial, and current neo-national periods. Historical episodes set in italics are narrated in Faulknerian flashbacks running parallel to the dominant, present-time story. They supply important background on that part of Lebanon bordering Israel and the Golan Heights of Syria.
Finding the house in ruins and the town a shrunken husk of its former glory as a commercial centre, Anthony employs workmen to lay stone for walls damaged by a rocket during the recent war between Hezbollah and Israel. He speaks Arabic with an Oklahoma accent sprinkled with Egyptian colloquialisms, and at first townspeople believe he is a CIA spy or simply a dimwit undertaking a futile project. Neighbourhood wags give Isber’s house the nickname of “the workshop”. They say unknown relatives may contest Anthony’s claim to the property, but none do. Local people’s squabbles and grudges toward one another discourage him. He is impressed by the cunning of vendors and by the energy and skill of the craftsman who lays tile throughout the building.
All the workers call themselves craftsmen, despite the lackadaisical habits of many of them. Anthony reduces stress through gardening supervised by a humane physician, who – along with a restaurateur, a substance abuser, and repatriated Lebanese – dispenses folk wisdom that sustains the homebuilder’s quest. Despite delays and changes of plan, he becomes a satisfied client, declaring: “The utilitarian had become elegant . . . I could see the past in the present, see the things worth preserving . . . Sometimes it is better to imagine the past than to remember it.”
According to Shadid, sectarianism and nearly continuous war have made time stand still in Lebanon throughout the last century. The Ottoman Empire neither united nor divided the Levant, which comprises the area that skirts the Eastern Mediterranean including present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt. Isber’s Marjayoun had been a crossroads between cities of the region while open borders allowed free passage to multi-ethnic populations doing business.
But, Shadid explained, beginning in 1916, the British and French divvied up colonies and closed borders, preventing residents and commerce from crossing. Marjayoun, like some other Arab commercial centres, began losing its prosperity and importance. As the European colonies disappeared, Israel assumed control of borders in 1948 and later broke the axis between Marjayoun and Palestine when it captured the Golan Heights, “turning a crossroads into a no man’s land”. Economic activity stagnated, and its institutions depended for substantial support on its émigrés. Shadid reported that most Marjayoun families were Christians who continued to leave the country in disproportionately large numbers, with power in Lebanon fluctuating between a corrupt secular government represented iconically by its martyr Rafik Hariri and the opposing Hezbollah committed to continual war and represented by its martyr Imad Mughniyeh.
Before going back to his job, the author concluded: “Lebanon was too big to be small, overwhelmed by conflicts that perhaps deserved a domain larger than the country itself.” And his Lebanese friend replied: “It was too small to be big . . . , and the traumas were of its own making, forever stunting its ambitions of becoming something greater.”
Anthony Shadid returned to reporting for The New York Times and was held prisoner in Libya for five days. Shortly after, he was assigned to a clandestine mission in Syria and died age 43 on February 16, 2012, under mysterious circumstances that are still being debated (see Alison Weir, “Did The New York Times Lead Anthony Shadid to His Death?” Counterpunch, Weekend Edition, June 29-July 01, 2012). He also made an appearance in the soon-to-be released documentary film on American media coverage of Arabs and the Middle East entitled “Valentino’s Ghost”.