The late Anthony Shadid is back in the headlines today with happy news: the double-Pulitzer winner’s resonating memoir is one of the autobiography finalists for the National Book Circle Critics awards for the publishing year of 2012. House of Stone recounts Shadid’s restoration of his great-grandfather’s home in old Marjayoun “in what it is now Lebanon,” all the while recounting his family’s journey from a troubled ancestral country to a reinvented life based in Oklahoma, U.S.A. The memoir is even more poignant that it was published just after his sudden death on February 16, 2012, from an asthma attack while he was on assignment in Syria; the scheduled March 27 publication date was moved to February 28. That looming, tragic death becomes an unintended character throughout.
Generations ago, Isber Samara, born in 1872 – “a rich man born of a poor boy’s labors” – built a house of stone. He “left it for … his family, to join us with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories.” On the other side of the world, his American great-grandson Shadid, well understood the importance of bayt: “Bayt translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve, or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.”
In July 2006, war brought Shadid to Marjayoun and left behind a half-exploded Israeli rocket in the second story of Isber’s house. What the original stonemasons had considered “impenetrable” a century earlier, “with new technologies and old antagonisms in play, there is nothing war cannot crumble in a heartbeat.” Shadid did not abandon the family bayt: he planted a splindly, hope-filled olive tree, determined that Isber’s house would remain “a house worth care.”
When Shadid’s own nuclear family falls apart – his marriage ends, he is separated from his only child – he returns to Marjayoun in August 2007 with “foolish and rash … not to mention reckless, dangerous, and altogether ‘American’” intentions: to rebuild Isber’s house. His odyssey is filled with a cast of encouraging, truculent, self-important, even comical characters, many distantly related, of course. Through reconstruction over the next nine months, Shadid, an internationally renowned journalist who escaped violent threats, survived bullet and kidnappings, who has “never been the type to stay home,” restores his own self, as well.
History – both personal and political – seems forever intertwined in the volatile Middle East. Shadid’s superb journalistic acuity, his determination to honor his ancestors by preserving the past for future generations, his longing for his young daughter Laila, all meld together to create a gorgeous patchwork of family and country, of leaving and return, and most of all, of stories worth preserving.
Tidbit: The ONE thing I really missed in the book were pictures, especially of the house. But, thanks to googlemagic, you can share Shadid’s renovations in a 10-part series, starting with Chapter 1: “Returning Home” by clicking here. How sadly surreal to have Shadid be your tour guide …