Reviewed by Tom Little
Anthony Shadid spent the greater part of his life covering the Arab world, shuttling from country to country, chasing scoop after scoop and eventually paying for his work with his life when he died escaping from Syria last month. But reading his brilliant memoir, House of Stone, it is all too clear that Shadid also wanted little more than to go home, if only he could have worked out where that was.
House of Stone follows Shadid as he tries to restore his ancestral home in Marjayoun, a village in south Lebanon. Shadid’s family left Lebanon in the 1920s, eventually settling in the US Midwest, but his great-grandfather, Isber Samara, never left the house he built. His great-grandchildren inherited the house after his death, but by that time they were scattered to the four corners of the globe and with no one left to care for it, Isber’s pride and joy quietly rotted away
Escaping a failed marriage, Shadid took a year out from the New York Times to restore the family pile and find his lost family roots in the region. While the latter seems within his grasp, the former seems impossible, as his plans to restore his great-grandfather’s house are constantly menaced by unwilling workmen, cynical neighbours and, most worrying of all, long-lost relatives.
When he first arrives, Shadid finds the house in Marjayoun in a sad state after years of neglect and brushes with the different armies that have rolled through the region since the 1920s. Yet, Shadid manages to win round his neighbours and friends and finally finds a set of workmen willing to humour his project.
At the same time, a parallel narrative traces his family’s route from the Hawran in Syria, where his great-grandfather was a grain merchant, to Marjayoun, where he built a home with the proceeds from his business, and finally on to the United States, where his relatives found refuge from the Great War and the French mandate.
Back in the present, surrounded by a colourful cast of local workmen, friends and long-lost cousins, Shadid presses on with his project, steadily piecing his family home back together. However, as his vision come closer to fruition it becomes clear that all is not well at all in Lebanon. Shadid had chosen to travel to Marjayoun in 2008, as tensions between Hizbollah and Saad Hariri’s Future Movements were nearing boiling point. The background to the author’s home regeneration project is the outbreak of a vicious bout of sectarian fighting between the two groups.
Even more toxic are Shadid’s friends, who show perfectly the cost that Lebanon’s recent past has exacted on the Lebanese themselves. Take Shibil, one of the author’s closest friends, as an example; he left Lebanon to study in the States where he repeatedly failed, only to return home to find himself hopelessly alienated from his family. Another fellow-exile to the US, Assaad, had left Marjayoun as a child. Returning home, he feels the Lebanon he knew has vanished and the whole country has turned against him.
Nevertheless, for all the sadness and anger, it has to be said that this is a beautifully written memoir, all the more impressive because it is, at the same time, both an overview of Lebanon’s bitter twentieth century while simultaneously a personal and deeply poignant tale of exile and the impossibility of return.
House of Stone inevitably ends with the successful renovation of the house, and it only seems fair that Shadid should have seen his graft and persistence rewarded. Yet the book shows the awful toll that the twentieth century took on Lebanon, and it is a painful reminder that Lebanon is still far from a happy place for many people.