Review of House of Stone by Anthony Shadid
Granta, 336 pp, £14.99, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 84708 735 5
When Anthony Shadid was born in Oklahoma in 1968, the only Lebanese personality most Americans knew was not Lebanese at all. Hans Conried was a comic actor of Austrian Jewish origin, who portrayed the gauche Uncle Tannous (a diminutive of Antonius/Anthony) on a weekly sitcom called The Danny Thomas Show. Danny Thomas was the son of Maronite Christian immigrants from Kahlil Gibran’s village, Becharre, in north Lebanon. His assimilation was so thorough that he took the Al Jolson role of cantor’s son in a 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer. On the show, it fell to Uncle Tannous to expose the Lebanese heart beating within the American persona of Thomas’s character. With his Ottoman moustache, three-piece suit and bundles of goat’s cheese and stuffed vine leaves, Uncle Tannous incarnated all that the Americanising immigrants were desperate to escape, but couldn’t, quite.
Descendants of the Lebanese emigrants who began arriving in the New World after the massacres of Christians in Greater Syria in the 1860s for the most part divorced themselves from the Old Country. Within a generation, they had forgotten their Arabic and were deserting their churches. They graduated from peddling linens and household gadgets to practising law and medicine. Prominent Lebanese Americans like Ralph Nader, Michael DeBakey, William Peter Blatty, Senator James Abourezk and General John Abizaid rarely visited Lebanon itself. As attached as some were to their grandmothers’ cooking and to bits of folklore, they preferred to keep the country at a distance.
Anthony Shadid was an exception. As he wrote in this account of his struggle to reclaim his Lebanese patrimony, he yearned for the continuity of the bayt. The word, he explained,
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.
Shadid’s paternal great-grandfather, Isber Samara, built a villa in the south Lebanese hill village of Marjayoun during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Shadid visited the stone ruin one day at the end of Israel’s 2006 summer invasion to find that a partially exploded Israeli rocket had caused a fire on an upper floor. The house was mahjour – ‘abandoned, forsaken, lonely’. The decline of Bayt Samara coincided with Marjayoun’s. The largely Greek Orthodox village had suffered mass emigration (its 1912 population of 3752 had shrunk to 800 by 2006) and the loss of farmland that fell on the wrong side of the Israeli border in 1948. Shadid’s great-grandmother, Bahija, remained there until her death in 1965, after which Christians from the nearby village of Aishiyya plundered the house. From the late 1960s, battles between Palestinian commandos and Israeli forces accelerated Marjayoun’s depopulation and decay. Israel’s military occupation from 1978 to 2000 made the region a no-go area, and the Samaras’ house acquired an unwelcome squatter: a Christian collaborator called Albert Haddad. Haddad, much hated in the village, left the house a shambles when he departed Lebanon along with his Israeli employers in 2000. Rain and weeds then took a toll to which the rocket added only minor insult.
Shadid chose to make the house his bayt, a physical link to his ancestry and a legacy for his children. ‘A few hours after discovering the rocket,’ he wrote, ‘I returned and, with a borrowed shovel, started digging.’ He planted an olive tree in the garden and resolved, despite the fact that the house had been inherited by 104 relations including himself, to restore it and live in it. Neighbours warned him that his ambition was impossible, because it would consume all his money and energy, and futile, because his relatives could lay claim to most of it. A village friend admonished him with an Arabic proverb, ‘A sliver of land can wipe out its people.’ The restoration of the house proceeded nonetheless, mirroring Shadid’s reconstruction in House of Stone of the tragic modern history of the Levant.
By the time Anthony was born, Shadids called Miqbal, Abdullah, Hana and Najiba were naming their children Gladys, George, Pauline and David (as well as the all-American ‘Junior’). Yet of all the Shadid and Samara descendants only Anthony felt compelled to return to Marjayoun. Rooting himself in the soil of his family history, he hoped, would compensate for the peripatetic life of the foreign correspondent that had destroyed his first marriage.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, his curiosity about the Arab world took him to Cairo, where he learned to speak very good Arabic (with an Oklahoma accent). The Associated Press hired him as a correspondent in Egypt before posting him to Los Angeles. He moved to the Boston Globe to cover the State Department and the Middle East. In 2002, an Israeli sniper shot him in Ramallah. After the Anglo-American invasion of March 2003, he covered Iraq for the Washington Post.
On the eve of America’s ‘shock and awe’ assault on Baghdad, while most other reporters were regurgitating Donald Rumsfeld’s predictions of Iraqi gratitude for the coming cataclysm, Shadid described a gathering of Iraqi artists at the Hawar Art Gallery beside the Tigris. ‘They’re going to burn the forest to kill the fox,’ Maher Samarai, a ceramicist, said. Shadid covered the long looting and burning of the forest with a sensitivity to the nuances of Iraqi life that eluded the war’s cheerleaders in much of the Anglo-American press. While colleagues embedded themselves with Western armies, Shadid burrowed into Iraqi society. He watched and he listened, and he had a gift for translating what he saw and heard into words that resonated with readers who usually had to put up with pseudo-patriotic drivel in place of hard reporting. Few if any other correspondents would portray the reality of Baghdad’s streets as Shadid did in 2009 when he spent a few hours near Sharia al-Mawt, which translates as the ‘street of death’, with a shawarma vendor:
The cart teetered out at 4 p.m.
At 5.20 p.m., his brother helped bring out the shawarma, a giant skewer laden with 65 pounds of chicken, another with 45 pounds of beef, each flavoured with lemon, vinegar, pepper, spices, tahini and yoghurt. But, Younes nodded knowingly, it’s the fat that counts. There is plenty of it, enough to drip over the coals and scent the smoke.
Younes’s business has more than doubled since he started. His customers range from ‘doctors to the illiterate’. They hail from all over the capital – Dora, Zayouna and New Baghdad. But more than half, he estimated, arrive from Kadhimiyah, a Shiite Muslim neighbourhood across the Tigris River and over a bridge that the war had long closed.
‘They all come for the same food,’ said Younes, a Sunni. ‘Mine.’
By 6 p.m., his fire was blazing.
That same day, Shadid noted, bombs blew up two cars, two mines were detonated, a rocket hit an oil refinery and another exploded in the Green Zone. Nonetheless, Younes’s business was so good that he hoped to expand his stall into a restaurant with help from a Shiite partner.
Two weeks later, Shadid was sitting in a dilapidated train whose route from Baghdad to Basra he transformed into an odyssey through the history of modern Iraq. ‘The train’s six carriages heaved, then stumbled ahead, departing on time. The wheels shrieked, the clanging metal otherworldly, and a landscape always so claustrophobic and demarcated fell effortlessly into the train’s wake.’ Iraqis who had not ventured out of their sectarian ghettos since the March 2003 invasion marvelled that they were now able to pass through the walls, physical and psychological, that had separated them from Baghdad’s other communities. ‘For perhaps the first time since the US-led invasion in 2003,’ he wrote, ‘an American convoy stopped for someone in Baghdad. It waited on the road to the airport, as the train cut across.’ Although writing under the pressure of daily deadlines and in considerable danger, Shadid never neglected historical perspectives:
The station is a door of sorts, as is the train parked there. Through it is another Iraq, far from the country today that is at once so resilient and yet so uncertain. This is an Iraq imbued with the recollection, sometimes imagined, of a past not yet bloodied. It is a nation where names still evoke a place, not an occupier’s crimes and excesses – Abu Ghraib, Haditha, even Baghdad. It is a country that unfurls between two rivers, filled with longing but bereft of borders of sect and ethnicity that cut through even the smallest towns with the blunt edge of a blast wall or a massacre’s lingering memory …
In spirit if not reality, the train is part of an older line and an older Middle East, the product of a 19th-century vision of the Ottoman Empire and its German allies to build the Berlin-Baghdad Express, eventually ending in Basra and running unfettered across the borderless expanse of Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and another in 2010, the year he moved to the New York Times. As well as Iraq, he covered the demonstrations that led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon in 2005, followed by Israel’s invasion in 2006. From 2010, he reported on the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In March 2011 Gaddafi’s forces captured and beat him and three colleagues. Undeterred, he covered the rebellion in Syria soon afterwards.
During his time at the Post, he rented a flat in Marjayoun that ‘looked like a crib for a serial killer’ while he set about making Isber Samara’s house habitable. He recruited an odd assortment of artisans and layabouts from among Lebanon’s myriad religions and castes. Together, they laboriously cleared debris and ripped out partitions. The bayt became the warshe, ‘workshop’, where workers rarely appeared. ‘After the satisfying paroxysm of destruction that initiated the project,’ Shadid wrote, ‘the labour had returned to a village-like tempo. Meaning, very little was done.’ Weeks passed without progress. When Anthony pleaded with his 76-year-old, chain-smoking foreman, Abu Jean, to get moving, the response would have been familiar to anyone who has ever tried to negotiate a Lebanese ceasefire: ‘Why are you always in a hurry?’ Abu Jean introduced him to ‘Malik Nicola Jawish, taxi driver, hunter, butcher, fisherman, refugee, enthusiast of the water pipe, and maalim [‘master’] of tile, plumbing, heating and air conditioning’. Now there was progress, and Shadid soon saw the house taking shape. ‘There was one concern,’ he writes. ‘It had taken us four months to finish one room.’
His time in Marjayoun introduced him to the vindictiveness of village life, made bearable by the landscape and by some of the neighbours. One was Cecil Hourani, the nonagenarian English-born brother of the historian Albert and political consigliere of the late Tunisian president Habib Bourghiba. ‘I lived the last whispers of the Ottoman Empire,’ Hourani told him. Another was Dr Khairalla Mady, whose reward for having kept Marjayoun’s community hospital functioning throughout the Israeli occupation had been to be put on trial for treason. The villagers, apart from Hourani, did not distinguish themselves by showing support for a physician who had saved many of their lives.
Shadid rebuilt his great-grandfather’s house in a way that Lebanon’s politicians have failed to reconstruct their country: as something beautiful, elegant, strong and durable. He and his second wife, the Lebanese journalist Nada Bakri, made their home there and had a son called Malik. The idyll was short-lived. Shadid died, from heart failure or an asthma attack, in February last year, while trekking through the hills from Syria to Turkey. His ashes were scattered in Isber Samara’s garden, where he had planted that first olive tree to declare his determination to salvage Lebanon’s wasted past.