Graeme Wood

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This Very Old House

Originally appeared in The Daily.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

by Anthony Shadid

Mariner Books; 336pp.
A century of warfare in Lebanon has sent most Lebanese into exile, flung to the corners of the earth like shrapnel from a rocket blast. These 12 million overseas Lebanese — three times the number still in the country — keep their identity strong by marrying other Lebanese, sending their kids to Lebanese schools and, often, tithing money to their co-religionists in the old country.
Among the Christian faction of this diaspora was the late Anthony Shadid, the two-time Pulitzer winner who died of an asthma attack while reporting in Syria earlier this month for the New York Times. He grew up in Oklahoma, in many ways disconnected from Lebanon: He spoke English at home, and he never visited Lebanon until his early 20s. But the Lebanese force was strong in this one, and eventually he returned to the site of his family home, the subject of “House of Stone,” his third and final book.

The house in question belonged to Shadid’s great-grandfather, Isber Samara, and was passed down to Shadid’s cousins, in ever-diminishing shares. After the 2006 war between Hizbullah and Israel, in which the Israeli air force bombed southern Lebanon until it literally ran out of things to bomb, Shadid returned to Isber’s village of Marjayoun. There he found the family home ransacked, rocketed and in complete disrepair.

He found his personal life in much the same condition. A career as a war correspondent alienated him from his wife, who left him, and from his daughter Laila. Few journalists were as decorated as Shadid professionally, but the success came at personal cost. He set to work restoring the Marjayoun house as if in atonement, to root himself in his patrimony and create a legacy for his family. (By 2009, he had remarried and had a son, Malik.) “I understood questions of identity,” he writes, “how being torn in two often leaves something less than one.” He set out to weave himself and his family back together through real estate.

The resulting book is a curious beast, a memoir made partly of extreme violence, and partly of Bob Vila. Opening and closing sections detail the journalistic adventures that proved so stressful — being shot in the back by a sniper in Ramallah in 2002, then arrested and beaten by Libyan soldiers last year — and italicized flashbacks detail his family’s history in (mostly happy) American exile. But the bulk is consumed with domestic drama in Marjayoun, agonizing over floor tiles and stonemasonry, and bickering interminably with his construction team and new Lebanese neighbors. His expensive and quixotic home-improvement quest leads the local Lebanese to deride him as a crazy American. (As a renter, I have to agree.)
Shadid’s virtues as a newspaperman are the virtues of the book. He is a master of the miniature portrait — his best dispatches were character-driven, too — and if anything, there are too many good character vignettes here for a casual reader to keep track of. And then there is the love of his subject: Shadid calls himself an Arabic-language obsessive, and he lays on thickly the cultural knowledge, the proverbs, the history of the villages of southern Lebanon. He loves his own heritage completely. No one, even his sometime-antagonists among his construction team, is presented with contempt.

But the down side of empathy, and particularly empathy for one’s own countrymen, is sentimentality. He sometimes lapses here, as when he declares that his ancestral tongue “boasts a vocabulary that can convey any description in a single word.” These claims go far beyond even what most Arabic-obsessives make for the language. It has a florid vocabulary, and a famously exhaustive nomenclature for camels, but to call it “a richer language than English” is just dubious swagger. Likewise, in recounting the Shadid family history, he displays too much of the mythmaker’s impulse to idealize. One of his ancestors buried books, he says, in order “to grow a tree of knowledge”; and he implies that the Lebanese people are timeless and ancient and take a long view of the world. I doubt he would get away with romanticizing someone else’s culture this way.

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