WHILE reporting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon for the Washington Post in 2006 and 2007, Anthony Shadid, whose family had emigrated from the Middle East to the United States two and three generations earlier, paid a visit to his ancestral home.
House of Stone
by Anthony Shadid
Granta Books, 336pp, £14.99
It stood in a town called Marjayoun, in south-east Lebanon. A hundred years ago Marjayoun lay prosperously and more or less peacefully at a major crossroads within the broad elbow room of the Ottoman Empire.
In the 21st century, Marjayoun sits in that infernal cockpit between the borders of Syria and Israel, in the tracks of the tanks of three warring nations and a dozen conflicting confessional groups.
Much of Shadid’s magnificent new book is a paean to a vanished cosmopolis, and a useful revision through the eyes of a Lebanese Christian of our dim western image of the Ottomans. If you thought you would never have cause to regret the fall of the Ottoman Empire, read this book. What happened before the dissolution of the Caliphate was frequently as brutal and corrupt as in any decaying imperium. But what happened afterwards was, in Levantine provinces such as Marjayoun, a protracted descent into hell.
There, writes Shadid, “the ordinary has been, for nearly a century, interrupted by war, occupation, or what they often call in Arabic ‘the events’. These are circumstances that stop time and postpone or conquer living. Traditions die. Everything normal is interrupted. Life is not lived in wartime, but how long does it take for the breaks in existence to be filled? How many generations?”
Anthony Shadid’s family home had been abandoned by his grandparents early in that descent. They became hardworking merchants in the Texas-Oklahoma panhandle.
His great-grandparents, who built their house shortly before the century of unanticipated mayhem, stayed on at Marjayoun until their deaths. When Anthony Shadid arrived there in 2006, its interior was derelict, but its exterior was stolidly intact, with the exception of a half-exploded Israeli rocket sticking out of the second-storey wall.
Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter took a year’s sabbatical from the Washington Post and decided to rebuild his great-grandfather’s house in Marjayoun. In middle age, he was looking for a place to belong. This is, nominally, his account of that arduous process. Its brilliance lies in its several layers of content, as expressed by a masterly writer. Shadid breaks from his feuds with recalcitrant electricians and tilers to tell the story of his own family’s travails in both Lebanon and America, and therefore of the 20th-century Levantine diaspora.
He discovers in Marjayoun a community fallen on terrible times. The western reader, after what has happened in that Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese nexus, is astonished anyone still lives there at all. But they do, and in Shadid’s elegiac portrait, they resemble the proud and prickly provincials of Marcel Pagnol. Elderly Ottoman scholars rub shoulders with land-greedy smallholders. Bachelor malcontents live out their days in the dregs of a whisky bottle. Anthony Shadid himself is the Jean de Florette of this little arena, regarded with wonder and suspicion for returning to the town of broken dreams.
Ultimately Shadid’s writing betrays his own actions. If restoring his family’s home to its former glory was an act of reclamation, he knows that the shattered past can never be reclaimed. Around Marjayoun, “a Levant of many ethnicities and faiths that had managed to intersect before the vagaries of nationalism” had disappeared in the 20th century and been replaced by failed states and “a petty despot’s power, or a people’s chauvinism, or a clan’s fear…”
There is a tragic coda to House of Stone. Having completed the renovation, Shadid went back to work. He transferred to the New York Times and was posted to Syria. In February this year he died there, of an acute asthma attack exacerbated by heavy smoking and an allergy to horses. The book had not been published, but his house of stone in Marjayoun was completed.
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