House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle Eastby Anthony Shadid
In 2006, Shadid—an Arab-American raised in Oklahoma—was covering Israel’s attack on Lebanon when he heard that an Israeli rocket had crashed into the house his great-grandfather built—his family’s ancestral home. Not long after, Shadid (who had covered three wars in the Middle East) realized that he had lost his passion for a region… See more details below
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In 2006, Shadid—an Arab-American raised in Oklahoma—was covering Israel’s attack on Lebanon when he heard that an Israeli rocket had crashed into the house his great-grandfather built—his family’s ancestral home. Not long after, Shadid (who had covered three wars in the Middle East) realized that he had lost his passion for a region that had lost its soul. He had seen too much violence and death; his career had destroyed his marriage. Seeking renewal, he set out to rebuild the house that held his family’s past in the town they had helped settle long ago. Although the course of the reconstruction is complicated by craftsmen with too much personality, squabbles with his extended family, and Lebanon’s political strife, Shadid is restored along with the house and finds that his understanding of the Middle East—which he had known chiefly in wartime—has been deepened by his immersion in smalltown life. Coming to terms with his family’s emigrant experience and their town’s history, the "homeless" Shadid finds home and comes to understand the emotions behind the turbulence of the Middle East. In a moving epilogue, Shadid describes returning to this house after a nearly disastrous week as a prisoner of war in Libya along with the first visit of his daughter.
Combining the human interest of The Bookseller of Kabul and Three Cups of Tea with the light touch of an expert determined, first, to tell a story, Shadid tells the story of a reconstruction effort that would have sent Frances Mayes to a psychiatric hospital as he brings to life unforgettable characters who lives help explain not just the modern Middle East but the legacy of those who have survived generations of war. He flashes back to his family’s loss of home, their suffering during their country’s dark days, and their experiences as newcomers in Oklahoma. This is a book about what propels the Middle East's rage—loss of home—and what it must examine and re-find—the sense of shared community. Far surpassing the usual reporter’s "tour of duty," books, House of Stone is more humane and compelling and will please students of the region, those whose families have emigrated from other nations, and all readers engaged by engrossing storytelling.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
"Elegiac, heartbreaking . . . A book conceived as an introspective project of personal recovery — as well as a meditation on politics, identity, craft, and beauty in the Levant — now stands as a memorial. It is a fitting one because of the writing skill and deep feeling [Shadid] unobtrusively displays." — Steve Coll, New York Times
"An apt testament — a moving contemplation of how the dead stay with us, and how war scrambles the narrative of family life." — The New Yorker
"Profound, insightful, tragic, and funny . . . There is not space here to sell out all of this book’s many rewards . . . The prose is ripe, the biblical landscapes vividly rendered." — Telegraph (London)
"Shadid’s great skill as a journalist was that of a master storyteller, and he’s never been more effective than in his final book." — Bookforum
"An honest-to-god, hands-down, undeniable and instant classic . . . written with levity and candor and lyricism that makes the book, improbably, both a compulsive read and one you don’t want to end." — Dave Eggers, author of A Hologram for the King
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Read an Excerpt
The Arabic language evolved slowly across the millennia, leaving little undefined, no nuance shaded. 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 old marjayoun, in what is now Lebanon, Isber Samara left a house that never demanded we stay or enter at all. It would simply be waiting, if shelter was necessary. Isber Samara left it for us, his family, to join us with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories. After years of trying to piece together Isber’s tale, I like to imagine his life in the place where the fields of the Houran stretched farther than even the dreamer he was — a rich man born of a poor boy’s labors — could grasp.
In an old photo handed down, Isber Samara’s heavy-seeming shoulders suggest the approach of the old man he would never become, but his expression retains a hint of mischief some might call youthful. More striking than handsome, his face is weathered from sun and wind, but his eyes are a remarkable Yemeni blue, rare among the Semitic browns of his landscape. Though the father of six, he seems beyond proper grooming. His hair, apparently reddish, is tousled; his mustache resembles an overgrown scattering of brush. Out to prove himself since he was a boy, Isber would one day come to believe that he had.
By the time the photo of Isber and his family was taken, he was forty or so, but I am drawn more to the Isber that he became — a father, no longer so ambitious, parted from his children, whom he sent off to America to save their lives. I wonder if he pictured them and their descendants — sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, on and on — moving through lives as unpredictable as his. Did he see us in years ahead, adrift, climbing the cracked steps and opening his doors?
At Isber’s, the traveler is welcome, befitting the Bedouin tradition of hospitality that he inherited. The olive and plum trees stand waiting at this house of stone and tile, completed after World War I. The place remains in our old town where war has often stopped time and, like an image reflected in clear water, lingers as well in the minds of my family. We are a clan who never quite arrived home, a closely knit circle whose previous generations were displaced during the abandonment of our country decades ago. When we think of home, as origin and place, our thoughts turn to Isber’s house.
Built on a hill, the place speaks of things Levantine and of a way of life to which Isber Samara aspired. It recalls a lost era of openness, before the Ottoman Empire fell, when all sorts drifted through homelands shared by all. The residence stands in Hayy al-Serail, a neighborhood once as fine as any in the region, an enclave of limestone, pointed arches, and red tile roofs. The tiles here were imported from Marseilles and, in the 1800s, suggested international connections and cosmopolitan fashionableness. They were as emblematic of the style of the Levant as the tarbush hats worn by the Ottoman gentlemen who lived in the Hayy, where the silver was always polished and the coffee came often in the afternoon. Old patriarchs — ancient and dusty as the settees — wiped rheumy eyes with monogrammed handkerchiefs. Sons replaced fathers, carrying on treasured family names. Isber was not one so favored.
In a place and time not known for self-invention, Isber created Isber. His extended family, not noteworthy, consisted of “less than twenty houses.” His furniture, though expensive and imported from Syria, was as recently acquired as his fortune, and his house stood out not just because of its newness. It was a place built with the labor of a rough-hewn merchant whose eye was distracted from accounts only by his wife, Bahija. It serves as a reminder of a period of rare cultivation and unimaginable tragedy; it announces what a well-intentioned but imperfect man can make of life. Isber’s creation speaks of what he loved and what sustained him; it reminds us that everyday places say much, quietly. The double doors of the entrance are tall and wide for men like Isber, not types to be shut in.
Isber, whose daughter Raeefa gave birth to my father, was my great-grandfather. I came of age with remembrances that conjured him back to life, tales that made him real and transported my family to his world, a stop gone missing on recent maps: Jedeidet Marjayoun. This is the way my family refers to our town, our hometown. Never Jedeida, never just Marjayoun. We use the full name, a bow of respect, since for us the place was the beginning. It was bayt, where we came to be.
Settled by my forebears, Marjayoun was once an entrepôt perched along routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims, and Jews which stitched together the tapestry of an older Middle East. It was, in essence, a gateway — to Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and Damascus, beyond Mount Hermon; to Jerusalem, in historic Palestine; and to Baalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town. As such, this was a place as cosmopolitan as the countryside offered. Its learning and sophistication radiated across the region.
Yet lingering in small places is not in favor now; they no longer seem to fit the world. Yes, Marjayoun is fading, as it has been for decades. It can no longer promise the attraction of market Fridays, when all turned out in their finery — women in dresses from Damascus, gentlemen with gleaming pocket watches brought from America. At night, there are only flickering lights, which even a desperate traveler could overlook. In the Saha, or town square, there are dusty things — marked down for decades — for sale. No merchants shine counters, or offer sherbets made from snow, or sell exotic tobaccos. The cranky sheikh who filled prescriptions, if he cared to, is no more. The town no longer looks out to the world, and it is far from kept up. Everywhere it is scattered with bits and pieces, newspapers from other decades, odd things old people save. Of course, no roads run through Marjayoun anymore. A town whose reach once spanned historic Syria, grasping Arish in the faraway Sinai Peninsula of Egypt before extending, yet farther, to the confluence of the Blue and the White Niles, now stretches only a mile or so down its main thoroughfare.
Once, in this place, my family helped raise the cross and disturb the peace. We were known here, not for gentle natures or even temperaments, though we were among the town’s first Christians. We walked these streets, played a role in determining where they would go. And then we used them to leave. Although our family tree still has olives on its branches, we follow the tradition of remaining mastourin (hidden, invisible, masked) when it comes to emotions, yet there are sometimes tears when we look back.
Isber’s is one of the many houses left behind here, one of those we call mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely. The leftover houses — spindly, breaking down, haunted — speak of Marjayoun’s lost heyday. For many who have walked by them through many years and wars and passings, they are friends. In their shattered windows, those who pass by see shiny panes and all that happened behind them. In the dark rooms they envision, not just scarred or peeling walls or dusty floors, but old acquaintances lighting lamps or stoking the coals of stoves.
The story of the town is written in these places; it is a history of departures. I still think of them every day. The houses of those who left are everywhere, walked away from. There were letters for a while. She was my best friend. Those who stayed remember those we lost. We woke and saw that their place was empty. In these broken-down rooms one can hear the voices of ghosts and the regrets of those who still recognize them.
Close your eyes and forget Marjayoun. The next thing you are crossing is the Litani Valley, over the mountains to Jezzine and then down the coast to Saida.
My aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents, were part of a century-long wave of migration that occurred as the Ottoman Empire crumbled then fell, around the time of World War I. In the hinterland of what was then part of Greater Syria, known locally as Sham, the war marked years of violent anarchy that made bloodshed casual. Disease was rife. So was famine, created by the British and French, who enforced a blockade of all Arab ports in the Mediterranean. Hundreds of thousands starved to death in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and beyond. Isber’s region was not spared. A reliable survey of 182 villages in the area showed that a fourth of the homes there had withered into wartime ruin, and more than a third of the people who had inhabited them had died.
This horrific decade and its aftermath provoked villagers, including my family, to abandon their homes for locations from South America to West Africa to Australia, as well as a few neighborhoods in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Wichita, Kansas. What became an era of departures ended with more Lebanese living in the diaspora than within the boundaries of 1920, when Europeans parceled out the unbroken expanse of the Ottomans.
A green folder sits in my file cabinet. Family Records, it reads. Inside are citizenship and marriage certificates, my grandfather’s discharge orders from the U.S. Army, my grandmother’s story, written by one of her daughters, and a record of my grandfather’s journey from Beirut to Boston aboard a ship called the Latso. Creased and folded in thirds are family trees from both sides of my clan, the Samaras and the Shadids. The first traces back to one Samara Samara, who was born in 1740 and emigrated in an epic exodus said to be led by women from the Houran of present-day Syria to the hills of Marjayoun. The other, much more complex, radiates into more than two hundred branches of names, insistently rendered in English and Arabic.
The folder also contains pictures. In one, my maternal great-grandfather, Miqbal, boyish-looking then, wears an ill-fitting formal jacket with an oversize white rose in his lapel. Other photos portray wistful ladies and men with handlebar mustaches and tufts of what appears to be quite unmanageable hair, all dressed as dandies in their Sunday best. There is one of the dry-goods store of an older Miqbal, where signs offered High Quality, Low Prices. But the English is uncertain: Help Us, Weel Help You. And the script is distinctly native, the graceful slope of Arabic, leaning to the left, imposed on the rigidity of Latin, standing straight.
The America that drew my family was a journey of seven thousand miles, and although mountain roads and voyages in steerage were treacherous, the hardest were those first miles away from home, away from faces that would no longer be familiar. By the time we arrived in New York, or Texas, or Oklahoma, or wherever, much was lost. “Your first discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that you do not exist.” In other words, it is not just the others who have been left behind; it is all of you that is known. Gone is the power or punishment of your family name, the hard-earned reputations of forebears, no longer familiar to anyone, not in this new place. Gone are those who understand how you became yourself. Gone are the reasons lurking in the past that might excuse your mistakes. Gone is everything beyond your name on the day of your arrival, and even that may ultimately be surrendered.
So much had to be jettisoned for the sake of survival. Emotions were not acknowledged when so many others had suffered more. There was only survival for these travelers and faces to recall until the pictures they carried frayed or no longer held together. Though none of us could summon its image, Isber Samara’s house remained, saying his name and ours. It was a place to look back to, the anchor, all that was left there. To my family, separated or reunited, Isber’s house makes a statement: Remember the past. Remember Marjayoun. Remember who you are.
What People are saying about this
— Dave Eggers, author of Zeitoun and What Is the What
"Anthony Shadid’s beautifully rendered memoir is a rich account of a man’s gradual immersion into the world of the Middle East and the culture of the Levant, a kingdom almost unrecognizable today, where the rooms and hallways of his great-grandfather’s house tell stories that will linger with every reader for decades."
— André Aciman, author of Out of Egypt
"House of Stone is poignant, aching, and at times laugh-out-loud funny . . . Shadid's writing is so lyrical it's like hearing a song."
— David Finkel, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Soldier
"House of Stone is a haunting, beautifully realized piece of writing."
— Nick Flynn, author of The Ticking Is the Bomb
"What a beautiful introduction to a world that I knew so little about. House of Stone is engaging, poignant, and funny."
— Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
"I was captivated, instantly, by Anthony Shadid's lushly evocative prose. Crumbling Ottoman outposts, doomed pashas, and roving bandits feel immediate, familiar, and relevant. Lose yourself in these pages, where empires linger, grandparents wander, and a battered Lebanon beckons us home. Savor it all. If Márquez had explored nonfiction, Macondo would feel as real as Marjayoun."
— Dave Cullen, author of Columbine
"Evocative and beautifully written, House of Stone . . . should be read by anyone who wishes to understand the agonies and hopes of the Middle East."
— Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of Crossing Mandelbaum Gate
"In rebuilding his family home in southern Lebanon, Shadid commits an extraordinarily generous act of restoration for his wounded land, and for us all."
— Annia Ciezadlo, author of Day of Honey
"Few books provide such a subtle, yet powerful insight into the tragedy of today’s Middle East."
— Amin Maalouf, author of Origins: A Memoir
"A riveting, soulful, and candid journey . . ."
— Robin Wright, author of Rock the Casbah
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Every review of this book I read called it "an instant classic". I'm sorry -- I didn't find the 'classic' in these pages. I am interested generally in discovering the history of old homes and in particular, in the work of bringing back the former glory of old buildings. I can even lay claim to some curiosity in trying to find your own heritage and identity in the restoration of an old familial property. I also hoped that if nothing else, I might find a greater understanding of the culture of Lebanon in Shadid's admittedly often lyrical writing. However, this book was uneven in the extreme and just about impossible to follow in terms of a time line as Shadid bounces from the beginning of his family's exodus from Lebanon, back and forth from their homes around the world (but primarily in the US), to his own travels and work throughout the Middle East. Without any seeming connection, he weaves stories of his ancestors and of the town and its characters where his ancestral home is located with tales of the foibles of renovation with snipets of his personal history with bits and pieces of global events that take place in the Middle East during the year he spends working on the stone house. Some of the personalities he encounters are of interest but he never quite develops them, nor is it ever really possible to figure out who is who or Shadid's feelings about most of them. Nor does his narration ever really provide any insight into the basic culture of Lebanon. Unless you are conversant in the entire political development of this part of the Middle East, most of what Shadid has to say about events seems dropped from the sky for no particular purpose. For instance, he mentions the ordering of the USS Cole to the area but never mentions its relevance to anything. I guess what upset me the most about this book is that there was the possibility of so much information to offer to readers not well-versed about any of the topics touched upon, but in the end, you don't know anything more than you did when you started except perhaps the names of some restaurants that may or may not still exist in Beirut. And superficial as it may seem, I feel this story of the endless renovation of this home would have been greatly enriched by some photographs. Shadid rhapsodizes about the tile he restores to the house but the reader is left with no idea of what is so remarkable about said tile. Nor does the reader ever have much of a picture of the garden that drifts in and out of Shadid's story. For a Pulitzer-winning writer, I felt Shadid's narrative would have been much more impressive -- not to mention enjoyable and informative -- if it hadn't been so terribly jumbled in its telling. There are some moments where his love for his heritage and the house in particular shine through but mostly this book is just a collection of thoughts and impressions jotted down in no particular order with no cohesive thought for the story he seems to be trying to tell......
Thoughtful and informative narrative.
Wonderful story and provides excellent insight into the difficulties in the Middle East.
It starts out slow but picks up.
I'm with you "Why" --- shorter reviews please. We really don't care to "hear" whether you are a literary giant or an illiterate. Three sentences in he review will suffice. If you feel the compulsion to write more than maybe you should take a few "writing classes." Great book. Entertaining and educational at the same time. Anicus
*runs in my awesome room and jumps on bed with nickleback blastin out of my stereo*CUZ WE ALL JUST WANNA B BIG ROCK STARS!!!
Do some people know the difference between a book review and book report??? Who wants to hear yourh endless rantings on and on of the whole book? Why buy a book when you have already told it all? We can read you know and a couple of sentences will do just fine. PLEASE just knock it off!