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Last spring, when Anthony Shadid—one of four New York Times reporters captured in Libya as the region erupted—was freed, he went home. Not to Boston, Beirut, or Oklahoma where he was raised by his Lebanese-American family, but to an ancient estate built by his great-grandfather, a place filled with memories of a lost era when the Middle East was a world of grace, grandeur, and unexpected departures. For two years previous, Shadid had worked to reconstruct the house and restore his spirit after both had weathered ...
Last spring, when Anthony Shadid—one of four New York Times reporters captured in Libya as the region erupted—was freed, he went home. Not to Boston, Beirut, or Oklahoma where he was raised by his Lebanese-American family, but to an ancient estate built by his great-grandfather, a place filled with memories of a lost era when the Middle East was a world of grace, grandeur, and unexpected departures. For two years previous, Shadid had worked to reconstruct the house and restore his spirit after both had weathered war. Now the author of the award-winning Night Draws Near (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Prize) tells the story of the house’s re-creation, revealing its mysteries and recovering the lives that have passed through it. Shadid juxtaposes past and present as he traces the house’s renewal along with his family’s flight from Lebanon and resettlement in America. House of Stone is an unforgettable memoir of the world’s most volatile landscape and the universal yearning for home.
2012 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction
"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
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.
Introduction: Bayt xiii
PART ONE: RETURNING
1. What the Silence Knows, July 30, 2006 3
2. Little Olive, August 10, 2007 14
3. Three Birds 35
4. Our Last Gentleman 49
5. Gold 65
6. Early Harvest 77
7. Don’t Tell the Neighbors 88
8. Abu Jean, Does This Please You? 99
9. Mr. Chaya Appears 112
10. Last Whispers 128
11. Khairalla’s Oud 142
12. Citadels 155
PART TWO: AT HOME
13. Homesick 171
14. A Bush Called Rozana 181
15. Stupid Cat 197
16. Sitara 205
17. Salted Miqta 216
18. Passing Danger 232
19. Home 240
20. Worse Times 249
21. In the Name of the Father 259
22. Coming Home 269
23. Oh Laila 278
24. My Jedeida 286
Note to Readers 309
Posted October 28, 2012
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!
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Posted April 9, 2012
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......
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Posted November 7, 2012
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.
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