Friday, March 30, 2012

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

"The whispers of Isber's age were everywhere in Marjayoun. They spoke of a time in which I never lived but had envisioned so often that, to me, it was almost more familiar than the present. It was the era whose fragments and civilities - the remnants of the Ottomans and the Levant - had originally drawn me to the Middle East."

Much about House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid is revealed in this passage from page 133. Isber was Shadid's great grandfather, a man who after 1900 built a stately house on a hill to claim his membership in the society of Marjayoun, a vibrant town of Christian and Muslim merchants in Southern Lebanon. The wealth and tolerance of the community soon disappeared in the upheaval following the dismantling of the Ottoman empire after World War I. Isber sent his children to the United States and Brazil to escape violence, and he then died prematurely. His widow lived in the house until the 1960s after which it began to crumble. It was occupied by an Israeli agent during the 1982 war and was struck by a small missile. Shadid, who grew up in a Lebanese community in Oklahoma, took a year off from his job with the Washington Post to rebuild the house, hoping to rebuild his family as well.

In House of Stone, Shadid retells stories from his family while describing the slow restoration of Isber's house and gardens. Throughout there are strained relations with his foreman and various craftsmen who have a very different sense of time than Shadid. He also visits relatives and prominent citizens of the community. My favorite is Dr. Khairalla, a wise retired hospital administrator who gives Shadid cuttings for his garden. The doctor was convicted of treason (but never sentenced) for having dealt with the Israelis during the occupation, something he had to do to keep the hospital open.

Shadid was a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism and is nominated again this year for his coverage of events in Syria. In February 2012, he died from an asthma attack while clandestinely crossing the Syrian border from having interviewed Syrian rebels. His book was published in March. Like his great grandfather, his stay in the house was short.

Shadid, Anthony. House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 311p. ISBN 9780547134666.

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