The OF Blog: 2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Anthony Shadid, House of Stone

Friday, November 09, 2012

2012 National Book Award finalist in Non-Fiction: Anthony Shadid, House of Stone

The village market is an old tradition in the countryside, a legacy of Bedouin culture, and many towns around Marjayoun had them.  Qlayaa's was on Sunday.  Monday was Nabatiyeh's.  The most famous was Suq al-Khan, on Tuesday, near Kawkaba.  They were really no more than amalgamations of hastily erected tents and rickety stalls, where everything from scarves and screwdrivers to corkscrews and pirated CDs were hawked.  "Beautiful prices!" vendors shouted, to no one in particular.  However pronounced the tension, and even in times of war, Shiite butchers hung out their meat, willing to cut a slice and grill it, and Druze famers, in their white knit caps and baggy pants, kept coming to sell pickled wild cucumbers and cauliflower.

Shibil sometimes called himself Oklahoman, but he was really, inexorably, a son of this town, a belief confirmed as I watched him cringe when a black goat crossed our path.  Like the evil eye, it was an omen, and omens mattered.  In winter, he would never walk outside without splashing cold water on his face.  His superstitions continually announced themselves.  "Beware of split teeth and blue eyes," he warned me as he scanned the market crowd, deadly serious.  "Small foreheads, too." (p. 54)

I recall once hearing (or did I read it or is it all a dream?) that family histories are like ripples in a pond caused by a stone's throw, each wave reaching the far side before returning, diminished yet still maintaining its shape.  So many of us are products of our forebears.  We may not look exactly like them nor always act in precisely the same fashion, but there is that sense of an inheritance that leads us to look back to our ancestors in order to understand ourselves.  In his memoir, House of Stone:  A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East (published posthumously weeks after the author's tragic death from allergy-induced asthma), acclaimed journalist Anthony Shadid recounts a pivotal point in his life, in the summer of 2006, when he returned to the Lebanese village of Marjayoun, the place where centuries of Shadids and Samaras had lived and practiced their Christian faith before the early 20th century exodus of Arab Christians (as well as Muslims and Druze, to a lesser extent) began.  It is a memoir of a family as well as of the bayt, which constitutes many things, the least of which is the physical "house."  Or perhaps "home" would be more suitable, as that contains hints of emotional and familial interactions within a physical boundary.  Regardless, House of Stone is a very touching story of Shadid's family and of Lebanon's recent history.

House of Stone operates on two levels:  that of Shadid's experiences in Marjayoula rebuilding an ancestral home and (in italics) reflections on his family's experiences ever since the first Shadids immigrated to the US, particularly Oklahoma City.  In chapters that are as much thematic as they are chronological in order, Shadid explores not just what drove his grandparents (and grand-uncle) to emigrate, but what Lebanon's history has been as the sort of crossroads between Europe and Asia, between Christianity and Islam.  Through all of this, the bayt that he is reconstructing, to the bemusement of some, to the amazement of others, looms as a central metaphor for these intertwined histories.

Shadid was a famous war correspondent in the Middle East, covering not just the 2006 Hezbollah/Israel border conflict, but also the 2011 Libyan Civil War and the 2011-2012 Syrian Civil War before his tragic death.  He possessed a keen eye for personal detail, noting local beliefs and customs, not with a wry smile and a small, sad shake of the head but instead with compassion and understanding.  Take for instance the passage quoted above.  Shadid's friend Shibil, who had lived some time in the US before returning to Lebanon, is shown to be of two worlds:  convinced that he is outside local superstitions, yet reinforcing them all of the same subconsciously.  Shadid does not mock his friend for those beliefs, but instead refers to them as a symbol of the confluence of the old and new, with the old possessing more strength than what might be expected.

The people that Shadid meet are fascinating because their concerns are at once familiar (how can we afford to pay for the things we need each day?) and foreign to affluent westerners (will the war resume?  Will the Israelis take over again?).  Shadid touches upon this in discussing the reasons why his grandparents and others from the last years of the Ottoman Empire until the present have left Lebanon (and by extension, other parts of the Middle East) in a great Arab diaspora.  At the heart of it is the duality of family and culture (including religion; a large number of the Arabs that emigrated were Christians of all of the regional sects).  Shadid touches upon these issues in his recollections of his experiences rebuilding the family bayt, noting the tragedy of the former collegiality of the local Muslims, Christians, and Druze before the French mandates of Syria and Lebanon set the powder keg of religious conflict before lighting the fuse of political/social control that finally blew up spectacularly in the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990.  There is a sense of wistfulness in his writing of the issue, a sense of loss of what was treasured in the days of his ancestors.

The "flashback" scenes where Shadid discussed his family's reasons for emigrating and their subsequent adventures in the American Southwest are integrated nicely into the memoir.  The pressure to "become American" (which involved the adoption of American nicknames, such as Abdullah/Albert and Miqbal/Mack) is contrasted with the desire to remain true to their Lebanese roots.  If anything could be pointed out as a shortcoming in House of Stones, it is that perhaps there could have been even more of these scenes added to flesh out Shadid's reasons for coming back to Lebanon to reside for a spell before resuming his correspondent duties.

House of Stones is a very good memoir.  It captures well the internal and external conflicts of the Lebanese and Lebanese-Americans when it comes to matters of home, family, and faith.  It touches upon several tragedies of the past century and it shines a light upon the myriad and sometimes conflicting attitudes that the Lebanese have in regards to the tumultuous events of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  It compares favorably with the other National Book Award finalists for Non-fiction and it certainly is a book that deserves a wide readership.  It is unfortunate that Shadid died so soon after writing this book; there is the sense that there are stories left untold.

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