An American-born New York Times reporter renovates his great-grandfather's house in Lebanon.
Dislocation, loss and war shaped the life of Anthony Shadid, who died last month, apparently of an asthma attack, while on assignment in Syria.
Most of his family fled Lebanon in the wake of World War I, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled and a way of life ended. Most landed in Oklahoma. As a war correspondent, Shadid was shot in Ramallah by an Israeli sniper, covered the carnage in Iraq, then went to war-torn Lebanon. In August 2006, days after a rocket smashed into the second floor of the old family homestead in the village of Marjayoun, Shadid paid a visit. By that time, his wife, unwilling to deal with the stress or separation, had divorced him. He planted an olive tree.
A year later, on leave from the Washington Post, Shadid returned to Marjayoun to rebuild the house. "House of Stone" is his elegiac, funny, maddening and ultimately moving account of those 11 months, during which he became obsessed with the house's restoration, trying to create a stability he had never known, a bayt, the Arabic word for "house" that resonates with many-layered textures of home and family.
Built around 1920 by Isber Samara, Shadid's great-grandfather, the edifice required the work of many maalimeen, master craftsmen, most of whom bickered, complained, cursed one another and procrastinated. The townspeople spread rumors that Shadid was a spy. His new friends drank too much, and the town at the base of Mount Hermon, once a vital cosmopolitan Middle Eastern crossroads of languages, cultures, religions and traditions, was now an economically depressed backwater with intermittent electricity.
Yet in Marjayoun, Shadid discovered a resilience, passion and zest for life that he relished. "This is construction!" shouted elderly stonemason Abu Salim. "What you give, it will give. What you take, it will take. The strength of the old buildings was neither iron nor cement. It was stone."
At one point, Shadid observes that "the house was a painting gradually emerging from my endlessly deliberated yet haphazard choices," which could also be said of this book. Get on with it, readers may think. The flashbacks to his family's past can sometimes seem haphazard and forced. And for such a personal book, there is little about Laila, the daughter he left in order to rebuild the house, or his remarriage and new son, or how often the family planned to live in Marjayoun.
Despite such flaws, however, "House of Stone" offers a fascinating portrait of a unique time and place, along with a self-portrait of the author. "I felt I could never really find home, not in Oklahoma, not in Maryland, not in Marjayoun," admits Shadid. "I suppose it is the curse of a generation always looking for something more."
Mark Pendergrast, author of "Japan's Tipping Point" and other books, is at www.markpendergrast.com.