Sunday, August 5, 2012

House of Stone

According to others in his profession, Anthony Shadid was the greatest foreign correspondent of his generation. He grew up in Oklahoma among Americans who knew who they were – that oddly paradoxical phrase that implies who you “are” is something more (or possible less) than what you appear to be, and that the difference is found in your roots. It’s a piece of vernacular that probably has some truth behind it. Shadid’s roots were Lebanese. As a journalist, he covered the Intifada in Israel/Palestine, the War in Iraq, and the Summer War in Lebanon in 2006 when in retaliation for the killing and kidnapping of a couple of its soldiers by Hezbollah, Israel was bombing as much of Lebanon as it could manage without killing too many Westerners. It was during that period that Shadid tracked down the stone mansion his great-grandfather had built nearly a century before in the once-proud provincial capital of Marjayoun. And after he found it, he determined to restore the abandoned house to its former glory.
Shadid’s reporting was graced by his ability to convey what people on the ground were thinking about what was happening around them, or perhaps to them. Those Arab roots undoubtedly helped in this. In Marjayoun, however, he is an “American," not exactly one of “us,” and that distance aids the finely calibrated picture of the Lebanese, or at least some of them, that “House of Stone” offers us. The correspondent takes a year off from work and expects to restore the house in that time. But a lot has happened to Marjayoun since his great-grandfather built a sturdy house using the finest of materials and workmanship available, and to his great-grandfather’s world – a time when the Ottoman writ connected the Syrians plains and Lebanese mountains to Jerusalem. Nowadays the old, long-declining town is off the beaten track, and nothing gets done there easily or in a hurry.
There is a lot of looking back in “House of Stone.” Shadid mixes beautifully recounted tales of his ancestors’ lives in pre-World War I “Greater Syria” in the years of war and destruction that followed into literary cross-hatchings with the emigration decisions, departures, and re-rootings in the US that followed in the early decades of the 20th century. The looking back includes the nostalgia by the present inhabitants of Marjayoun, a community with many empty houses located uncomfortably close to the Israeli border, for the confidence, values, and quiet elegance of a lost way of life. It’s Shadid’s knack for understanding and capturing gestures – the continual taking of coffee at a friend’s, neighbor’s, or new acquaintance’s home; the promised invitations “to lunch” that never come; the insistence on the value of local knowledge and craftsmanship; the existence of so much talk that doesn’t lead to action -- that underlines his own decision to restore a house that does not, under Lebanese inheritance law, belong to him: it’s his gesture. A gesture of renewal; a bet placed on the future.
In addition to his evocation of the proud, opinionated, generous but grudge-prone inhabitants he discovers in the home of his ancestors, Shadid captures qualities in the landscape and manmade world, and the connections between them, not easily described. The color tones of the houses reflect the browns and grays and muted greens of the Lebanese hills and fields.The age-old plantings of gray-leaved olive trees form both a visual and symbolic meeting place of nature and culture.
His growing need to ornament his family’s old home with “cemento,” handmade, decorative, colorful floor tiles – a necessity to the Mediterranean taste 150 years ago and still in vogue today for those who know – is in turn a symbol for his own quest in “House of Stone”: to make use something beautiful in the old ways in the building of something new. His family’s house is finished, mostly, at the end of that year, but the correspondent whose job brought him to dangerous places had little time to enjoy it. It’s shame, among all the other causes for grief, that Anthony Shadid – who died of an asthma attack earlier this year while on assignment in Syria – will not be able to continue the tale of his House of Stone.