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

March 2, 2012

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East, by Anthony Shadid. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade (2012), Hardcover, 336 pages. I received this book from Netgallery and read it on my Nook.

Anthony Shadid, widely respected Middle Eastern journalist who died last month in Syria, has written a personal book that interweaves his own life and that of his extended family with the larger story of the Lebanon and the Middle East.

Shadid’s great-grandfather had created wealth for himself and his family in the years leading up to World War I. He had built a stone house in a village in southern Lebanon near what would become the Israeli border. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, new conditions and conflicts emerged in the region. Instead of remaining in the stone house, some of the next generation of the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Oklahoma City, where Anthony Shadid grew up.

Returning to his ancestral village during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, Shadid saw his grandfather’s house deserted and neglected. He took a year off of his position at the Washington Post and came to live in the village and restore the family home. This book is the story of that year, interspersed with other stories from his life and from his extended family. Shadid also writes regretfully, and even nostalgically, about the impact of colonization and a century of war on the town and the people. He tells of how new boundaries, drawn with no understanding of the region, cut up the region and isolated its inhabitants from each other. New identities created distrust and violence among those who had lived tolerantly with each other in the past—a story all too frequent in many parts of the post-colonial world.

In this book, Shadid is a storyteller, not a news analyst. He does not criticize particular leaders, politics, or nations or take sides. No leaders seem adequate. We see villagers with relatives throughout the Middle East and sense how a web of kinship, not political alliances, have knitted the people of the region together and why colonizers’ ideologies mean little to them. We hear about the Catholic priest offering the Muslim call to prayer and understand a tolerance of diversity rooted in daily village life. We come away with a new appreciation of why Middle Easterners respond differently than we as Westerners expect.

Shadid loves the Arabic language as much as he loves English and is at his best explaining its nuances. For him bayt, meaning home, refuge, source, was what he sought in restoring the stone house–a core identity for himself. Yet in his relationship with those he lives with in the village he remains an outsider. As a reader I often felt like an outsider myself in the conversations he relates, a bit unable and unwilling to keep up with all the speakers.

Progress on the house is slow with workers erratic and opinionated. Eventually the house becomes habitable and Shadid returns to the dangers of his journalistic profession. After almost losing his life in Libya, he returns to the stone house, with his second wife and their infant, and his daughter from his first marriage. He writes, in September 2011, of feeling he has found his bayt/em>.

A sense of elegy runs through this book. The stone house is restored, but the village and its residents are dying. The fact that Shadid himself died four months after finishing the book adds to our sense of loss.

I recommend House of Stone to a wide variety of readers, especially those who seek to understand the Middle East that lies beyond conflicting talking points.

2 Comments leave one →
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