Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shadid - House of Stone: A memoir of home, family, and a lost Middle East

Having covered the tumultuous changes underway throughout the Middle East and Arab/Islamic world in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, providing a picture of both the tragedy and possibility of change, Anthony Shadid lost his life covering Syria in 2012. But before his death he would take a break to get in touch with his Lebanese heritage, ultimately leading to the restoration of his great-grandfather’s Mans of Stone in the village of Marjayoun, far above the bustling city of Beirut. Shadid’s discovery of his roots and of himself, fortunately are preserved in the memoirs of the time of his transformation in House of Stone (2012).

During my time in the Middle East I’ve continued to read anything that will inform me about the history, culture, and struggles of the region. House of Stone was one of the most memorable and enlightening. Shadid used Arabic language liberally (always translating when he first introduced a word or phrase), interspersed historical references from the Shadid family’s move to America in the 19th century, and included stories of the political strife and civil wars that have so deeply undermined his home (in Arabic - bayt) time and time again. These stories and reflections taught me as much as any book I’ve read about the sorrow of dashed dreams amongst impossible, and deeply engrained, conflict.

The strife in Lebanon has resulted from a legacy of the Ottomans, complicated by the interventions of Europe, and stirred by the religious differences that in its early days were a strength to its people. Providing an example of his distant relative Hana Shadid who, as a Maronite Christian, chanted the Muslim call to prayer heard throughout Marjayoun, Shadad advocated for the natural tolerance and respect that once existed for all who sought God. This kind of tolerance was the foundation for a community whose riches were in its relationships and the natural beauty of a place described through his grandmother’s eyes when she returned to her family’s home in mid-20th century:

This time she saw the vistas for which the country was fabled – the turquoise Mediterranean as she approached the port of Sidon; the cliffs of Jezzine, carpeted in pine forests, vineyards, and orchards; the clumps of almond trees that cascaded down the hills of the Litani Valley. She paused at the panorama under the sentry of Beaufort Castle, sheer, inhospitable slopes plunging toward the river’s churning waters – a sweeping view beautiful in its severity, like the face of a proud old man bearing the hardship he has endured.
In the Afterword of Shadid’s book written by his widow, Nada Bakri comments, “Anthony writes that his great-grandfather ‘must have longed for and been haunted by what he had barely touched but not had the chance to savor.’” Shadid was able to savor the restoration of the family home only briefly before Lebanon would be thrown back into civil war in 2008. As the Syrian crisis continues unabated, Lebanon is again bursting from within as it attempts to provide “bayt” for refugees exiled from their homes. The repeated story of longing for a better life but never quite being able to grasp it is far too common in this region of the world.

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