Eastern Promises

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East BY Anthony Shadid. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.

The cover of House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

ANTHONY SHADID, the lead Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, died on February 16 at only forty-three, succumbing to an asthma attack as he snuck out of Syria while covering the popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. Shadid, who had twice won the Pulitzer Prize, was universally acknowledged as the premier American reporter on the Middle East of his generation. He left behind an extraordinary body of work, culminating in the just-published House of Stone.

However, House of Stone is not a work of Middle East reportage; it is, rather, a memoir, devoted to Shadid’s deeply personal quest to uncover his heritage in war-torn Lebanon—and specifically in his ancestral town of Marjayoun, which his grandfather and grandmother, then neighbors but not relatives, both separately left in the early 1920s for the United States. Between the 2006 war pitting Hezbollah against Israel and the outbreak of a mini–civil war, mainly in Beirut, in 2008, Shadid took a year off from his then position at the Washington Post to rebuild his great-grandfather’s abandoned and dilapidated home in Marjayoun. Shadid describes the project as “a small odyssey,” a “meaningful search” for his family’s roots and a new sense of his own personal belonging in their land of origin. It’s clear from the outset that he anticipated discovery and reconnection as the outcomes of his building project, and as it unfolds, the completed project indeed grants Shadid a new sense of identity and purpose. The house, he writes, “makes a statement: Remember the past. Remember Marjayoun. Remember who you are.”

House of Stone alternates between two stories: the account of Shadid’s effort to rebuild the house (in regular font), and the story of his family’s immigration to the United States (in italics). The structure of an alternating narrative cutting back and forth between a contemporary story and an older history that informs it is well established in both fiction and nonfiction, and in film as well. Think, for example, of another immigrant narrative, The Godfather, Part II, which intersperses the steady assimilation of Michael Corleone (into the culture of the Mafia and the American dream alike) alongside the formative saga of Vito Corleone’s immigration to the United States and gradual emergence as a Mob kingpin. This simple format works exceptionally well for Shadid. His two narratives unfold slowly—like the house itself—in both harmony and counterpoint to explain the motivations behind his project and its deeper purposes.

No one should turn to House of Stone for a sustained analysis of Lebanese politics or of the Arab political condition. This book has no index, and indeed does not need one; it won’t serve as a source for any sustained research project, save into the story of Shadid’s life or his readopted hometown. But it will provide non-Arab readers a very strong sense of Lebanese town culture and mores. Shadid is no anthropologist or sociologist, although House of Stone conveys tremendous insights into the social forces that shape life (for better and worse) in Lebanese towns—and in some ways in Levantine and even broader Arab societies as well. With the fair-handed sensibility and narrative voice he established in his dispatches for the Times, Shadid spares no one their sins or embarrassments. Yet, like so much else in Shadid’s writing, this book humanizes Arabs, both individually and collectively, for an American audience otherwise starved for such crucial moments of recognition with our present culture’s quintessential “Other.”

Shadid’s great skill as a journalist was that of a master storyteller, and he’s never been more effective than in his final book. The work essentially belongs to the tradition of nonfiction belles lettres, as noteworthy for its style and prose elegance as for its subject matter. But Shadid’s book also very much belongs to a particular genre of postcolonial literature: the journey back from the metropolis to the periphery by the immigrant—or, in this case, the immigrants’ descendant.

Such works have become a major strand of postcolonial literature as the immigrant experience shifts to tracking returns from the metropolitan center to the periphery. Shadid, returning to not only the country but also the physical home of his great-grandfather, provides the latest instance of this narrative of immigrant return to a lost and in many ways imagined homeland. Probably the most famous iteration of this genre is the story of Saladin Chamcha in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988). In the moving and powerful closing section of Rushdie’s much-misunderstood novel, Chamcha returns to India, reconciles with his estranged father, and reassumes his previously discarded Indian identity.

Shadid is more than one step removed from Chamcha, as a grandson of immigrants. Yet the project of recovering his Arab, Lebanese, and Marjayouni identity is essentially a hybrid of this literary genre—as well as an Arab-American iteration of the more specifically American “roots” quest of the identity-politics era. One of his relatives even sardonically invokes the name Kunta Kinte, the half-invented protagonist of Roots, Alex Haley’s 1976 book seeking to reconstruct his own family’s African-American migration story. In this “roots” sense, House of Stone is a quintessentially post–civil rights movement American book, exploring the contours of the hyphen in a hyphenated identity.

It’s also, in every sense, not only an Arab-American story, but the Arab-American story. The saga of his family’s emigration from Marjayoun to Oklahoma is a representative snapshot of the Arab-American experience at its core: an all-American immigrant narrative, but shaped very deeply by its Arab protagonists, their circumstances and their cultural heritage. In the United States, he writes, “fortunes were accumulated, not found,” and “for those who worked hard, profits were good.” At the same time, though, his family’s assimilation to American life often meant changing names, negotiating identities, and self-reinvention—as Shadid recalls, the members of his migrant family were “determined to be like their neighbors in Oklahoma.” I doubt that the Arab-American experience has ever received more affecting treatment than Shadid delivers here in his characteristically elegant prose. He describes, for example, the tension for these early immigrants between pragmatic assimilation and a no-less-powerful impulse to cling “defiantly to the traditions that they believed set them apart.” “Food was the mainstay,” he writes, as these Arab immigrants doggedly persisted in eating the familiar fare of their homeland, and “socializing was a necessary priority” among this diaspora community. “Visits kept to a village cadence,” Shadid notes, and “impromptu parties were convened on any night.” And during these gatherings, “never a word of English was spoken. On those nights, they were back in Marjayoun. They were home, together.”

By contrast, Leila Ahmed’s brilliant memoir, A Border Passage (1999), may have been written in English and in the United States, but it’s very much an Arab, rather than an Arab-American, book. Its chapter “On Becoming an Arab”—which describes the process by which Egyptians of her generation were, from her perspective, virtually shanghaied into an ideological Arab-nationalist worldview during the 1950s—has received far too little attention. It’s fascinating to read Ahmed’s account as a counterpoint to Shadid’s enthusiastic embrace of his inherited Arab identity. Shadid, the roots-conscious hyphenated American, sees his journey back from the American metropolis as not only natural but healing and restorative; Ahmed, on the other hand, describes a far more rigid and oppressive Arab identity—and an enforced dislocation from a broader, more cosmopolitan, and richer cultural heritage in her native Cairo.

Several other recent memoirs have narrated the rigors of Arab migration, or in some cases exile—–most notably, perhaps, Edward Said’s Out of Place (1999). But Shadid seems to have tapped into something much more fundamental in the experiences that formed today’s Arab-American community. Said found himself most comfortable in a cosmopolitan, always-alienated, and intellectually rarefied cultural environment informed by Adorno’s “negative dialectics,” which held that “dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible.” More prosaically, Shadid yearns for something reassuringly fixed and settled: a home, and the recovery of something “lost”—a much more typical impulse among third-generation immigrants. For Said, cosmopolitan displacement was intellectually liberating, whereas for Shadid—and I suspect for most people—“being torn in two often leaves something less than one.”

The house in House of Stone serves as a potent and multivalent metaphor in Shadid’s imagination: It represents stability in the present; hope for the future; reconnection with a long-lost—and, he admits, in many senses imaginary—past; the continuity of family memory and commitment; and all the nuanced meanings of the untranslatable and overdetermined Arabic word bayt. As Shadid notes, bayt possesses connotations that “resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home,” and represents “the identity that does not fade.” It also stands in for Lebanon itself, that anarchic mosaic of ill-fitting parts, stabilized only through an equilibrium of inherently unstable elements. Lebanon is a country with no majority community, instead consisting of dozens of smaller groups often finding themselves in open confrontation and coexisting uneasily in adjacent sectarian enclaves. These qualities have doomed it to be the perennial site of foreign meddling and a venue for devastating civil conflicts and proxy wars. It’s impossible not to read in many passages the suggestion that the house stands in for the country built around it: “In its destruction, the house, liberated, revealed its origins. . . . In chaotic geometry, smaller stones climbed over each other in the rugged, disordered perfection of the Cave’s arcade.”

Indeed, writers addressing Lebanon’s inscrutable and tragic character have often used this same metaphor, characterizing Lebanon as a unique, marvelous, and impossibly divided “house.” Lebanon’s premier historian, Kamal Salibi, titled his definitive work on modern Lebanese history A House of Many Mansions (1988). Salibi was, of course, deliberately citing a saying of Jesus as recorded in John 14:2 to highlight what he viewed as the pressing question of how Arab Christians would fare in Lebanon in particular and the Middle East in general. Likewise, Shadid devotes of a good deal of House of Stone to the troubled history of Christians in his homeland—a theme that emerges as he recounts both his family history and his dealings with a host of Lebanese Christian villagers in the effort to rebuild his ancestral home. There is a widespread sense, which Shadid repeatedly expresses, that numerous factors, including the sectarian attitudes of Arab Christians themselves, are placing the future of Lebanon’s Christian communities at risk. As Shadid unsparingly observes, an allegiance to marginalized, sectarian identity in Muslim-majority cultures for Christians means that “we faced our own extinction.”

Shadid’s book is impressively self-aware and never shrinks from asking difficult questions, but it does not dive deeply into philosophical problems. Still, it’s possible to tease out, in Shadid’s sustained contemplation of the myriad meanings of the terms house and bayt, another body of complex thought from an unlikely touchstone: Heidegger’s musing on the overdetermined meanings of “dwelling” in his renowned essay “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Heidegger claims that “only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build,” and that “to build is in itself already to dwell.” Heidegger’s ponderous, difficult philosophical essay and Shadid’s light, accessible memoir have an unexpected resonance despite their radical differences. For Shadid, too, home begins with dwelling as thinking, an act of creative imagination that gives meaning to family, identity, and continuity. He imagines bringing his daughter to the house he rebuilt and teaching her the Arabic words of his great-grandfather: “This is bayt,” he writes. “This is what we imagine.”

There are even hints of Freud’s sense of the uncanny as the unhomely—the familiar made unfamiliar by neurotic symptoms—in Shadid’s story. American readers have especially prized Shadid’s work for its accessible transmission of the attitudes and experiences of Arabs in the Middle East—but for highly assimilated Arab-Americans like him, the Arab world (at least at first) is precisely such an uncanny place, simultaneously radically different and oddly familiar. Shadid’s project of rebuilding his great-grandfather’s house of stone is certainly neurotic—he describes it as “quixotic” and explicitly links it to the divorce from his wife that destroyed his American home—an effort to make the unheimlich homely and to refashion himself as “native” to a place that is both familiar and strange. He also seems to relish almost anything that links him with the “crazy” Shadids of Marjayoun village lore, merchants who drove impossibly hard bargains and were quick to anger, take offense, and bear endless grudges. This, too, is the kind of neurotic symptom Freud posited as the indispensable origin of art, culture, and civilization itself.

But if we were to boil the guiding metaphor in House of Stone to one primary element, the home Shadid ultimately discovers at the end of his quest is the book in the reader’s hands. The narrative of the construction of the house is, in effect, the story of the writing process at work. As Shadid patiently reconstructs his family’s home on its original site, he uses this struggle toward completion to recover in these pages the story behind the house—his family’s history. Throughout House of Stone, Shadid’s use of metaphor is simple, elegant, and effective. Tiles evoke historical and family detail, ancient trees summon forth the idea of social and familial continuity, new plants and flowers signal a fresh understanding of the past and present. Shadid’s rich, often anthropomorphic images, presented in the larger framework of the book’s alternating and intersecting narratives, nestle perfectly into each other like Russian dolls, revealing ever more nuance and detail. “The tiles at my feet were the remnants,” he writes, “artifacts of an ideal, meant to remind and inspire, vestiges of the irretrievable Levant, a word that, to many, calls to mind an older, more tolerant, more indulgent Middle East.”

But in more than one passage, Shadid is let down by overexplicitness, explaining the metaphor so baldly that it breaks the spell, like a conjurer walking us through the mechanics of the illusion during the magic trick. In a section describing his friend Assaad’s inability to decide whether he should return to Wisconsin, where he had settled only to leave, Shadid writes, “He was a man caught between two places, one where he would always be a stranger, one where he was no longer a native.” He continues, “Sometimes, it seemed to me, I saw Assaad’s displacement everywhere I looked.” Such painstaking literalness is, paradoxically, too direct: It actually subverts the impact of the narrative’s imagery, which, left on its own and never very far from the surface, generally gives the book a very effective and artful structure. In this manner, the book’s countless seemingly trivial details gain enough breathing room within the narrative to artfully enrich and interrogate its author’s broader concerns. One also occasionally gets the sense that some underzealous editing, probably as a consequence of an understandable readerly enchantment with the rich details and resonant themes of House of Stone, allowed the book to drag slightly in places. But these are quibbles about what is on the whole an exquisitely written text.

Still, the one metaphor that really lets Shadid down is precisely the one that many readers will probably find most urgent: his bid to link his story to the “Arab Spring” protests that have convulsed the Middle East since late 2010. Most efforts to impose any form of grand narrative about these ongoing and unresolved uprisings seem premature and jury-rigged, and that’s very much the case with the epilogue to House of Stone. Shadid’s commentary on the region’s political upheavals feels uncomfortably tacked on to what is otherwise a very finely integrated story, and it stretches a bit to connect the story of Shadid’s uneasy homecoming to the broader quest for democratic reform in the Arab world. In Tahrir Square, for example, Shadid writes that “Egypt reimagined home,” much as he had done—via a collective “act of imagination . . . [creating] a different kind of community linked to what once was.” That’s a reasonable description of a great deal of what happened in Egypt and Libya, although he agrees the liberatory “Tahrir moment” might be very fleeting, referring to “what had once more, at last, been imagined.” Even so, the interpretive scheme here feels rather strained; his readers will be hard-pressed to see an evident connection—or even an implicit one—between the Tahrir protests and Shadid’s struggles to reimagine and refashion his forebears’ house and his own identity in the process. The only way to make sense of such a comparison is to posit that all acts of imaginative redefining are of a kind.

It’s an especially curious elision, since over the past year or so Shadid—who, for most of his career, had lacked the supple feel for political analysis that he typically brought to his reporting on the ground—was starting to emerge as a very impressive analyst of Arab political developments. Consider, for example, an especially trenchant anatomy of the Syrian crisis that he wrote early last November for PBS’s Frontline, titled “In Assad’s Syria, There Is No Imagination.” With a minimum of personal or confessional commentary, Shadid was able to persuasively interpret the Arab uprisings as creative acts of collective imagination, and the crisis in Syria as a failure of imagination. And what he wrote then is still true: The brutality of the government means “Syria is still subsumed in the logic of fear, which forces once diverse societies to hew to their smaller parts, obliterating the ability to imagine broader communities and other identities,” and the “lack of vision” by the opposition has not effectively counteracted this trend. The opposition forces in Syria have thus far crucially failed to reassure ethnic and sectarian minorities that their fears about a post-Assad future are unfounded. Shadid himself takes the leap of imagining a “post-Ottoman” milieu in which “people can imagine themselves as Alawite, Levantine, Arab, Syrian, Eastern—or some hybrid that transcends them all.”

Such a vision might be a little fanciful, but Shadid was extremely incisive in focusing on the indispensability of citizenship, with all its rights and responsibilities—a concept that has not been central to contemporary Arab political discourse—as the key to a better future for Arab societies now emerging from the suffocation of dictatorship. Whether cleverly, naively, or simply matter-of-factly, he cites the Tunisian Islamist Said Ferjani’s observation that “only in citizenship . . . could diversity be preserved and protected,” and allow Arab societies “to become greater than our parts.” Real citizenship, Shadid suggests, “would allow us to imagine” and therefore create an Arab future that is a genuine liberation, a factor that will almost be the single most important force that determines the long-term outcome of these uprisings. Even if he attributed this insight to Ferjani, Shadid demonstrated the rapidly developing strength of his own analytical skills—and, sadly, it still really does take an imaginative leap to dream of an Arab world defined by citizens, none better or worse than any other, free to define themselves and to participate fully in their societies.

A major story based on Shadid’s interview with Ferjani appeared in the New York Times on February 17, the day after Shadid’s death. It is, illogically but inevitably, more uncanny and unsettling to read the work of recently deceased authors—pieces written by my friend Christopher Hitchens are still coming out, though he passed away several months ago—than it is to encounter a newly discovered work of a long-dead writer. The Ferjani story and other short posthumous pieces merely set up the deeply moving experience of reading House of Stone in the full knowledge that Shadid tragically died in the few months between the book’s completion and its publication. It’s impossible not to note, however, the numerous passages that seem almost to anticipate the tragedy—though of course nothing of the sort could have remotely been on Shadid’s mind. A friend says of Marjayoun when Shadid is beginning his project, “The only time people arrive here is when they’re dead. . . . They bring people here to bury them.” A relative tells him defiantly, “This is where I will come when I die. I have a big, beautiful grave ready.”

Shadid’s construction project in Marjayoun was clearly an exercise in self-reconstruction: an effort to recuperate as well as reimagine the history of his family and to provide a new future for them and for himself. He clearly didn’t intend it as such, but the house will now stand not as a tomb, but as a living monument to Anthony Shadid for his relatives and the townsfolk of Marjayoun. A few days after his death, Shadid’s ashes were scattered in the garden he created around the house he rebuilt. To the rest of us, he bequeaths a very different monument: his extraordinary writing, which reached its apex with House of Stone.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine.