Anthony Shadid’s remains were scattered under the olive tree in the garden at his house in Jdeidit Marjeyoun, South Lebanon. He was not buried in the United States where he was born and raised, but in the home he had chosen as his own. This home, or bayt, as Shadid refers to it, is the main character in his third book “House of Stone”, and represents the very human concept of belonging.
Returning to Lebanon on sabbatical from his post as a journalist covering the Middle East for the New York Times, Shadid was not at peace. In his words he was “stunned by war, and shockingly no longer young, married or with my daughter Layla.” Perhaps this emotional state is what led Shadid to decide to fix his ancestral home in Marjeyoun, as a distraction from his internal turmoil and to finally have a place he could call home.
Through describing the renovation, Shadid draws a picture of modern life in a small town. His prose is simple yet well crafted, bringing the characters to life with an objectivity which allows the readers to draw their own opinions of each. Shadid enters Marjeyoun a stranger, but since his roots are from there, townsfolk immediately know his whole family history and think him insane for deciding to repair the house; others simply think he is an American spy. Gradually though, some warm up to him and Shadid’s retellings of nights around the dinner table with some of his new friends are absorbing.
The repair process clearly fascinates Shadid and some parts of the book get weighed down with the details of knocking down a pillar or building up a stone wall.
However, interactions between contractor and workers lighten the tone with humor. When he tries to locate antique tiles for his flooring and ends up meeting a dealer who strips tiles from homes destroyed by the war, the story sheds light on the lesser known aspects of home repair in Lebanon.
Parallel to the home repairs is Shadid’s recounting of the history of the house and his ancestors who lived in it. With the same precise attention to detail he was known for in his journalism, Shadid reconstructs the life of his great-grandparents, while imagining them in the various rooms of the house and what they would have been doing at the time.
Through this, the reader learns about life in Lebanon during the Ottoman Empire and the French Mandate which brought on the beginning of Lebanese emigration.
Shadid’s depiction of his great-grandfather, Esper, and his struggle to decide whether to send his children to the United States for a chance for a better life, or to keep them with him in the perilous times he was living, carried an understanding and sensitivity for not just his own ancestor’s quandary, but one still as relevant to Lebanese families today. And while Esper’s children emigrate after all, they take their home with them in their hearts.
This is evident when Shadid describes the almost daily Lebanese gatherings his grandparents used to host in the US, which again parallels the experience of many Lebanese emigrants to foreign lands who try to build space in which to belong.
Unfortunately, the author passed away before he had the chance to really enjoy the fruits of his labor, his bayt, and after finishing the book, the reader is left with a sense of loss for Shadid, his home and a Lebanon long gone.
It was not in the house of stone’s fate to be forgotten once again, however, as neighbors say Shadid’s second wife and his son still reside there on weekends and vacations. Shadid would be pleased.