One year ago this week Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and friend, Anthony Shadid, died from a severe asthma attack while covering the civil war in Syria. Anthony had just finished his third book, “House of Stone,” but sadly passed away before the book was published.
I was deeply affected by his passing and, as a result, I couldn’t read “House of Stone” when it first came out. I needed time to let his memory fade somewhat before delving into his final and possibly best work.
A year after covering the 2006 summer war between Israel and the Lebanese resistance group, Hezbollah, Anthony took a sabbatical from his job at the Washington Post, and moved back to his ancestral home of Jdeidet Marjayoun in southern Lebanon to try and reconnect with his past. Against everyone’s advice, he decided to restore the family home or “bayt,” something he had wanted to do for quite some time.
“House of Stone” tells the story of his determinations to resurrect the family “bayt” that had stood derelict for decades. At the same time, he recounts the journey his family took when they left the “bayt” and immigrated to America in the years following the Great War and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
Like so many of Anthony’s stories, this book draws the reader into his world and gives insight into the mentality and cultural quirks of the average person through countless satirical anecdotes. He describes a curious cast of characters whom he interacted with while restoring the house. Besides the stone masons, builders and house painters, who all want to be called maalim or master craftsman, Anthony dealt with distant relatives and villagers, who offered their services and advice, some of which he could have done without. He delves into each of the personalities and brings out their unique and often humorous traits.
I recently asked a Lebanese journalist friend, who had had a similar experience with his own ancestral home, if he had read “House of Stone.”
“No,” he replied.
“Why,” I responded, “it’s an excellent book and you, of all people, would appreciate it.”
“No offense to Anthony, but I should have written that book!”
It’s true. My friend could have written a similar book because he also returned from abroad to rebuild his family home that stood in disrepair for decades on the side of a mountain. And, just like Anthony, he relied on a fickle cast of characters to get the job done.
However, neither Anthony nor my friend has exclusive rights over this narrative. There are countless Lebanese, who returned from the diaspora, that share the very same story, though I doubt many have the skill to turn their story into a gripping memoir.
“You can still write a book because your story is unique in its own way,” I said.
“I’m sure everyone will think I got the idea because of Anthony’s book, when in fact I had thought about it for years.” he replied, and then changed the subject.
In 2009 and again in 2010, I walked the entire 440-kilometer Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) from the very north of Lebanon to the south. Besides the diversity the beauty of the landscape that stands in stark contrast with Lebanon’s concrete urban centers, what caught my attention during the one-month trek was the absence of life in many of the villages we passed through. Some villages seemed like ghost towns with their shuttered houses choked up by overgrown foliage. Often, the only sign of life was just a handful of old people looking after the family “bayt.”
Long before Lebanon’s 16-year civil war began in 1975, there were other periods of unrest or famine which drove the Lebanese abroad in search of a better life. There are an estimated 20 million people around the world today who can claim to be of Lebanese ancestry. The vast majority immigrated to the Americas, particularly Brazil, which has over seven million nationals of Lebanese descent, more than double the population of Lebanon.
By and large it was the rural communities of Lebanon and Syria (Bilad al Sham) that were hit the hardest by a century of immigration. Like so many Lebanese, Anthony’s family began immigrating during the decade that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The 1920s were racked by random violence, famine, civil unrest and uncertainty. If someone got word that a family member was about to travel abroad in search of a better future, they would inevitably ask if they could take one or two of their children along with them, out of fear that the entire family might perish if they all remained in Lebanon. It is hard to imagine how these children must have felt having to pick up and leave their parents for a world they knew was totally alien to them. Many had never even seen the sea before and now they were preparing to sail on at least two ships to reach the “New World.”
As much as I enjoyed reading the account of Anthony’s family, there was more to his story that made it personal and poignant.
Lebanon has been a home for me since I got married in 1990. Nearly all our family vacations were spent between Beirut and my wife’s ancestral home in the Chouf Mountains. It was in the Chouf where we spent every Christmas and most weekends in summer when the humidity and temperatures became unbearable in the city. There was nothing more refreshing than a cool mountain breeze to cleanse the psyche. It was up in the mountains where my children learned to ride bicycles, climb trees and more importantly how to interact with their extended family, both young and old. The “bayt” was always alive with people, food, drink, laughter and at times, tears. In summer, the garden was full of fruit trees, bending under the heavy weight of apples, persimmons, cherries, figs and the 100-year-old vines made a perfect canopy where one could take cover from the midday sun.
A generation earlier, my father-in-law or “Jeddo,” did exactly what Anthony was in the process of doing, bringing life back to an abandoned house. “Jeddo” bought all his cousins’ shares in the family property and devoted the rest of his life to making the house a family home or “bayt.”
After we relocated to Lebanon from Egypt in 2003 to be closer to family, our journeys to the “bayt” became a weekly affair. The sound of children playing gave the “bayt” a renewed sense of life. Unfortunately, after only three years in Lebanon, we suddenly found ourselves packing our bags and moving on.
In 2006, the “bayt” suffered a double blow; first, the death of my mother in-law or ‘Teta” in the spring and then the Israeli-Hezbollah war in summer. Having grown up during the Civil War, my wife had had enough. She didn’t want our kids to go through the same upheaval and insecurity she had experienced in the 1970s and 80s.
After ‘Teta’s” death and our departure, the “bayt” became a very sad and lonely place. Even when we returned from the UAE for visits, we chose to stay in Beirut and not go to the mountains.
A few years after we left “Jeddo” passed away. Up until the very end, he continued to go to the “bayt” every weekend to look after his garden, the fruit trees and to cherish the memories. Shortly after he died we moved yet again, this time to the United States.
This past autumn I visited the “bayt” with one of my wife’s cousins. Rotten fruit lay on the ground and the plants looked haggard and unkempt. The stone house looked as magnetic as ever, but I could see that paint was peeling from the wood trim and shutters, something “Jeddo” would have immediately taken care of if he were still alive. Inside everything was pretty much as it was, including the family pictures, a lasting testament to happier times.
Anthony passed away in the prime of his life; “Jeddo” passed away at the end of his. Both had a vision and were able to bring it to fruition but only one had the opportunity to enjoy the rewards. However, Anthony’s book immortalizes his quest and serves as a tribute to the Lebanese tale of immigration and return in search of origin amid the ruins of an abandoned house.