On Feb, 16, 2012, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Anthony Shadid was attempting to leave war-torn Syrian when he collapsed of an apparent asthma attack. Hours later Shadid, a man who had placed himself in danger daily as part of his job description, was pronounced dead.
His most recent book, “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East,” was slated for release at the end of March. In light of his death, the book release was pushed up to March 1st.
As a journalism student, I only became familiar with Shadid two months before his death, when a professor slipped me a copy of a piece he had written on the Arab Spring, thinking I would be interested.
She was correct and I tucked it away in my notebook after reading over it carefully, not to be thrown away but soon to be covered with returned grades and more pressing pieces of paper. When I heard the news of Shadid’s death, I was saddened by the news of another journalist lost but never made the connection.
Hours later I heard the news repeated and had to continuously ask myself why the name was so familiar. Once I put it together, I poured over the essay my professor had given me and ordered my copy of “House of Stone” shortly after.
Houghton-Mifflin pushed up the release date after I made my order so it surprised me to see the package on my doorstep a month before I expected it. I dug in immediately and was pleasantly surprised.
Expecting a Middle-Eastern war version of Anderson Cooper’s “Dispatches from the Edge,” I was taken aback by the polar opposite. Shadid soon showed why he was a level above his peers, both as a reporter and a writer.
It also became clear why he told his wife while writing the book, “This is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” as she recalled in a recent interview.
The book is not about war at all but, as the title suggests, a search for home, in its physical and psychological respect. This idea is defined by the word bayt in his family’s native Arab tongue.
Shadid was a Lebanese American from Oklahoma City with a hulking family tree that his family holds on to like a life raft as the generations expand.
He begins the book by making a decision to rebuild his great grandfather’s house in the small Lebanese town of Marjayoun.
He makes the decision in 2006, fresh from three years of reporting on the war in Iraq and now witnessing horror of a grand scale in his home country of Lebanon after a short war with Israel.
His family home had not been lived in for forty years when he came to it. He found it damaged by an Israeli rocket.
It would have to be torn down and built from scratch.
This is how the story begins, and Shadid takes his readers through time as he entwines the story of Isber’s life in Marjayoun through the turn of the century into the first World War with the present retelling of his often chaotic experience in rebuilding the “House of Stone.”
I’m a realist, and I know this book strays far from the usual Max Tucker novels and Chelsea Handler memoirs that college students normally read.
There is nothing wrong with those books, but for anyone interested in a view of the Middle East that they will never hear about in the American media or for anyone within a few generations of their immigrant ancestors, this book is a must read.
The characters Shadid works with, reluctantly for the most part, within this small Lebanese town are too classic not to entertain: men who call themselves masters of all crafts, and therefore show up to work when they want. They will (hilariously) curse anyone questioning this work ethic.
The hushed gossip and never-ending grudges within the neighborhood mix with Shadid’s beautiful (and sometimes crumbling) descriptions of the land to give the town a true personality.
The genealogical descriptions of Isber’s family and how they got to America can lose the reader, especially an American reader not used to the Arabic names.
My best advice is to not worry if you are confused, you will know the storyline that counts for the emotinal payoff in the end.
As the book comes to an end and war looms in Beirut, Shadid writes, “I should be in Beirut, I thought, working as a journalist, but another part of me was so wary of that old life of guns and misery…I wanted to do nothing more than move dirt from one place to another.”
The reader can’t help but wish he would’ve indulged that desire.