House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
By Anthony Shadid
Mariner Books, 2012
The story of Anthony Shadid may not be that different from the story of most Lebanese who left Lebanon during the civil war, or even those who were born in the diaspora to Lebanese parents. Those Lebanese – Americans whom we met during our forced immigration to America, with their old-accents and unusual Arabic expressions would reminisce, during our first encounter with them in the grocery store of the South End neighborhood of Boston, about their parents’ stories of the ‘good old country,’ or their own struggles in their journeys to America, remembering with a tint of nostalgia a certain village that they had abandoned in the South or the Mountains of Lebanon. They preserved in their collective memory the images of these villages as they existed before the First or Second World War, interlaced with their customs and traditions that they carried with them to their new homelands. And we, the fresh and young immigrants coming to these shores, would represent to them a mirror-image of their own youth, as if we were projecting for them the movie in which they once played the starring role.
But Anthony Shadid did not satisfy himself by playing the role of the son of Lebanese immigrants, who could recite a few words of the mother language, coupled with an innocent love for a country he only knew through old pictures and stories, in addition to the great appreciation for Lebanese food that survived the test of time and remained with all the new generations. Anthony Shadid wanted more. He wanted to enact an actual process of re-claiming the past, through which he could return physically back to the ‘old village,’ from where his grandparents left one day to settle in the plains of Oklahoma. It was as if he wanted also to play the role of the “prodigal son” – that exemplary story from the Holy Book that unquestionably impressed many migrant sons and daughters.
But the prodigal son in this case returned to a village in which none of his family or relatives were still living, and to a house in a state of ruins, somewhat like the nation itself, putting as his objective the restoration of the old family house. In this story, the story of restoring the house and perhaps indirectly attempting to restore one’s own ‘being,’ the personal stories of Marjeyoun intermingle with political analyses, and with a historical survey that goes back to the period that preceded the Mandate era and the partition of the region that followed it. We discover, through Anthony Shadid, a different awareness of geography, that was not sharply delineated yet through the demarcation of ‘national’ borders, as well as another concept of the “nation” which extended to different provinces, from the Houran to Mount Hermon, to the villages of southern Lebanon. We also discover in his narrative the view of the “Other” towards the Lebanese personality in its daily affairs, and human interactions, a personality that is largely based on procrastination, lack of definition of things, as if it was reflecting the perpetual condition of instability that had always marked the ‘Lebanese condition.’ But Anthony Shadid, after an initial period of rebellion against this reality, finally learned to deal and coexist with it, sympathetically understanding its circumstances and causes.
Historical cinematographic shots of the ancestors’ tales in their emigration to America, overlap with reports of the house’s reconstruction in all its details and stages. But Anthony Shadid places them in all a personal and sensual portrait; depicting the efforts of those early immigrants who placed their lives on the palm of destiny, leaving behind them homes and relatives to an unknown future. Those were often desperate people who chose the path of emigration in search for a better life for them and their children, that Lebanon could no longer offer. Their difficult journeys are hard for us to imagine in this day and age, where distances have shortened and many of the dangers eliminated.
The search for roots, or to be more precise, for a certain home, or for the true meaning of ‘dwelling’ somewhere, (borrowing this concept from Martin Heidegger) characterizes Anthony Shadid’s story in Marjayoun, where he encounters others lost like him, people suspended between two worlds, who could not reach a synthesis between the two. This is the case of Asaad Maatouq, a Lebanese chef who came back from Wisconsin, whose only desire was to return to the country he had left, before settling into despair and pessimism. Anthony Shadid thus described Asaad’s situation:
“This is a man suspended between two places, between a place where he always felt he was a stranger, and another place to where he could no longer belong. Time and changes made him a permanent traveler, unsettled, like numbers of people who lost their homes or traveled the world, always searching for an alternate home.”
Shadid adds later:
“Feeling a lack of belonging has drawn me closer to him. Like him, I have never felt a feeling of belonging here in Marjayoun, even though I desired to. After his departure, I understood that my feelings of loneliness are a legacy of families governed by unending migration. I felt that I, like Asaad, would never find the “home” that I searched for, not in Oklahoma, not in Maryland, and not in Marjayoun. It is a curse that follows this generation that always searches for the better. It is the price of greater freedom. But we continue to search, and sometimes without realizing that. I knew that I wanted access to my own concept of home, or the house, and that what drew me here in the first place.”
What Anthony Shadid had attempted, was not only the recovery of a lost ‘place,’ but also and simultaneously, the recapturing of a past time, as so many other romantic poets and writers had done before him. His impossible mission parallels the efforts of many people today who attempt to restore the ‘family house’ or to purchase a similarly looking ‘typical’ house in one of the several new ‘ideal villages’ that are being promoted. These attempts are bound to lead to frustration because time cannot be rewound, and one can not recover the house of childhood nor its playgrounds. Of course, we speak here of a pre-modern time, even of the first stage of modernization, prior to the emergence of the negative effects associated with modernity such as environmental and social problems. It was a time of optimism in progress, of dreaming of the ideal balance between technology and humanity, between arts and sciences, between rationality and sensuality. Perhaps that is what Anthony Shadid was also searching for?
The story of “A House of Stone” ends with the final touches in the restoration of the ancestral home, which was just about ready to welcome its returning family. But fate had a different opinion, as if with Anthony’s tragic death on the Turkish-Syrian border, it wanted to keep the story open to other possible interpretations, as an ‘open-text,’ and to leave the old family house in Marjayoun suspended until further notice, with an unknown destiny, between life and death. Or was this another way of portraying the condition of the country as a whole?
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 65
© Copyright 2013 AL JADID MAGAZINE
Translated from the Arabic by Lauren Khater