"In 2006, Shadid, an Arab-American raised in Oklahoma, was covering Israel's attack on Lebanon when he heard that an Israeli rocket had crashed into the house his great-grandfather built, his family's ancestral home. Not long after, Shadid (who had covered three wars in the Middle East) realized that he had lost his passion for a region that had lost its soul. He had seen too much violence and death; his career had destroyed his marriage. Seeking renewal, he set out to rebuild the house that held his family's past in the town they had helped settle long ago. Although the course of the reconstruction is complicated by craftsmen with too much personality, squabbles with his extended family, and Lebanon's political strife, Shadid is restored along with the house and finds that his understanding of the Middle East, which he had known chiefly in wartime, has been deepened by his immersion in smalltown life. Coming to terms with his family's emigrant experience and their town's history, the "homeless" Shadid finds home and comes to understand the emotions behind the turbulence of the Middle East. In a moving epilogue, Shadid describes returning to this house after a nearly disastrous week as a prisoner of war in Libya along with the first visit of his daughter. Combining the human interest of The Bookseller of Kabul and Three Cups of Tea with the light touch of an expert determined, first, to tell a story, Shadid tells the story of a reconstruction effort that would have sent Frances Mayes to a psychiatric hospital as he brings to life unforgettable characters who lives help explain not just the modern Middle East but the legacy of those who have survived generations of war. He flashes back to his family's loss of home, their suffering during their country's dark days, and their experiences as newcomers in Oklahoma. This is a book about what propels the Middle East's rage, loss of home, and what it must examine and re-find, the sense of shared community. Far surpassing the usual reporter's "tour of duty," books, House of Stone is more humane and compelling and will please students of the region, those whose families have emigrated from other nations, and all readers engaged by engrossing storytelling"--
Part of the power for me was the immigrant experience he relates, so similar, despite different countries of origin, different eras, and different cultures, to the immigrant experiences of my own family and of many recent immigrants to the U.S.
"House of Stone" is, in many ways, about small-town Middle Eastern life, and maybe about small-town life in general. Marjayoun -- the town that Shadid's extended family calls home -- is a quiet, sleepy place that has been on the wrong side of most of the geopolitical shifts that the region has undergone over the past hundred or so years. It seems to have been in elegant decay for generations. Shadid does a lovely job of describing the town's rhythms -- its linguistic formalities, never-ending schedule of visits and greetings, and complex clan politics. He speaks Arabic and is recognized as more-or-less a citizen of the place, but "House of Stone" is, in a sense, a story of the author discovering what he didn't know about his own culture. He slowly learns when to hurry the laborers he's hired and when to let them to work at his own pace, when to bargain, how much to tell his neighbors, and how to joke with and show respect to the people around him. This is a book that's as much about rediscovery as it is about rebuilding.
The author is clearly fond of his ancestral home, and his descriptions of it and its lush landscape are beautiful and moving. At the same time, he laments that the fact that it seems to be a beautiful, verdant place without much of a future. Things move slowly there: it's almost a miracle when a tradesman shows up on the day that he says that he will. But the town also seems to be full of disappointed people, the descendants of noble families that have been left without much to do. He spends a lot of time smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey, and eating Middle Eastern finger food with people who've made it their principal occupation. The other side of this coin is the few truly excellent people he finds or hears about in his family's old town: a local doctor, now reduced by cancer, who spent his life caring for his patients before dedicating himself to gardening and building musical instruments. He meets tradesmen who faithfully practice arts that are falling into disuse with the eye and patience of real artists. He tells the readers about a few of the town's extremely distinguished, highly educated older residents while also describing the struggles of his immigrant family in frontier Oklahoma and how it made them tough and unsentimental. "House of Stone" is, in some ways, a book about what it means to be a good man. Shadid won a couple of Pulitzers before his too-early death, but he's still not too proud to admit that he sometimes wonders how well he measures up to earlier generations and to some of Marjayoun's current residents. Funnily enough, "House of Stone" also seems to demonstrate that even some of the town's most dissipated, least impressive residents make, in their own way, some small contributions to either the rebuilding of the Shadeed family house or Antony's stay in Marjayoun. The author is, in other words, compassionate toward most everyone he meets.
Lastly, while it'd probably be going a bit too far to call Shadeed a nostalgic, he seems to yearn for a Middle East that existed previous to the First World War in which the inefficient, ecumenical Ottoman Empire enabled the region's various religious and political factions to live together in relative peace. Since he's a returning emigrant himself, the fact that he's a bit of a cosmopolitan isn't particularly surprising, but his analysis effectively shows the ways that the Middle East's current organizing principles -- sectarian politics and post-Sykes-Picot nationalism -- simply aren't working. As a member of an Orthodox Christian minority, he worries that his community lacks what he terms guarantee of survival in the current political environment, and while his criticisms of Israel are muted, as befits a journalist, he also talks to a few people who tell him that the Israeli occupation, unjust as it was, at least managed to bring a measure of stability to the region. As the epilogue written by his widow spells out, he'd witnessed unimaginably awful acts of violence as a journalist and seen the damage that war could do. He'd faced death numerous times himself. One gets the feeling that both his efforts to restore his family's house and to write this book were efforts to impose some order and encourage some healing in a world that had far too little of each. All in all, this book is a lovely, important, and, in many ways, deeply melancholy read.
On the one hand, the writing is beautiful, the characters are compelling, you feel a real sense of love and admiration for this part of Lebanon (and the Levant in general). The stories from his family's emigration are beautiful and compelling and work great intermingled with the stories of the rebuilding of his ancestral house (that are always funny and touching).
On the other hand, it is terribly biased. For someone who doesn't know much of the region and its history (and I'm going to guess that's a majority of the readership), you'd think that what completely ruined Lebanon is Israel; not Syrian intervention, not the decades of civil war and sectarianism, not the fact that the whole south of the country is an enclave to itself that the government cannot control. I don't agree with many many things that Israel does. Israel faces its own traumas from its terribly misguided intervention in the Lebanese mess and has much to answer for, but Shadid keeps coming back to Palestine this and Palestine that again and again. Is this a book about Lebanon or about how bad Israel is? In the end, I think it's sad when a country has to look back to a totally corrupt Ottoman empire to define its 'golden age' of tolerance, as Shadid does. What kind of future does a country have when its people keep leaving or looking only back?
Shadid goes into great detail about the men hired to work on the home and the materials used in the construction project. This is the weakest part of the book, mainly because there are no accompanying illustrations - no before and after photos, no close-ups of the architectural features Shadid describes, no photos of the garden and the variety of trees and plants he placed there.
The best parts of the book describe the residents of Marjayoun, the emigrants who left there, the history of Lebanon from the closing years of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon's religious and political climate, and Shadid's family history. I also felt the lack of illustrations in the sections about Shadid's ancestors. He described photographs he had seen of his ancestors. I would have loved to have seen at least one or two of those photographs so that I would have had faces to put with the individuals brought back from the past in this book.
When I Googled for pictures of the house, I discovered that Shadid died unexpectedly shortly after completing the book. Knowing that he had so little time to establish a home in the restored house added a sense of poignancy to my reading. Shadid left two children behind. This book won't make up for growing up without their father, but it will at least help them to know him and something of their heritage.
Sadly, Shadid died in the Middle East of an asthma attack just after the book was published, at age 55.