Anthony Shadid put his life in harm’s way so many times that his death in February 2012 has come to seem foreordained. Here was a reporter who made his name in the crosshairs of war: in Iraq, of course, but also in Israel and Lebanon. In 2002 he was shot by an Israeli sniper in Ramallah while reporting for The Washington Post. The episode put an end to his fraying first marriage and foreshadowed his ultimate end. Shadid died on assignment for The New York Times, felled by an asthma attack as he and a colleague were crossing the Turkish border from Syria. They were in the desert, far from the medical help Shadid needed to survive.
The scene of his death was both tragic and fitting. Shadid was covering a conflict in Syria that still threatens to plunge the entire region into war. It was a story that Shadid had been covering in one way or another for most of his career. He died in a region, the Levant, that his family once considered home. He was too young, though his salt and pepper beard made him look older than his 42 years. Perhaps someday his only daughter, Laila, will take comfort in the fact he died witnessing to history in a part of the world that he could fairly claim as his own.
House of Stone is the story of that homecoming. Published shortly after his death, it is an unexpected book from a war correspondent, ruminative and impressionistic, devoid of the life and death drama one might expect. Yet it is a book of unusual intelligence and feeling that sheds light on Shadid’s unique gifts as a reporter.
Shadid grew up in Oklahoma, the descendant of immigrants from Lebanon. In his memoir he recounts the story of their immigration to the United States alongside a more unorthodox tale: Shadid’s return to Lebanon to rebuild his great-grandfather Isber’s house in the town of Marjayoun. It was a crazy and quixotic endeavor. Ever since World War I, war “had been more familiar than peace” in Lebanon. From the brutal 15-year civil war to the Syrian occupation, Lebanon was the scene of regular turmoil. The idea of an American finding a home in the region, much less physically rebuilding one, strikes more than one local resident as a doomed enterprise.
Yet Shadid persisted with the same doggedness that characterized his reporting. He paints memorable portraits of the assorted contractors and artisans he hires to complete the project. The project moves in fits and starts as Shadid slowly comes to know the place. “The beauty of Lebanon neither shouts nor declares,” he writes. “There is a gentleness to the landscape of hills rounded by age and terraces crumbling for centuries.”
He seeks to recapture the lost culture of the Levant, a time when the Middle East was not divided by fiercely contested borders. He mourns the diminishment of Arab Christendom, noting that in Marjayoun Christians “were not included in decision making. To persist in that identity, we faced our own extinction.” All the while the work on his house proceeds until, finally, he is able to sleep under its roof. “It’s part of your body now,” a friend tells him. “It’s the womb of your body. It’s you....”
As the house finds new life, however, the town around it is dying. Marjayoun was once a crossroads of the Middle East, one resident proudly declares. Townspeople worked in Palestine, Syria and Jordan. It had its own identity, proudly Orthodox, distinct from Catholic Beirut. Yet the reader can see that was a long time ago.
In the spring of 2011, following his arrest and detention in Libya along with three other reporters, Shadid made his way back to Marjayoun. For the peripatetic reporter, born in Oklahoma City, employed by The New York Times, living and reporting from Beirut, it was the one place where he could find peace. He was joined by his new wife, his infant son and eventually, his daughter, Laila. Before she arrives he imagines her “suddenly grown, beside these trees and repeating the Arabic words I would some day teach her.” Shadid is gone now, his tongue and his pen silenced. But Isber’s house still stands.