It is still difficult for me to accept that Anthony Shadid has died. He was such a lovable and loving man that I cannot envisage not meeting him again in the small Lebanese town from where our parents came, and in which we both discovered something of ourselves.
As a matter of fact, before I met him in person, I had been annoyed by an article he had published in the Washington Post after his first visit to Jedeidet Marjayoun. He had written that the town was dying at a time when I was trying to convince the many younger people who had gone to seek their fortunes in the Gulf or elsewhere after the Israeli evacuation in 2000 that this was the time to help the town recover it traditional role in this area of south Lebanon: it had been a vibrant community, the seat of regional administration, and the educational magnet to which all the towns and villages of the region were attracted. I replied to Anthony in perhaps a severe but friendly way which he did not take badly, though he mentions it in House of Stone.
When I later met him in the town I realized that he had been influenced by several factors: he had come in deep winter, when rainy and cloudy days turn even the greatest optimists, like myself, into pessimists. He had also come at a time when the people of the town had been traumatized by long years of separation from the rest of the country caused by the Israeli occupation, and by the circumstances in which their evacuation took place. Families were split up, some until today unable to meet each other, others divided by political tensions, and all uncertain of what the future might bring: there were, and still are, long memories of wars and disasters: of the first world war, of revolts against the French Mandate in 1920 and 1925, of the British invasion in 1941 and the long drawn-out Lebanese-Palestinian and inter-Lebanese conflicts after 1975. Anthony met a few people who for one reason or another looked on the future with gloom, or simply denied that there was any future.
I think I perhaps influenced him somewhat into thinking that there could be other prospects. He liked the way I had been able to restore our family house, and he perhaps saw in me someone who, like him, a child of the emigration, had managed to reconnect with the town and the community of our ancestors. He realized that it was necessary to have a house, the bayt which he so often mentions in his book, and which provides the final, and so sad last word.
The cornerstone of this return is the house in which his grandmother had lived before she left for America. He convinced an American publisher to commission a book about the restoration of the house, which would also be a book about his own attempt to rediscover his roots, and perhaps to put down new ones.
I find that there are two stories in House of Stone. The first is a detailed account of the builders and craftsmen whom he employed in the restoration, and of the slow and often maddening delays and disputes which inevitably diluted his finances and tried his patience. Some may find too much detail for their liking, but there are admirable evidences of Anthony’s research into obscure corners of Lebanese social and commercial life: such, for example, as his study of the manufacture of floor tiles which so beautifully now grace the floors of his restored bayt.
The other story, and the one which will make the book an invaluable contribution to the still-hardly researched saga of the Lebanese diaspora, is that of the Shadid and related families to their eventual homes in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. What sacrifices, what tragedies, what comedies, and what achievements are told. Among those achievements must certainly be that of Anthony’s career and life: those sacrifices, those comedies and tragedies are all there, and they were recognized, honoured in the two Pulitzer prizes which he was awarded, and accessible to us in his two brilliant books and an infinity of articles.
So I think all who read Anthony’s book will share something of my own feelings: admiration for his lucid prose and his insights into the frailties and follies of his rediscovered community; recognition of a deeply-compassionate man who had the courage to question and challenge the policies of his country’s governments. There perhaps lies the secret of the dilemma which must face those who, brought up in one world and culture, still feel resonances and attachments of another: the land of their ancestors, of their cousins and of the remnants of their family homes. Anthony’s life was a triumph and a tragedy. It was a tragedy which I believe he foresaw: he ends his book writing that he knows he will never live in the house in which he had hoped to find happiness with his wife, daughter and son. And so it had to happen: what an unhappiness!
House of Stone by Anthony Shadid is available from Granta Books.
Image by Nada Bakri.