HOUSE OF STONE—A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

By Anthony Shadid

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 2012 | 381 pages | $35.00

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

I’m ambivalent about Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone—after he died during the recent conflict in Syria, I wanted to review it. But I was spoiled—I had just finished reviewing Hugh Thomas’s The Golden Empire and Robert Massie’s Catherine the Great, both weighty tomes and very well written. In comparison House of Stone was a lightweight.

Soon after starting House of Stone my pace lagged, a sure sign that I wasn’t as interested as I expected to be. This is because it falls into the category of dairy writing. As such, it doesn’t make for compelling reading—it’s too open-ended and has little dramatic tension.

Anthony Shadid was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to a family of Lebanese Christians, who had settled in Oklahoma at the end of the 19th Century. They came to the United States from Marjayoun in Southern Lebanon. His maternal great-grandfather, Isber Samara, was a merchant who built a house in Marjayoun and then sent most of his children to the United States to escape the regional conflicts of the time. This is the house in House of Stone. The house was abandoned soon after its construction but was still owned by Samara family.

In 1990 Shadid, a graduated of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in journalism, became a foreign correspondent, covering Middle Eastern affairs for a number of prominent newspapers—The New York Times, based in Baghdad and Beirut, and The Washington Post among them—and received various prestigious awards. He won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting twice, in 2004 and 2010. From 2003 to 2009 he was Islamic Affairs Correspondent based in the Middle East for The Washington Post.

After his divorce from his first wife, Shadid was at loose ends, not sure what to do with himself, and so he decided to return to Marjayoun and restore the house that had been built by his great-grandfather. Most of House of Stone is the account of this restoration, interspersed with the story of his grandmother Reefa’s journey from Lebanon to Oklahoma City and her marriage to his grandfather Albert Shadid.

The book contains descriptions of exasperating delays in the work on the house because of unreliable workmen, who work to their own timetable rather than to his, and of various residents with whom he shares meals and discussions. His descriptions of these people were too sketchy for me to be able to differentiate one from another. It seemed as though they sat around a lot, eating almonds and olives, drinking scotch, and uttering profanity, making me think that they lived somewhat stagnant lives.

Lebanon is unique of among the countries of the Middle East in that it contains a diversity of ethnic groups—both Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Maronite Christians (Catholic), Druze, Turks, and Armenians. This is what gives it its cosmopolitan character. For centuries, until 1919 at the end of World War I, Lebanon, as well as the entire region, including Egypt, was part of the Ottoman Empire and was governed, however loosely, from Istanbul, Turkey.

Although it was allowed increasing autonomy as the Empire grew increasingly ineffective, all of its various groups were held in check much the same way as were the different ethnic groups in  Yugoslavia and the Balkans when Tito held the reins of power.

Since Turkey had sided with Germany during World War I, at the war’s end, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved as stipulated in the Balfour Declaration. Lebanon was then governed under French Mandate. The French influence and trade contributed to its sophistication, particularly in Beirut (Lebanon was called the “Switzerland” of the Middle East and Beirut its “Paris”) but rivalries among its ethnic groups were brewing.

After the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49, tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees settled in southern Lebanon. In 1970 the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) moved its headquarters to Lebanon and began raids into northern Israel. Political, religious, and socioeconomic divisions and a growing Palestinian state within a state fueled the descent into a civil war that divided the country into numerous political and religious factions.

At various points during the civil war other countries, primarily Syria and Israel, involved themselves in the conflict. In 1976 Syria intervened on behalf of the Christians, and in 1982 Israeli forces invaded in an effort to drive Palestinian forces out of southern Lebanon. Israeli troops withdrew from all but a narrow buffer zone in the south by 1985; thereafter, guerrillas from the Lebanese Shite militia Hezbollah clashed with Israeli troops regularly. Israeli troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, and Syrian forces disengaged from the country in 2005. In mid-2006 Hezbollah and Israel engaged in a 34-day war, primarily fought in Lebanon, in which more than 1,000 people were killed. Israeli troops subsequently withdrew from most of Lebanon in October 2006.

From 1975 to 1990 Lebanon was engaged a civil war that destroyed much of Beirut and surrounding areas. An excellent book, which describes the conflict, is Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem.

Countries seem doomed to repeat certain fates—just as Poland was partitioned again and again during the 19th and 20th Centuries, so Lebanon has undergone destruction again and again.

So it is also for people—again and again Shadid put himself or was put into harm’s way. In 2002, he was shot in the shoulder by what he believed to be an Israel sniper in Ramallah while reporting for the Boston Globe in the West Bank.

Having gone there to report on the uprising against the dictatorship of Col. Muammar Al-Ghaddafi, on March 16, 2011, he and three colleagues were reported missing in Eastern Libya. On March 18, 2011, The New York Times reported that Libya agreed to free him and three colleagues: Stephen Farrell, Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks. The Libyan government released the four journalists on March 21, 2011.

Anthony Shadid died on February 16, 2012, from an acute asthma attack while attempting to leave Syria. Shadid's smoking and extreme allergy to horses is believed to be the major contributing factors in causing his fatal asthma attack. "He was walking behind some horses," said his father. "He's more allergic to those than anything else—and he had an asthma attack."

Shadid’s body was carried to Turkey by Tyler Hicks, a photographer for The New York Times.

The restoration of the house of stone was completed before Shadid went to Libya to cover the uprising there. It was beautiful. He, his new wife Nada, his son Malik, and daughter Laila were able to enjoy it for a little while before he went to meet his fate.

Return to home page