Anthony Shadid, the New York Times reporter who died of an asthma attack in Syria last month, received two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the Middle East.
Yet Shadid devoted his last book, “House of Stone,” to a more personal subject: the reconstruction of his family’s ancestral home in Jedeidet Marjayoun, southern Lebanon.
Full of nostalgia for the Lebanon of yore, the book is moving enough as it is. The author’s death at 43 makes it all the more poignant.
By far the strongest parts of “House of Stone” are those in which Shadid recounts his own life and career. He only briefly mentions episodes to which others might have dedicated a whole book: the bullet wound he received in his shoulder in the West Bank in 2002, the six days he spent as a hostage to Libyan forces in 2011.
The collapse of his first marriage is summed up in one paragraph.
“On what had, at the outset, seemed a promising summer day, I had returned to our house to find that my wife and daughter had vacated,” he writes. “The lawn was mowed, the flowers were planted, the tomatoes starting to ripen, but inside, precisely half of everything was missing.”
Conscious of having been a distracted father and husband, Shadid heads off to Lebanon to cover the deadly 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. While there, he stops off at his great-grandfather’s home, which had recently been destroyed by an Israeli rocket, and decides to rebuild it as a gesture to his daughter.
Shadid -- a man of few words when describing turning points in his personal life -- somehow devotes more than 20 chapters to the house’s painstaking reconstruction. We meet many of the inhabitants of Marjayoun, a town of 800: the doctor, the British-educated gentleman, the tile merchant.
A few become friends. There’s the idle Shibil, who retains old-fashioned manners yet tunes his TV to porn when Shadid comes over. There’s Abu Jean, the foul-mouthed elderly foreman who drives Shadid crazy yet winds up being thanked in the acknowledgments.
As Shadid settles in, he discovers that a presumed informer lived in the house during the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation. Later, he learns that the neighbors are all convinced he’s a U.S. spy and that President George W. Bush is personally paying for the renovation.
The homebuilding chronicle is interspersed with an account of how Shadid’s forebears wound up in the U.S. As a preadolescent, his grandmother was shipped to America with her aunt and uncle, soon becoming a single mother forced to fend for herself. His grandfather -- her second husband -- arrived first in Texas, left the oil fields for Detroit and wound up opening a dry-goods store in Oklahoma City, where the author was raised.
The family saga makes fascinating reading. Yet you dip in and out of it -- between reading about the plumbing, the electricity and the leaking roof.
Had he lived longer, Shadid might have revisited his family history in greater detail. “House of Stone,” charming though it is, leaves you longing for that other book. Shadid’s final tome is, rather, the proud biography of a house that his daughter and son (born during his second marriage) will now make their own.
“House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East” is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (311 pages, $26). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Farah Nayeri is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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