Lebanese-American journalist Anthony Shadid's House of Stone could easily have been subtitled maktoub. The Arabic word for destiny looms large in the subtext of the late New York Times correspondent's writing.
Not only does his drive to repair his ancestral house in Lebanon amid the political wake of Rafic Hariri's assassination – the narrative thrust of the memoir – mirror his grandparents' immigrant odyssey to the United States in a reverse voyage of return, but every passage lovingly describing a detail of Levantine architecture, or the olives in the garden he's restoring that he hopes to harvest one day with his young daughter, aches with a premonitory sadness.
The fact that Shadid died tragically in Syria, apparently of an asthma attack, only a few weeks before the book's release, adds a whole new dimension to the narrative. His quest for a sense of home, or bayt – the Arabic word that means so much more than its translation: family, roots, ultimately belonging – was only fulfilled a short while before his untimely death, at 43.
I found myself thinking a lot about maktoub while reading House of Stone – and not only because the cousins and neighbours he befriends in the Southern Bekka village of Marjayoun often refer to it, in a distinctively un-American way, as something one cannot choose. But also because many moons ago, when Shadid (whom I first met, rather improbably, at a Googoosh concert in Los Angeles in 2000, when he worked for AP and I was a stringer for The New York Times in Baghdad) was working for The Boston Globe circa late 2001, I inadvertently helped him get an Iraqi visa.
Unbeknownst to me, the foreign editor at the Globe, who had asked me to do some freelance work for the paper in Iraq, had submitted two separate visa requests to the old Iraqi Ministry of Information, one for me and one for Anthony. Using contacts I'd gleaned in my time working in Iraq since 1997, I got through to the right fixers after weeks of midnight calls to rusty old Baghdad land lines and was assured that The Boston Globe request would be honoured.
And so Anthony got his visa, and I didn't get mine. He went on to cover the extraordinary events in the dying days of Saddam's regime – including the unprecedented release of prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison – and won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize, a feat he would repeat a few years later as a New York Times reporter.
We met again after the invasion in 2003, when he was working for The Washington Post and I was researching my book. The last time I saw him, at an AP party in an armed compound in Baghdad two years ago, his hair had turned grey, but his spirit of curiosity and adventure were still strong. I had no idea this would be our last meeting.
As I read his moving memoir, I could picture him in action, using all the gumption he had acquired after years spent in war zones, to make the seemingly impossible repair and restoration of his ancestral home a reality.
But there was an additional resonance. His Marjayoun – a place where Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, co-exist in a magically real community, a kind of Lebanese version of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Macondo – is practically next door to my ancestral village of Karoun. My grandparents, like his, fled the dying days of the Ottoman Empire for the dream of America – and ended up not in Oklahoma, as did his, but in Prince Rupert, on Canada's North Pacific coast. There's even a reference to my Mussallem family living in Marjayoun in the book.
But I think what so resonates for me with House of Stone – and for anyone who is part of the Lebanese North American diaspora (especially the Greek Orthodox one, which as Shadid points out, has always strongly identified as being both Christian and Arab) – is how writers like Shadid struggle to reconcile two worlds in both their life and their work.
Shadid's writing opened American eyes to Middle Eastern realities with a grace and subtlety that escaped some of his colleagues, but he recounts how, when he returned to Marjayoun on a year's leave with a mission to rebuild his great-grandparents' house and, ultimately, to reclaim his lost homeland, villagers regarded him as an American.
When I returned, on a similar quest, to my neighbouring ancestral village in 1992 at the age of 25, my penchant for dawn hikes with the local goatherd was considered eccentric at best, and perhaps Canadian. In House of Stone, Shadid has his own cultural adjustments to make, but he remains almost exclusively in a male domain, one filled with a machismo not unlike that found in the world of Middle Eastern war-zone correspondents.
One of the most compelling portraits in the book is that of his grandmother, Raeefa, whose journey to the United States he reconstructs in intimate detail, and especially moving is his account of her return to her village in the 1960s for the first time since childhood, and a reunion with her female elders. But no actual live women appear in the book, at least not in a way that is significantly fleshed out. And that is unfortunate.
In a book that is ultimately a lament for a lost Levantine reality, where cosmopolitanism, not sectarianism, was the norm, Shadid offers a carefully observed meditation not only on Lebanese village life, but on what it is like to try and build a sense of home in the midst of a war zone. His Lebanon is a place carved up by colonial powers, caught between Israeli aggression and sectarian infighting, but still defiant and alive.
In the race between death and beauty that Shadid seems to be running, it is the latter that wins out. In one lyrical passage describing a child's baptism at a Greek Orthodox church, he recalls echoes of a Shia chant he once heard in Baghdad, and writes of incense symbolizing prayers "lifted to God and the grace of the Holy Spirit embracing them as they ascended."
In the end, Shadid's book – one that marries elements of A Year in Provence, Roots and Elia Kazan's America America – is about much more than rebuilding a house. It's about his belief that even in a land where "old warhorses knew their parasitic relevance depended on conflict, which of course concealed the real questions," "behind the politics there were prayers still being said with hope for what draws us together."
Hadani Ditmars, author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, is working on a book about her family in Lebanon, Israel and Palestine called Lands of Light.