Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Journalist’s Legacy: Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone

Anthony Shadid (1968-2012) in Libya, March 2011. Photo by Fohlen Corentin.

There are some people who, at least retroactively, define a period in your life; you look back from a later vantage point and realize that they impacted you in ways that you were completely unaware of, and that their influence on your life continues to evolve. Anthony Shadid is one of those people for me.

In 2002, I was a raw almost-adult living in California as the Second (or al-Aqsa) Intifada raged in Israel and Palestine. My father was covering events there for an American newspaper. One day, on the way home from school, I heard a brief mention on the radio: “A journalist for [my father’s newspaper] was shot by Israeli forces outside the residence of Yasser Arafat. His status is unknown.” And I completely freaked out—several frantic phone calls to the Foreign Desk later, I got through to my father, sounding tired and exhausted. “It was Anthony,” he said. “We got him out, and he’s in surgery.”

I’d heard stories of Anthony before, but it wasn’t until later that year when I was visiting my father overseas that we met for the first time—and I was overawed by him. Not because he was quickly becoming one of the most highly-respected war correspondents in the world, but simply because, in my young and narcissistic mind, this was the man who got shot instead of my father, and now he was sitting in our house laughing and joking and telling the most entrancing stories, sympathetic to the naïve confusions of an almost-adult who was trying to learn how to navigate the Middle East. For the next ten years we stayed in touch, seeing each other occasionally but more often chatting via Skype. In 2012, after a gap of a few years, we got back in touch. He was planning a trip to rebel-held areas of Syria, and he wondered if I might know some people in the area. I made a few introductions, and waited to see what kind of new, eloquent stories would emerge from the latest foray.

Instead it was tragedy. Less than two weeks later, the news broke that Anthony had died in the field while attempting to go back over the border from Syria to Turkey. Anthony is deeply missed still, not only by his colleagues and friends, but also by the audience that trusted him to tell the truth, and the people on the ground he worked with who trusted him to tell their stories. The pain of his loss is not alleviated, if anything it is made more exquisite, by the last book he wrote, a memoir of his family, his own return to Lebanon, and the traumas of being a war reporter, a work published just weeks after his death: House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

Books written by journalists often have a great deal to recommend themselves; the authors are used to writing clear, concise sentences without the torturous grammar that academic writers feed off of. The end result of editorial limits on word-count is that the best journalist-authors know how to condense description into just a few words, or a single image. A masterpiece of this kind of description, Shadid’s House of Stone walks multiple paths, and does it without becoming preachy or patronizing. It is not a book of answers, not a book that will explain to you what has happened and will happen in Lebanon—but for those interested in the Middle East, particularly in the transformations that have rocked the Levant in the last decade, it is a must-read, and a thoroughly enjoyable one.

At its most basic, House of Stone is the story of Shadid’s attempt to rebuild his family's ancestral home in Marjayoun, Lebanon, and that endeavor becomes the narrative frame for the story of Shadid’s family, from their embeddedness in the history of Lebanon through their immigration to America and settlement in Oklahoma in the first half of the 20th century. As he walks through the arches of the house and battles with contractors over scheduling and prices and the quality of work, he reflects on his great-grandfather who built the house, the effort that he poured into its construction and what the house meant to him as a symbol of Ottoman gentility. As he sits on the balcony and considers what kind of railings to install, he evokes the grandmother who was sent away to America at the tender age of twelve. Both of these stories are told with the sort of attention to humanness that readers have come to expect from Shadid—while the vignettes of organizing construction in Lebanon are often hilarious, they are undertaken as an act of respect and honor for family, achieving a level of weightiness that Peter Mayle could never hope to achieve.

Anthony Shadid in front of the house his great-grandfather built in Marjayoun.

But this is not just a family story—it is also the story of an era, specifically the period in which the Ottoman empire crumbled and the Levant began to be redrawn according to the priorities of European nation-states. Shadid’s story communicates the vertigo occasioned by borders suddenly springing up between communities that used to visit each other regularly without concern for passports or travel identification. When his story overlaps with the Lebanese Civil War, he provides insight into what it means to live in a place where you are constantly waiting for the resumption of violence, for the next kidnapping, bomb, invasion, or assassination. Shadid’s illustration of the toll that four decades of violent instability have taken on the Lebanese people and the Lebanese countryside is heart-wrenching. But the Lebanese people of House of Stone are not simply victims—they also participate in the sectarian divisions which, however much they might be traced to the influence of the French and other colonial powers, have long since taken on a life of their own. Shadid records Marjayounis reflecting nostalgically on the religious diversity that used to exist and the mixed-faith communities that had lived alongside one another—but he also makes clear that most of these people have few ways to challenge the walls that have grown up between the different Lebanese sects, not to mention the military and political might of certain sectarian political parties in Lebanon.

It is one of the most remarkable features of this book that Shadid never allows the pain to be redeemed—there are no particular rays of sunshine at the end of the book, no indication that Lebanon is nearing a time of reconciliation, peace, and economic renewal—Anthony was always far too intelligent and honest to deploy the deus ex machina of a hopeful horizon. But as he tells the stories of pessimism, of small villages wiped out by wars (both internal and external), of young people fleeing (to America or Beirut), of village markets and family homes abandoned, those stories are accompanied by an account of the incredible link, the responsibility, that the people of Marjayoun feel with their land. They may be frustrated, angry, afraid, and pessimistic—they may constantly repeat the refrain, “Marjayoun is dying”—but some will always come back. Some will visit. Some will restore houses. Some, like Shadid himself, come back. This loyalty to the past—albeit a past that is lost forever—is not a palliative or cure. But it means that the past is never forgotten, and suggests that whatever the future brings it will be a future whose essential nature is determined in relationship to the past.

The village of Marjayoun, Lebanon (Photo by David Kotait, 1997)

House of Stone is already a classic, and it will remain so for great literary reasons—the fluidity of the prose, the evocativeness of the description, and the pacing of the narrative, among other reasons. It is also a testimony to a brave journalist, and as we read in the news of journalists being targeted in the Middle East and around the world it gives valuable insight into what it means to have a job where you are taking your life in your hands. Anthony was shot in Ramallah in 2002, but that was one moment in a career that spanned two wars in Iraq (the second of which is the basis for his 2006 book, Night Draws Near, which won Ridenhour Book Prize) and was detained and beaten by Libyan forces during the revolution that overthrew Ghaddafi in 2011. He went to Marjayoun to find not only history, but also some peace, some break from the death and destruction that it was his job to bear witness to. Even in Marjayoun, ostensibly on a break from active reporting, he was inundated by news reports, suspected of being a spy, and struggling to cope with the dissolution of his first marriage (which cracked, he writes, under the stress of the ever-present possibility of death in his chosen career), and his complicated by deep love for his daughter from that marriage, living thousands of miles away in the United States.

Read House of Stone because it is a good book, because you will learn from it something about the history of the Lebanese-American community, about the history of modern Lebanon, and about the state of Lebanon today. But read it also to learn something about Anthony Shadid, who stands and will continue to stand as a remarkable witness to some of the worst brutality of the last few decades, and who has given us a window into some of the struggles that such witnessing entails. He has left a record not only of his family, but of his own life—it is one that we all, and the family that he has left behind, will treasure for years to come.

In 2013 Shadid was posthumously awarded the Evelyn Shakir Non-Fiction Award for House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. It is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Granta, in paperback from Mariner Books, and as an ebook.

Shadid's wife Nada Bakri at a memorial for her husband at the American University of Beirut (Photo: Hussein Malla, 2012)

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

No comments:

Post a Comment