x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

House of Stone: Anthony Shadid's 'lost Middle East'

The last book by the veteran war reporter Anthony Shadid, who died last week while on assignment in Syria, is a moving and insightful account of his time spent restoring his ancestral home in Lebanon.

Anthony Shadid obsessed over tiles. Studying their mirrored surfaces with unwavering focus, he began to see the reflection of something else entirely: a lost world, crushed under the boots of progress and chaos and combat. "The tiles at my feet were the remnants, in Arabic the atlal, of a lost Marjayoun," observes Shadid, who died of an asthma attack on February 16 at the age of 43 while reporting from inside Syria for The New York Times. "They were artefacts of an ideal, meant to remind and inspire, vestiges of the irretrievable Levant, a word that, to many, calls to mind an older, more tolerant, more indulgent Middle East."

Shadid, at a personal low in 2006 after three years of reporting from the front lines in Iraq, and perpetual squabbling with his then-wife about the dangerousness of his work (Shadid had been shot by a sniper in 2002), opted to retreat to Lebanon, and to the town of Marjayoun, where his family had roots. Having once chosen the pursuit of Saddam Hussein over domestic tranquillity, Shadid curses himself by choosing a new home whose exterior matches his interior: "I no longer had illusions about Marjayoun. It fell short, as had I."

He returns to the ancestral home of the Shadids, constructed by his great-grandfather Isber, and finds a dilapidated old wreck of a house, uninhabited and in danger of collapse. House of Stone is the transposition of that oldest of American dreams - remodelling a charming fixer-upper - to the uncertain territory of the Middle East, and a place with, at best, an uncertain future. "Picturesque as it is, Marjayoun is dying," Shadid had noted in a Washington Post article, prompting one of the town's most prominent citizens to pen a densely argued two-page rebuttal in a local publication.

Marjayoun is dying, though, however much its residents might protest to the contrary, and many of Shadid's conversations with his new-found friends revolve around the town's once-glorious past. "It was never about what Marjayoun was becoming, or whether there would be peace," says Shadid, "it was about what it was - a place of parties, meals, guests and lunches for 40 people on Sundays, where everyone seemed to laugh." Shadid's friend Hikmat pinpoints what will be lost when Marjayoun is no longer: "Did I tell you our house in Marjayoun is older than America? Four hundred years. It might sound silly, but I'm proud of it. Get help and give help. Human values, not money values, technological values, machine values. These things are worth something."

Born and raised in Oklahoma City, and with a glittering professional CV that included two Pulitzer Prizes for his Middle East reporting, Shadid was, when it came to the profound frustrations of remodelling, thoroughly American. He rapidly grows annoyed with his contractor, Abu Jean, whose promises of rapid transformation almost immediately unravel, and a cast of workers who range from untrustworthy to downright incompetent. Abu Jean "procrastinated, offered excuses, served as his own notion of a native informant, and exhibited the most remarkable streak of passive aggressiveness that I had encountered."

The new Lebanon of eternal bloodshed, of the aridity of sectarian strife, renders Shadid nostalgic for the past's comforts: "The Levant is no more, but I had been reminded - by the grace of the triple arches, the dignity and pride of the maalimeen, the music of Dr Khairalla, and Isber's sorrow and sacrifice - that behind the politics there were prayers still being said with hope for what draws us together." Surrounded by the evidence of past glory, and the markers of future oblivion, the residents of Marjayoun pine for life elsewhere - often in surprising fashion. "I wish I had been born in Syria," one friend wails, "or in Egypt. Can you imagine living in a country that has gone through 30 years of this? What kind of country is this?"

Another acquaintance, the pessimistic Camille, looks south to Lebanon's closest neighbour, and occasional enemy, Israel: "Lebanon is beautiful, OK, but we can't live here. Do you know how they live there? They have jobs, social security. The handicapped have rights there. They're happy. We just want to live, and over there, you can." As Shadid archly notes, the bar has been set unnaturally low for Lebanon in the era of Hizbollah: "You know it's bad when the Iraq of 2007 becomes the standard by which people measure progress."

House of Stone is a peacetime Lebanese version of Shadid's superb 2005 book Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War. Night has a prized place on the already lengthy shelf of worthy non-fiction books on the conflict in Iraq, differentiating itself from other works of lasting influence, such as George Packer's The Assassins' Gate and Dexter Filkins' The Forever War, by its emphasis on the conflict's impact on average Iraqis. With House of Stone, he seeks to turn his method of reportage inside out, using his own story as an opportunity to delve deeply into the lives of everyday Lebanese. Shadid attempts to turn himself into one of the figures from his newspaper stories: a regular man, buffeted by forces far larger than himself, seeking to stake out a piece of ground to call his own.

House of Stone is also - and here is where the book begins to go wrong - the story of his grandmother Raeefa's passage from a Marjayoun undergoing the wrenching change of the First World War, towards the new world of the United States. Raeefa's story, meant to offer a touch of the past whose patina adorns those tiles, feels more like a bloodless abstraction next to the tiles, beams and dust. Shadid seeks to place himself in context- of a society, of family history - but the conjoined tiles of House of Stone never form a larger mosaic. The story of his family's journey to the US is too disjointed to hold the reader's attention and distracts from Shadid's reportage.

And structuring the book around a building project, while a clever conceit, means Shadid devotes far too much space to the details of hard-bargaining sellers and bungling workmen. These stories are enjoyable enough, if a bit repetitive, but one suspects that Shadid had something larger, more metaphorically resonant, in mind. His own journey is humbler, less demanding, more concerned with the characters he encounters on his quest for salvaged tiles and other remnants of the vanished Lebanon: "All I can say is that one destination led, almost magically, to the next, with the characters best able to ensure my satisfaction appearing right on time, as if someone, somewhere had the inclination to guide me on my rather quixotic mission."

The magic, self-evident to Shadid, does not always translate to the page, where the journey often feels more quotidian than illuminating. Metaphorical arches meant to link past and present crumble under the weight of the author's burden.

After settling on the quixotic task of refurbishing his great-grandfather's home, Shadid transforms the work of remodelling - planning, demolishing, building - into a symbolic act of historical preservation, saving a remnant of the old Levant from being demolished by the new, hardly improved Lebanon. Shadid wants to save Isber's home, and in so doing, he turns away, temporarily exhausted, from his calling as a war reporter. When civil war breaks out in the capital, he hunkers down in Marjayoun. "I should be in Beirut, I thought, working as a journalist, but another part of me was so wary of that old life of guns and misery. I did not want to see Tyre again, or Qana, or Baghdad. I wanted to do nothing more than move dirt from one place to another."

Shadid's tragic death, doing what he loved and feared in roughly equal parts, only heightens House of Stone's weariness about the personal costs of front-line journalism.

Operating on a tight budget, Shadid knew he had created only a ghost-image of the once-glorious past, but he is pleased with his handiwork nonetheless: "With a little more money, I could have bought prettier handles for the windows. With a little more time, I could have saved some of the old doors and arches. But all in all, I turned an abandoned house, wrecked by war, into something that was the closest I have come to elegance." Abu Jean is forever promising that today's work will be complete tomorrow and Shadid seethes at the perpetual setbacks until he finally understands that, in Lebanon, "tomorrow" means something else entirely: "As he said it, I understood perfectly. Finally. Tomorrow was only the future, and what was to come was always ambiguous here."

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The National.