House of Stone – Anthony Shadid
My father was born in a house in a small village in the south of Lebanon. The sound of the wind in the grasses rushing down to the border with neighbouring Israel is deceptive and peaceful and it is a sound and a scene that I re-enact regularly when I am tired or ill or lonely.
In 1985, Israel militarised an area north of its border including the village to create what it described as a ‘Security Zone’. There are few places on earth less safe than a militarized security zone; the price of security is guns, landmines, soldiers and razor wire.
It was certainly not a safe place for my Grandfather’s house. As a young boy my family told me it had been used as a weapons dump. When I finally came to see it in 2002, it was a roofless shell of limestone blocks. My father could point to the places he had played as a young man, the room he was born in, the kitchen, the garden, not far away the well, in the distance the lake but it was clear that even if the spirit of that house was there, the body of it was nearly gone. We went down to his school where there was a class reunion. Everyone speaking, hugging, smoking after twenty, thirty and even forty years.
Over dinner with my cousin last week, I discovered that the house had also been used as a brothel. We met for dinner in a pub in Maida Vale, an area of London populated by large Arab and Jewish communities (ironies abounded). He had flown from Canada with work and was passing through London. We hadn’t seen each other for ten years before a bizarre chance meeting the week before in a pizza restaurant in central London. This is modern Lebanon to me – a globalised diaspora – rooted largely in memory and roaming, spread to far-flung places: Brasil, Oklahoma, Kansas, Canada, London to name a few.
House of Stone appears to take this fact as its cause. Shadid writes about his attempt to restore his family home. His family is from the same village that my father was born in, Jdeidet Marjayoun and he writes beautifully about the difficulties of life there.
“The availability of electricity dictated everything, regulating the day – when the small, satellite shaped electric heater that I called the Syrian radar functioned, when the three of five working bulbs dangling on a wire from the ceiling cast light, when the water heater scorched so aggressively that steam hissed through the shower head, when the mini-refrigerator kept what little was inside cool.”
There is no denying the deft depiction of the extraordinary characters recruited to his tale and the great rent torn open in him between loyalty to his mission in Lebanon and to his family – “so much of the house was what you might call memories of what I had imagined over many years.” The book belongs in the category of the good memoir – a genre seemingly created by books like The Hare with Amber Eyes, The Music Room, The Snow Geese.
But one thing nagged at me. Shadid, who later died of an asthma attack escaping Syria, left a young family, a broken marriage, behind in Oklahoma to rebuild his house. Perhaps all of my generation of Marjeyounis are from a broken place, one that cannot be easily restored, one that has been scarred by war and violence that cannot be erased, even if it is plastered over. Shadid recalls how George Farha (my great uncle) would pray for his children each night during the civil war: “Hala in Dubai, Hikmat in Barbados, Rifaat in Switzerland.” Hikmat says: “I believe I am still living because of his prayers.” Perhaps if there is one lesson that I take from dinner with my cousin in London, abstract as it may seem; in 2014 home is not a place; perhaps it never was.