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Posts tagged ‘Lebanon’

House of Stone

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.

The Editors

The Trial

Trial coverThe Trial – Franz Kafka, translated by Willa and Edmund Muir, Vintage

There is a room in a building in Beirut that is scary.  The building itself is a nondescript cement block.  At the top of one staircase is the office of an eminent notary who wears blue suits and writes notes, pressing on a padded leather jotter.  At the top of another staircase is a large open room, with a desk behind a wooden pulpit.  I remember a carpet above the desk, hanging on the wall.  Even if it is not a carpet in that room, it is indicative of the building, strangely juxtaposed between what is comfortable, luxurious, right and what is stark, punitive, wrong.  Such is a Beirut courthouse.  A place of justice.  Of equity.  A place of disquieting balance.  None of these is the room that is scary.

Outside the room that is scary I remember a boy of sixteen sitting on his hands.  His hands were handcuffed behind his back.  A man who said he was his father’s driver was feeding him a hamburger. He was sitting opposite the room and I was scared on his behalf.

In the room there was a short man.  He was talking quickly so that his arms moved when he spoke like an octopus.  Stacked up around him were mountains of files.  Each of those files represented a boy, sitting on his hands, being fed a hamburger by his father’s driver which is to say, to some degree, a life.  In short, we should all read Kafka because Kafka presents us with images of reality, distorted logic, human frailty that are so terrifying that they remind us of, in fact they explain to us, the room.

K., the protagonist, meets the Whipper who is desperate to get out of work to meet his girlfriend: ‘“My poor sweetheart is waiting for me at the door of the bank.”  He dried his tear-wet face on K.’s jacket.  “I can’t wait any longer,” said the Whipper, grasping the rod with both hands and made a cut at Franz, while Willem cowered in a corner and secretly watched without daring to turn his head.  Then the shriek rose from Franz’s throat, single and irrevocable, it did not seem to come from a human being but from some tortured instrument, the whole corridor rang with it”.

Kafka tears apart our humanity, the Whipper is impatient, the Whipper is vain, the Whipper is weak, the Whipper is selfish, the Whipper is just doing his job, just thinking of his “poor sweetheart”.  We are all of us the Whipper, tortured instruments: when we act for our convenience to another’s cost; when we scuttle forward on the path we have labelled ‘the future’ not thinking to take others with us, to look behind us at what we are afraid of; when we fail to think of the others we whip with our love for them, for each other, or more, for ourselves.

Kafka lampoons bureaucracy with logic and the irrationality of man.  Those are the qualities, or the absence of them, that make a room full of paper lives so terrifying.  Someone just doing his job, thinking of his family, thinking of his life while another, sitting on his hands which are handcuffed behind his back, waits to know what will become of him.

The Editors