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A voice that haunts

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East Anthony Shadid

Granta, pp.336, £14.99

One cold evening in the middle of February this year I walked into a smoke-filled room in a town called Saraqib in northern Syria to find Anthony Shadid sitting shoeless on the floor like a Bedouin and conversing in Arabic with a tall, thin school teacher, one of the leaders of the town’s revolution. A cast-iron stove, fuelled by paraffin, heated the room, and Anthony, a bearded, somewhat burly man, seemed to glow with bear-like warmth. Through the cigarette smoke I could see three notebooks proudly stacked in front of the New York Times reporter, evidently bulging with his observations.

Anthony had watched rebel fighters attempt to blow up an army tank earlier that day, and he was clearly shaken by the audacity and ferocity of Syria’s violence. But he also laughed a great deal, smiling the smile of a reporter who had found a story he couldn’t wait to write — a story gifted to him through the bravery and suffering of ordinary people mounting extraordinary resistance to their own government.

Anthony spoke fluent Arabic (though, by his own admission, with an Oklahoma accent) and he translated for me that night, despite my embarrassed pleas that he should stop. I only discovered later that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, twice.

We spent the rest of the evening at the home of the teacher-cum-revolutionary, grateful for the sanctuary of a quiet residential neighbourhood after dark. No one was really in charge of Saraqib; the police had fled, the hated Ba’ath party head-quarters had been burned down, and the town was riddled with government informers. Syrian rebels protecting the place did not inspire confidence, armed as they were with Soviet-era weapons and homemade bombs — strange amalgams of plumbing parts loaded with pesticide and even coffee.

Adding to our sense of insecurity were the Syrian tanks and government snipers in plain view on the outskirts. In a local hospital bed was a woman who had been randomly shot by one of these snipers as she travelled home on the back of a moped from a visit to the dentist.

The mobile phone network had been cut, so Anthony and I stood in the small courtyard of the school teacher’s garden, searching for a signal on our satellite phones so that we could reassure our wives we were safe. Then we continued talking, over coffee, tea and more cigarettes.

The next morning, my cameraman and I shook hands with Anthony and his photographer and we wished each other luck as we parted, in the time-honoured way of journalists who cross paths in strange places far from home. That evening Anthony was to die on a rocky mountainside just 45 minutes from the safety of the Turkish border. In 2002 he had been shot by an Israeli soldier, and last year he had survived a beating by Colonel Gaddafi’s soldiers during Libya’s revolution. But in the end it was something as unlikely as a fatal allergy to horses that killed him.

Syrian smugglers were using horses to travel up to the border, and despite Anthony’s supply of antihistamines and inhalers his allergic reaction to the animals was so severe that he collapsed unconscious during the journey home. I had used the same horses a day earlier, travelling from the opposite direction, into Syria.

Anthony was only 43 when he died, and he left a wife and two children behind. He also deprived journalism of a rare Arab-American voice, uniquely gifted and qualified to document the Arab Spring and America’s relationship with the Middle East in the decade and more after the 11 September attacks. His post-humous book, House of Stone, now published by Granta, appears far more elegaic than the author surely ever intended, and is not something those who knew him wanted to read as his epitaph.

Shadid was born and raised in Oklahoma, but was of Lebanese descent, and this last book describes his stay in Lebanon a few years ago, when he set himself the task of restoring his family house during a year-long sabbatical from journalism.

The self-portrait he unabashedly paints is of a foreign correspondent as a lost Bedouin, desperately searching for somewhere to call home. His first marriage had broken up under the strain of the years spent reporting from  dangerous places: ‘By the time I arrived in Lebanon,’ he writes, ‘I was a suitcase and a laptop drifting on a conveyor belt.’

He catches the roving reporter’s dilemma perfectly: privileged to witness so many dramatic events, yet in danger of playing only a walk-on part back home, where the domestic storyline is so unfamiliar that the actor frequently forgets his lines. To his six-year-old daughter, he fears he has become an ‘untethered voice on a cell phone’, immersing himself in the crises of others to the detriment of those he loves but leaves behind. His new life in Lebanon, after three years’ reporting from Iraq, is his attempt to erase the memory of that country’s carnage; in restoring the Shadid house, he will also restore himself.

The Shadids were Christian Arabs, and much of the clan had emigrated from Lebanon to Oklahoma decades earlier. So at first there are great expectations, as the scion returns to a Lebanese version of Miss Havisham’s mansion, dusting off the cobwebs, letting in the daylight, even finding a half-exploded Israeli rocket lodged on the second floor.

Yet his neighbours in his home town of Marjayoun are dogged by fatalism and failure, ‘silently waiting for the inevitable’ in a country ‘forever inclined to civil war, occupation and force of arms’. His builders are often thieving, feckless and rapacious, taking four months to finish one room, and the reporter, who has lived all his life dominated by deadlines, is appalled to find himself setting deadlines for others.

Meanwhile, the locals can see none of the romance of Shadid’s project, claiming the American is either crazy or a CIA spy. Whisky rather than blood seems to flow through the veins of most of the friends he makes.

Yet this forlorn Lebanese landscape is redeemed by Shadid’s own imagining of a Middle East he has loved and lost. His book resonates as a love letter to an older Levant, which he admits may never have quite existed as he wished.

Though united by dictatorial nationalism, the Syria Anthony was reporting from before he died was a sad remnant of a Levantine tapestry: a place of tolerance, where Sunni, Alawite, Christian and Kurd could co-exist. At this book’s heart is the author’s attempt to resurrect a regional ethnic and religious patchwork by repairing the crumbling Ottoman relics — tiles and mosaics — of his dilapidated Lebanese home.

Shadid knew that his Middle East was irretrievable, and that he would never rediscover it. Sectarian bloodletting in Syria since his death provides further proof, if proof were needed. Yet even if the romantic yearning of House of Stone isn’t realised, Shadid writes about the reality of the Middle East with remarkable empathy and observation. His Lebanese home is eventually rebuilt, but in the book’s most telling scene, he wanders through a warehouse full of doorways, tiles, railings and marble pillaged from other abandoned houses, now being sold off at extortionate rates he can’t afford.

His search for the old values and intersecting cultures of the Levant may have ended in disappointment, but Shadid’s personal restoration in Lebanon seems complete. A reporter who was never good at sitting still teaches himself to do just that: to grow and bottle olives ‘with the reverence of an exile for an imagined home’ and let his garden heal him.

Anthony Shadid struck me as a gentle, self-effacing man, as unlikely a witness to savagery as a kindly butcher who spends his days chopping up hunks of bloody meat.  And the person who emerges from this book is above all a Levantine dreamer, confronted by a world which usually makes a mockery of his dreams.

In a postscript, he describes one inspirational night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square: it was an ‘act of imagination … creating a different kind of community, linked to what once was’. Some hope, one is tempted to say! But it is a hope clung to by millions in the Arab world, and one must admire Shadid for imagining how well things might have turned out in Egypt and elsewhere.

The night before Anthony died, I fell asleep to the sound of his voice, up late and laughing with our Syrian host in the room next door. It haunts me still — as does this, his last heartbreakingly good book.

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