It’s eerily hard to read this elegiac memoir, by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Middle East reporter Anthony Shadid, in the full knowledge of his death. After years of surviving the dangers of his profession, including beatings in Libya a year ago and being shot by an Israeli sniper in 2002, Shadid, 43, died in February while leaving revolt-torn Syria on horseback, of an acute asthma attack apparently brought on by a reaction to the horse. It’s not just the plain fact of Shadid’s death that haunts the book, though, but the way the memoir was so evidently written to describe a journey toward a happy ending.
Shadid was too realistic and far too good a writer to have offered up a facile tale of healing himself by repairing his great-grandfather Isber’s house in Lebanon. But coming from a man who began his project six years ago “no longer young, no longer married,” and no longer living with his beloved daughter, Laila, the fragile but very real note of hope that ends House of Stone is heartbreaking. “I thought of my daughter, soon to arrive,” Shadid writes in his epilogue, “suddenly grown, beside these trees and repeating the Arabic words that I would one day teach her, words that would take her back to what was once our land.”
When the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the wake of the Great War, a Lebanese diaspora began that sent refugees around the world, some even to as unlikely a place as Oklahoma City, where Shadid’s grandmother ended up. In 2006, Shadid went to repair Isber’s home after it had been damaged by Israeli rockets. In between dealing with some of the most foul-mouthed (and amusing) workmen on record and townspeople divided over whether he was a CIA spy or an American naïf ripe for the picking (or both), Shadid recounts the history of his family and of a lost Middle East of grace and tolerance. There is a fairy-tale tinge to these beautifully written tales of harmony under the sultans, but they, too, reflect a kind of hope Shadid didn’t live to see realized.