Book review - House of Stone

Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Shadid, foreign correspondent for the New York Times, died in February this year. Just 43, he suffered a fatal asthma attack while trying to leave Syria on horseback.

After separating from his wife in 2006, Shadid visited his family's derelict home in old Marjayoun, now southern Lebanon. Fatigued by war-reporting, he resolved to restore the house, built by his great grandfather after the First World War, to its former glory in order to establish a sense of bayt (home) for himself and his young daughter.

To many of Shadid's acquaintances in Marjayoun, his decision seemed an act of madness. Shadid couldn't even claim outright ownership of the house as the inheritance was shared between numerous descendants. However, he persisted with his venture, learning how to haggle and deal with the erratic working practices and incessant squabbling of the local builders and craftsmen.

Of all the characters in this memoir, perhaps the most memorable is Khairalla Mady, a former doctor, oud maker and keen gardener, who is dying of cancer. Khairalla had been accused of treason for having continued to run the local hospital during the Israeli occupation. Despite his impeccable reputation and good works only one person, a British-born professor, spoke up for him and helped him avoid a prison sentence.

Khairalla's experience is emblematic of the rumours, betrayals and life-long vendettas that seem to abound in Marjayoun. Many of the town's inhabitants are convinced Shadid is an American spy, and that the US embassy is paying for the house.

Interwoven with his own experiences, Shadid recreates his family's migration to 1920s' Oklahoma, vividly imagining their alienation as they adapted to a new culture. He sees the Marjayoun house they left behind as “a Levantine expression” and in the words of one of the workmen: “The strength of the old buildings was neither iron nor cement. It was stone. And the great strength of the men back then came from honey and the fat of the goat.” Shadid delights in choosing tiles for the house, hankering after old cemento, for it “was not just a relic of the time; it was a tribute to the imaginations it nourished.”

Turbulent political unrest forced Shadid's family into exile and war brings him home. It is a terrible irony that Shadid's reclaiming of bayt, his sense of "belonging", was cut short because of the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

A shortened version was originally published in The Independent