Longing for Home in the Middle East: Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone

My Dear Children:

I just read a memoir in which one of the many things I learned was that the Arabic word for house – bayt – is achingly close to the one in Hebrew – bayit. The book is called “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East,” by Anthony Shadid.

Like me, Shadid grew up in two languages, with two translations of the world around us. He was a Lebanese American whose Arabic was as proficient as my Spanish. As it was for me with Spanish, the more time he spent immersed in Arabic – particularly in Lebanon – the more the words came back to him until he was practically fluent again.

Sadly, Mr. Shadid died last month covering the conflict in Syria for The New York Times. He succumbed to an asthma attack. He was only 43. Not only did he leave behind a body of sterling Pulitzer-prize-winning journalism, he also left his completed memoir of renovating his great-grandfather’s home in Marjayoun, a small town nestled in the hills of southern Lebanon. Renovate is not quite the right word for Shadid’s project. Renovate is what we did to our kitchen. But Shadid didn’t exactly rebuild the house, either. He writes that there was meaning and “an elegance of movement as the house hurtled towards its end and a new beginning.”

Anthony Shadid with his son in front of his great-grandfather's house in Lebanon

A house of stone is strong and proud. Its very material is “the yeast of the earth.” You can make the case that he restored the house to its original Levantine glory. But he did more than that: He wanted to live in this house as a way to reclaim his history while breathing new life into it.

The house had marble stairs buffed until they actually reflected the emotions of the occupants. Marble evokes elegance, antiquity, history. Did you know that your grandmother’s house in Cuba had marble stairs, too?

I remember her telling me how she scrubbed those floors until she saw her face mirrored back. Houses can be so intimate, so personal, so bound-up in identity.

When Shadid looked across the valley from his great-grandfather Isber Samara’s balcony, he crossed decades to make sense of the life that came before and after his sepia-photographed ancestor. Shadid was searching for those elusive sparks that illuminate both purpose and fate in short, intense bursts of insight.

Like your own ancestors from Greece and Turkey, the Ukraine and Poland, Isber had set his sights on America for his family. He sent his children, but never emigrated himself. Isber’s children settled in Texas and Oklahoma. The family worked together peddling, and then opened a dry goods store. Did you know that you had a great-great uncle who settled for a time in Galveston, Texas, running a small grocery store in the early 1900s?

Like Shadid, I have a love-hate relationship with the Diaspora, too. When your relatives have lived in four countries in just two generations, you begin to wonder if your family is “forever doomed to departures.” Where exactly is home anyway?

Shadid literally italicizes his family history. Paragraphs like that usually distract me. But trust me, these extended passages are well worth the time. Isber Samara lived and prospered in the Ottoman Empire, as did your great-grandfather’s family. My people, your people, lived in Ankara. They made their money in silver, and they educated their boys to become Torah scholars.

History was as continuous and borders were as seamless for my grandfather, Jacobo Alboukrek, as they were for Isber Samara. But the Ottoman Empire crumbled and crushed Jacobo’s family. Their Armenian friends and neighbors were disappearing. The Jews were afraid they were next. Some of them joined relatives already settled in Cuba. The rest of the family settled in Palestine.

Shadid longs for the open borders of the Ottoman Empire. Borders that enhanced the beauty and culture of Lebanon. He sees the memory come to life in the tiles that he picks for his home in Marjayoun. The tiles are called cementos, and Shadid goes to a store in Beirut to buy them from the Maalouf Trading Company. Doesn’t that sound like a name right out of Lawrence of Arabia?

Shadid takes time to describe both the artistry of these tiles and the history they awaken in him. For him, these decorative tiles in geometrics and floral, accented in purples and greens and yellows, remind him of “borders that were still for a time, crossable.”

For now, let’s leave politics alone. For the most part, Shadid does. “The Levant is no more,” he writes, “but I had been reminded – by the grace of the triple arches, the dignity and pride of the maalimeen [artisans who worked on the house], and … Isber’s sorrow and sacrifice – that behind the politics, there were prayers still being said with hope for what draws us together.”

Focus on that hope. Focus on the humanity that draws us together. Focus on the similarities between bayt and bayit. For in the end, they mean the same thing.

Love, Mom

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