House of Stone
By Anthony Shadid, published February 18, 2012
The America that drew my family was 7,000 miles from where they started, in old Marjayoun, in what is now Lebanon.
My aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents, were part of a century-long wave of migration that occurred as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, then fell, around the time of World War I. In the hinterland of what was then part of Greater Syria, the war marked years of violent anarchy that made bloodshed casual. Disease was rife. So was famine. Hundreds of thousands starved in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and beyond. My family’s region was not spared. A survey of 182 villages in the area showed that a fourth of the homes withered into wartime ruin, and more than a third of the people who had inhabited them had died.
This horrific decade and its aftermath provoked villagers — including my family — to abandon their homes for locations ranging from South America to West Africa to Australia, as well as a few neighborhoods in Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kan.
The mountain roads and voyages in steerage that my aunts, grandparents and great-grandparents traveled to get here were treacherous. But the hardest were those first miles from home, away from faces that would no longer be familiar. By the time we arrived in New York or Texas or Oklahoma, or wherever, much was lost.
“Your first discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that you do not exist.” In other words, it is not just the others who have been left behind; it is all of you that is known. Gone is the power or punishment of your family name, the hard-earned reputations of forebears, no longer familiar to anyone in this new place.
In Arabic, the word “bayt” translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift. Old loyalties may dissolve or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is finally the identity that does not fade.
Though my family left Marjayoun long ago, the house built by my great-grandfather Isber Samara remained. It was a place to look back to, the anchor, all that was left there.
In 2006, war came to Lebanon, and Israelis entered Marjayoun on a grim August Thursday. I wondered whether Isber’s home would be wrecked. I went to Marjayoun and, when I reached the long-abandoned house, discovered that an Israeli rocket had partially destroyed the second floor. I made a promise to myself: I would reclaim our home that makes a statement to my family, separated or united: Remember the past. Remember Marjayoun. Remember who you are.
It took years to honor that promise. I remarried and was blessed with the birth of a second child, my son, Malik. During this time, the house was rebuilt and was ready for us in 2009.
I continued to report from the Middle East, and in 2011 my dispatches were filled with hope as the Arab Spring swept to one jubilant climax in Egypt in February.
One month later, I found myself in a town in Libya whose name I had never previously bothered to remember. Soldiers for a government crumbling but still forceful had taken me and three fellow journalists captive at a makeshift checkpoint. Soldiers trained their guns on us, beat us, stripped us of everything in our pockets, forced us to lie facedown.
“Shoot them,” a solder said calmly in Arabic.
As I lay motionless on the ground, I sensed something familiar, a feeling I recalled from Ramallah, where, years before, I had lain under a cemetery-gray sky, waiting to die from a bullet wound in my back. I recalled it from Qana in 2006, where the people had cried, “Slowly, slowly!” as Lebanese soldiers, Red Cross workers and volunteers dug with hoes, shovels and their bare hands, searching for pieces of lost lives. I had felt it in Baghdad in 2003, when the mother of Lava Jamal, whose mauled torso was pulled from the wreckage of an American bombing, vomited at the sight of her daughter’s severed head. I remembered it in Marjayoun, where I came upon my family’s house on a hill whose grandeur had given way to insult. It was emptiness, aridity, hopelessness, the antithesis of creation, imagination.
In Tripoli, shortly before Turkish diplomats negotiated our release and drove us from Libya, we sat in a lavish office as an urbane Foreign Ministry official chatted with us. His small talk suggested embarrassment, and I forgot everything he said, save a few words he quoted to my colleague in idiomatic British English.
They were two lines from a poem by William Butler Yeats: “Those that I fight I do not hate/Those that I guard I do not love.”
I hated him, though. I hated what this had cost. I wanted to go home, and naturally I went to Marjayoun with my new wife and infant son. There had been no question of where we would go after my release from Libya.
When they arrived in Marjayoun, the forefathers of Isber Samara carried with them the nomadic ways of the Houran and the Bedouin residents. Their possessions were few, but each family was said to have brought the wooden mihbaj, to prepare their coffee, and the iron saj, to bake their bread. The very sound of grinding coffee was considered an invitation to anyone and everyone to come. Stay, it suggested. Seek shelter.
I thought of this as I returned to Marjayoun: I thought of what was lost and what might somehow return. I thought of desert wanderers of different faiths and creeds offering aid and succor to one another as they crossed the steppe. I thought of what was, and I thought of the promise of the Arab Spring and what had once more, at last, been imagined.
At Isber’s I walked beside the house’s stone, passing the two most ancient olive trees, still standing from the day my grandmother said goodbye. In my mind’s eye, I saw my daughter, who would soon arrive, suddenly grown, beside these trees and the words that I would one day teach her, words that would take her back to Isber’s world, where the Litani River runs, over Marjayoun, over what was once our land.
I imagined the meals cooked, the dresses sewn, the pillows stitched, the farewells that had taken place here in this house. I thought of the houses empty around me and considered the work, the care of the stonemasons and artisans who left parts of their hopes and beliefs in this place. I saw myself arriving convinced of what I knew and never imagining this place could actually be mine.
This is bayt. This is what we imagine. This is home.
Anthony Shadid was a New York Times correspondent in the Middle East who died last week. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming memoir, “House of Stone.”
Image adapted from photograph of old house in Marjayoun: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/28009016