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This Reader’s Response to Anthony Shadid’s HOUSE OF STONE

There were many reasons to pause and reflect on the sad passing of journalist Anthony Shadid in February 2012. At 43, he was only a few months my senior; he was a husband and a father of two young children; and he was a Pulitzer winner twice over (in 2004 and 2010, both times for his reporting on Iraq).

And there was this somehow stunning circumstance: Having placed himself in countless danger zones for his career—including Libya, where Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s forces kidnapped, beat, and held him and three of his New York Times colleagues for six days just last year—it was, in the end, an asthma attack, evidently prompted by the dust and horses that were part and parcel of his final assignment, in that nightmare that is contemporary Syria, that felled him.

But as I read the first accounts of Shadid’s death and absorbed the many tributes that poured in, my sadness gained another tinge: anxiety. And that nervousness began as I read the final paragraphs of the Times’s report on the passing of its employee:

Mr. Shadid also had a penchant for elegiac prose. In the opening of a new book, “House of Stone,” to be published next month, he described what he had witnessed in Lebanon after Israeli air assaults in the summer of 2006:

“Some suffering cannot be covered in words,” he wrote. “This had become my daily fare as reporter in the Middle East documenting war, its survivors and fatalities, and the many who seem a little of both. In the Lebanese town of Qana, where Israeli bombs caught their victims in the midst of a morning’s work, we saw the dead standing, sitting, looking around. The village, its voices and stories, plates and bowls, letters and words, its history, had been obliterated in a few extended moments that splintered a quiet morning.”

I was not alone in my discomfiture. Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of New Jersey Jewish News, expressed my own sentiments well: “It’s a horrifying account, and I don’t doubt its veracity. Plus it comes from a forthcoming book, so it is timely. But it is either strange or telling that in an appreciation of a reporter who covered conflict throughout the Middle East, much of it Arab vs. Arab strife and civil war, the one example of his prose is an account of an Israeli attack on Arabs.” For its part, Shadid’s previous employer, The Boston Globe, eulogized him in a way that also made me queasy, depicting Israel as evil perpetrator when the journalist was wounded in Ramallah during the second Palestinian intifada in 2002.

House of Stone’s publisher released the book early, less than two weeks after Shadid’s death. I opened my review copy with some trepidation.

The rest of this essay is about what I found there.

***

House of Stone is not, in fact, preoccupied with Israel, or even with the Lebanese town of Qana that is mentioned in the paragraph the Times chose to cite. The eponymous house is located elsewhere in southern Lebanon, in Shadid’s ancestral hometown of Marjayoun. Here, too, there is evidence of the war prompted by Hezbollah in 2006. The house that Shadid’s great-grandfather had built, already in disrepair from earlier mistreatment and neglect, was, we are told, damaged further by an Israeli rocket. Not long after, with his first marriage in shambles and on leave from his job, Shadid returned to Marjayoun, determined to rebuild the house.

But, colorful depictions of the workers and work habits that surround this renovation aside, House of Stone is by no means A Year in Provence. It is immensely more ambitious, not only chronicling a family’s history of displacement, but also mourning a lost collective past and culture.

That’s where Israel returns.

* * *

But first, the book opens with an introductory meditation on the Arabic word bayt: “Bayt translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home….Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.”

I don’t recall all that many words from those long-ago lessons Hebrew School, but I do remember bayit. “House.”

And how many times since Hebrew School have I been reminded of bayit’s cousin, beit, a word that follows every Jew through life. We are part of beit Yisrael, the house of Israel; our synagogues fulfill a tripartite identity as a beit t’filah (house of prayer), beit midrash (house of study), and beit knesset (house of assembly). Even a school, with its building-block (the book), is a beit sefer.

Bayt. Bayit. Beit.

“The identity that does not fade.”

***

Far from fading, the history of Shadid’s family is revived here, woven through the book, The emigrations of his father’s parents from Lebanon to the United States receive particular attention, displacements prompted in his grandfather’s case by the danger of being drafted to fight for the Ottomans, and in his grandmother’s by the danger of life after the Ottoman Empire disintegrated some years later. In Oklahoma, his paternal grandfather, Abdullah Shadid, became “Albert.” His grandparents met and married here.

My father’s parents, too, came from elsewhere. They emigrated from Germany, displacements prompted by the danger of Nazism. In New York, my paternal grandfather, Sigmar Dreifus, became “Sam.” My grandparents, too, met and married here.

And I, too, have returned to the land—and the houses—they once called home.  Like Anthony Shadid, I am a conservator of family records. Even the kinds of documents I possess mirror the ones he describes: “the citizenship and marriage certificates, my grandfather’s discharge orders from the U.S. Army,” and family trees. Shadid can trace one line back to 1740; my papers include documentation back to 1764. What meaning may there be to this strange connective tissue, this odd symmetry between the grandson-writer (born in the U.S. in 1968) of Lebanese-Christian immigrants and the granddaughter-writer (born in the U.S. in 1969) of German-Jewish ones?

I recall discovering Freud’s essay on “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” and thinking how in my case, it took two generations for someone—me—to have the luxury of those activities. Living through their experiences was enough of a challenge for my grandparents. Even without Nazis at their heels, perhaps something similar can be said for Shadid’s.

***

But then we turn to the longings, the mournings, the reproaches. To be sure, Shadid does not place all of the blame for the lost Levantine culture—and land—at Israel’s feet.

But he certainly directs ample portions Israel’s way.

Oh, the land. The land that now converges in the territories of southern Lebanon, northern Israel, and western Syria. In fall 2010, I made my second trip to Israel and my first to the Golan Heights in the north. No book or article or lecture could have impressed upon me the vulnerability of the Israelis who live in the valley below as did the morning I spent on Mount Bental.

Shadid’s perspective differs.

It was rare to find a family in Marjayoun without at least a peripheral connection to Palestine….[A]fter Israel was created, the axis of Marjayoun and Palestine was forever broken, ending an era spanning generations, in which the frontier was never closed by borders.

No one disputed the town’s decline. Palestine was gone, along with the lands that Marjayoun’s families owned in the Hula Valley and the opportunities its hinterland provided in Haifa, Jerusalem, and the Galilee….In 1967, Marjayoun’s other surroundings, the Houran…was forever severed, too, when Israel captured the Golan Heights and Quneitra, turning a crossroads into a no man’s land. There was no road there anymore, a passage becoming a barrier. The daily taxis stopped. So did the merchants of fortune.

There is longing in Shadid’s heart for this time without borders. A wish that these encumbrances simply would not exist.

But, given the hostility of Israel’s northern neighbors, there is relief in my heart that they do.

***

Hostility.

“War had come home again to Lebanon,” Shadid writes, introducing a new section after that wrenching opening scene in Qana. “For eighteen days I had covered Israel’s latest attack. With my fellow reporters I had followed a campaign deadlier and more destructive than any here since the Israeli invasion of 1982, which began an eighteen-year occupation.”

Already uncomfortable—this is not exactly how I recall the unfolding of the war—I wonder when the word “Hezbollah” will appear.

It arrives. But only after these introductory words: “Israel had stormed in,” we read,

after Hezbollah—the militant arm of the Shiite Muslims in Lebanon—infiltrated the heavily fortified Israeli border, killing three enemy soldiers in an ambush and spiriting two others away. In retaliation, the pretext for reprisals that are never proportionate, the Israelis unleashed a thirty-three-day barrage that destroyed entire villages and left more than 1,100 dead, most of them civilians.

“The militant arm of the Shiite Muslims in Lebanon”? That is all one needs to know about Hezbollah in defining the war’s true instigator?

And here, as elsewhere, the implication: “Israel”/“the Israelis” are professional soldiers, whereas “the civilians”—incidentally, rarely Israeli civilians, since the casualties are so “disproportionate,” as if Hezbollah and Israel’s other sworn enemies wouldn’t love, dearly, to kill more Israelis, and as if it’s a shame that those Israelis (civilians) are so adept at heeding sirens and gathering in bomb shelters like the ones I visited on my last trip—the “civilians” are always victims of “the Israelis,” rather than the victims of their own terrorist leaders.

But in Israel, so many civilians are, at some point, soldiers.

***

Including Uri Grossman. Fulfilling his obligatory military service, Uri was one of those Israeli soldiers sent to Lebanon. He was killed, as George Packer later wrote for The New Yorker, “along with the rest of his crew, when their tank was hit by a Hezbollah missile in the Lebanese village of Hirbet K’seif. The war was in its final hours; a ceasefire went into effect on Monday.

He was two weeks short of his twenty-first birthday and three months from the end of his Army service. He had planned on travelling around the world, then studying to be an actor.”

Uri’s father, the Israeli author David Grossman, was completing a new novel (published in 2008 as Isha borahat mi-besora [“Woman Flees Tidings”] and translated by Jessica Cohen and released in the United States in 2010 as To the End of the Land) when Uri, his second son, was killed. The “tidings” that Grossman’s protagonist fears—the worst possible news about a son serving in a major army offensive just as he is on the verge of returning safely home—are eerily, precisely what came to David Grossman’s doorstep, two days after he had joined Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua in a public plea for the Israeli government to reach a cease-fire agreement.

The story of Uri’s death became inseparable from the coverage of To the End of the Land, just as Shadid’s death, I suspect, will be forever linked to House of Stone. In its way, each volume is now a memorial book, even if Shadid is right: Some suffering cannot be covered in words.

(This post is based on my reading of a complimentary review copy.)

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6 Responses »

  1. Thank you, Erika, for providing a little much-needed balance. I was in Haifa during the 2006 war as Hezbollah rockets rained down. The suffering I witnessed, on the Israeli side, went unreported in world media. So sad.

  2. A strong piece, Erika. Thank you.

  3. thank you so very much for writing as you did. I read the book and found it both moving and extraordinarily difficult emotionally. You have helped me clarify my feelings and understanding of Shadid’s work.

    • Julia, thank you for your comment. It was a challenging book to write about, so I’m especially grateful that you took the time to share your thoughts here.

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