Shadid's 'House Of Stone' Is A 'Sweep Of History'
Originally published on Fri March 2, 2012 1:59 pm
The death of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid in Syria on Feb. 16 was a devastating loss for journalism and for the Middle East he did so much to illuminate.
But Shadid's voice is still with us — in the form of the memoir House of Stone, published this week.
The book describes how, three generations after his family left Lebanon for Oklahoma City, Shadid was drawn back to his roots — and to rebuilding his connection to Lebanon in a most literal way. He was working at the Washington Post in 2007 when he took a yearlong leave to painstakingly reconstruct his great-grandfather's abandoned home in the town of Marjayoun.
In House of Stone, Shadid writes, "I gleefully, frenetically lost myself in the tile as I once had with stories in Beirut, Baghdad and Cairo."
This love of nuance and the ability to immerse himself in the task at hand distinguished Shadid's reportage.
"He could tell the difference between Arabic spoken by somebody from Najaf versus somebody from Anbar province," Rajiv Chandrasekaran tells NPR's Renee Montagne.
Chandrasekaran, a fellow journalist at the Washington Post who worked alongside Shadid in Baghdad covering the invasion of Iraq, recalls how intimately Shadid could speak with his subjects and, consequently, the extraordinary vividness of his reportage.
"It was [the difference between] taking a picture and photocopying it," Chandrasekaran says, comparing Shadid's journalism to the work of his peers.
Not only was Shadid's reporting flush with evocative detail, but it was marked by compassion and prose so precise it approached beauty — even as he described horrors.
In a Washington Post article from 2003, "A Boy Who Was 'Like a Flower,' " he describes a mosque caretaker tending to the body of 14-year-old Arkan Diaf: "With a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across Diaf's olive corpse, dead for three hours but still glowing with life. He blotted the rose-red shrapnel wounds on the soft skin of Daif's right arm and right ankle with the pose of practice."
Shadid dedicated House of Stone to his young children, Laila and Malik, and his wife, Nada Bakri. Bakri met him just after he fell under the spell of the house — he fell in love with two olive trees on the property.
"He would pick them one by one, the olives," Bakri tells NPR's Montagne. "In Lebanon, the way they pick olives, they just beat the tree until all the olives fall. But Anthony would pick them up, one by one. He would have a pile of the perfect olives, a pile of the less perfect olives. It was an art. He would be so happy doing it."
For a writer who documented brutality, who survived attacks and death threats, gentleness — in even the smallest things — became of vital importance. Shadid could scarcely tolerate the ordinary roughness of the harvest.
"He wanted to do things differently," Bakri says. "He loved these trees. He just could not bear the thought of being aggressive with them."
But Shadid — and his ambition to rebuild the family home — weren't initially welcomed in Marjayoun.
Marjayoun is full of beautiful old homes lying abandoned, says Bakri. The Lebanese call them "stone without people," a term Shadid used himself. "Seeing someone who actually came back and cared and wanted to rebuild was first met with a lot of skepticism," she says. "Later, a lot of people were very proud of what he did. And they would often come up to him and tell him, 'We wish others would do the same.'"
One of the very last things Shadid wrote was a meditation on the word "bayt," which interchangeably means "house," "family" or "home." Shadid writes:
As I had so often, I walked beside Isber's house of stone, passing the two most ancient olive trees, still standing from the day my grandmother had said goodbye. I thought of my daughter, soon to arrive, walking up the steps from which her great-grandmother had departed, waiting to hear Raeefa's songs. In my mind's eye I saw Laila, suddenly grown, beside these trees and repeating the Arabic 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.
This is bayt. This is what we imagine.
"To Anthony, finding this place, or this home, or this 'bayt,' was everything," says Bakri, "where he imagined his kids to be one day, where he found peace."
Bakri spread Shadid's remains at their home in Marjayoun. "I put him between the two olive trees that he loved so much, and I put tiles on top of the spot where I put him," she says. "I think he's happy there."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The death in Syria two weeks ago of correspondent Anthony Shadid was a devastating loss, for journalism and the Middle East he did so much to illuminate. The Middle East was a place he found himself drawn back to three generations after his family left Lebanon for life in Oklahoma City.
Anthony Shadid had just written a memoir tracing the year he spent reconstructing the abandoned home of his great-grandfather. It's titled "House of Stone." And to speak about the book, we turned to those close to him. Rajiv Chandrasekaran shared the Washington Post Baghdad house with Anthony just after the invasion of Iraq.
RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: You know, he could tell the difference between Arabic spoken by somebody from Najaf versus somebody from Anbar province. And it allowed him a degree of intimacy in his conversations. You know, the Iraqis would often give their children names intended to ward off the evil eye. So one common name that he remarked upon was the Arabic word mudloom(ph), which literally means to be oppressed. And so every day, from then on, it was a sort of running joke which one of us - given our sort of respective obligations to file stories or dodge bullets - would race to see who could claim the title of mudloom first.
But he'd see these little details in ways that quite frankly, the rest of us, even with the benefit of translators - it was sort of like taking a picture and photocopying it. You'd lose all the detail and nuance.
MONTAGNE: He - I just - I find his writing stunning and re-reading it is no less so, you know. He's looking down, in one article, at the body of a 14-year-old who's just been killed, and writes: With a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across Daif's olive corpse, dead for three hours but still glowing with life. He blotted the rose-red shrapnel wounds on the soft skin of his right arm.
And his father, later in the article, describes his own son as like a flower. The son became, in Anthony Shadid's writing, an olive tree, a rose.
CHANDRASEKARAN: And there's a broader metaphor here; that in Marjayoun, the town where he rebuilt his ancestral home, it once used to be the land of wonderful olive trees. It seems as if he is also sort of conjuring up the lost beauty of the landscape.
MONTAGNE: Well, tell us about that, when Anthony announced he was taking a year-long leave from the Washington Post, and he's going to go back to this abandoned house of his great-grandfather, and fix it up.
CHANDRASEKARAN: You know, he was Anthony, and I had no idea the sweep of history, you know, that would come together in this memoir. I shouldn't have doubted that he would build a house, but he'd build an even grander book.
MONTAGNE: And there is this moment in the book where Anthony Shadid writes: That day, and for more that followed, that I gleefully, frenetically lost myself in the tile, as I once had with stories in Beirut, Baghdad and Cairo.
Does that seem right to you? He's obsessing with these beautiful tiles, actually, but they're the floor tiles. But he's lost in them.
CHANDRASEKARAN: When I read that - to me, you know, it's a mosaic of the new world he's building in much the same way that those stories of people formed the mosaic of his professional body of work.
MONTAGNE: Well, he made stories out of those tiles, too. He gave them names. I mean, I'm looking, and he goes: The most beautiful arabesque wheels of a dozen spokes in reds, greens, blues and cream; an eight-pointed star cast in red and blue.
CHANDRASEKARAN: And he's, you know, the tile was his mark on the edifice.
MONTAGNE: The memoir "House of Stone" is dedicated to Anthony Shadid's family - his young children, Laila and Malik; and his wife, Nada Bakri. She met him just after he fell under the spell of the house.
NADA BAKRI: Sadly, the house was falling apart and in very, very bad shape. And he saw the two olive trees and completely fell in love with them. And in Lebanon, the way they pick olives, they just get their big stick and just beat the tree until all the olives fall. But Anthony would pick them one olive by one. And he would have a pile of the perfect olives, a pile of the less-perfect olives. It was an art. And he would be so happy doing it.
MONTAGNE: It also seemed symbolic of how he saw the world that he was in at that time - a world of strife and war. He describes in the book that the harvest there is aggressive, the trees pillaged, the vines stripped, and he...
MONTAGNE: ...he wanted to do it so differently.
BAKRI: He loved these trees. He was treating them like a human being. And he just could not bear the thought of being aggressive with them.
MONTAGNE: The people of Marjayoun, though, when he first came back, they often weren't all that hospitable to him. I mean, they didn't quite know what to make of Anthony Shadid - you know, great-grandson of the man who left, coming back, rebuild this house. Why was that?
BAKRI: You know, it just, Marjayoun right now, it's full of these beautiful, old houses that are completely abandoned. Anthony would often call them - as they do in Lebanon - (foreign language spoken), or stone without people. And so seeing someone who actually came back and wanted to rebuild was first met with a lot of skepticism. But then I think later, a lot of people were very proud of what he did, and they would often come up to him and tell him, you know, we wish others would do the same.
MONTAGNE: Would you read for us how Anthony saw the future in this house? It's the very last thing he wrote. And it employs a word that we haven't exactly talked about. It employs a word that's spelled B-A-Y-T.
BAKRI: Bayt - it's home. But also, in Arabic, it means house; it means family; it means all of the above. To Anthony, finding this place or this home or this bayt was everything, where he imagined his kids to be one day, where he found peace.
I'm going to read from the book: As I had so often, I walked beside Isber's house of stone, passing the two most ancient olive trees. I thought of my daughter, soon to arrive, walking up the steps from which her great-grandmother had departed. In my mind's eye, I saw Laila, suddenly grown, beside the trees and repeating the Arabic 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. This is bayt. This is what we imagined.
So this was the place that he imagined as his home. And it was his home.
MONTAGNE: Is he home now? Is he buried there?
BAKRI: Yeah, he would often joke - we'd be sitting in the garden, and he would tell me that when he dies, he would want me to cremate his body and just spread his ashes in the garden. I guess I was unlucky enough that I did that. So yes, he's - I put him between the two olive trees that he loved so much. And I put tiles on top of this pot where I put him. So I think he's happy there.
MONTAGNE: Everyone's heart goes out to you.
BAKRI: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Nada Bakri, speaking about "House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East" by her late husband, Anthony Shadid. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.