Home to Lebanon: Anthony Shadid’s “House of Stone”

This post is a response to Aarti’s #Diversiverse challenge.  For more information about her #Diversiverse challenge, click  here.

(I don’t know if Arabs are considered people “of color,” but they are certainly a minority group who have been much maligned as of late.)



“To my family, separated or reunited, Isber’s house makes a statement:  Remember the past.  Remember Marjayoun.  Remember who you are.” (xviii)

Shadid's restored house in Marjayoun, Lebanon.
Shadid’s restored house in Marjayoun, Lebanon.

 Click here for photo source.

The Arabic word bayt translates as “house” in English.  However, according to Anthony Shadid, the connotations of bayt “resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred.  Empires fall. Nations topple.  Borders may shift or be realigned. 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” (xiii).  Bayt is not just a building; it is an identity—an idea as much as a physical space.  But, “what happens to the idea of ‘home” [or bayt] for migrants who live far from the lands of their birth?  How might their travels impact upon the ways “home” is considered?” (John McLeod 210).

Anthony Shadid grapples in The House of Stone with this question, addressing the repercussions faced by immigrants or their descendants who have lost their bayt, the roots of their identity.  Shadid, who died recently, was known mainly for his work as a journalist in the Middle East.  In his House of Stone, Shadid recounts his process of restoring his abandoned and ruined family home in the town of Marjayoun in what is now Lebanon.   At the beginning of this process, he feels depleted, lost and rootless.   He uses the term  “mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely (xvi)” to describe his great-grandfather’s house, but this term also applies to Shadid’s own run-down emotional state. By the end of the restoration period, however, he finds he was able to rebuild not only the house, but also a more solid identity with stronger roots.

             One thing I find interesting about House of Stone  is the process Shadid uses to rebuild their sense of bayt, one that was disrupted by the processes of history and migration.  More specifically, I suggest that he uses the technique of bricolage to effect this more satisfying identity. The term “bricolage” comes from a French word that describes the process of creatively using bits and pieces of materials leftover from other projects to create a new artifact.  Within the realm of cultural studies, the term was popularized by anthropologist Levi Straus and is often used to mean the processes by which people create new cultural identities by combining various social constructs they find at hand.  Bricolage, thus, emphasizes notions of “eclecticism, flexibility, and plurality” (Rogers 1). I argue that Shadid believes that Arab-Americans need to be inventive and flexible in using whatever cultural “bits and pieces” they have at hand to create a hybrid Arab-American identity.

House of Stone is Anthony Shadid’s Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. His book is structured as a mosaic of different pieces, or “tiles,” if you will.  House of Stone is, in part, an account of the frustrating yet rewarding process of restoring his abandoned family home.  It is also in large part a history of Shadid’s ancestors who left the town of Marjayoun and emigrated to the United States.   These ancestors, not surprisingly, left Lebanon because of larger historical/political forces; for that reason Shadid also outlines for readers some of the convulsions of recent Middle Eastern history. If that is not enough, Shadid also introduces readers to some of the people who currently live in Marjayoun.  In the end, though, I would argue that this book is most importantly a memoir of healing.

At the beginning of the book, when Shadid first moves to Lebanon, he is divorced, exhausted, rootless and dispirited.  He is at a point in his life when he needs the sustenance of a real home, in the deepest sense of the word, which is why he returns to his great-grandfather Isber’s home.  This house was built in order to “join us [his family] with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories” (xiii).  The process of restoring his family home, using the literal and metaphorical technique of bricolage helps to restore his sense of a grounded identity.  But what is the nature of this identity? The question is harder to answer than it might at first seem.  The old adage, ‘you can’t go home again’ is at least partially true. The Marjayoun to which Shadid returns is a far cry from the Marjayoun where Isber resided.  Decades of civil war in Lebanon, along with larger upheavals in the Middle East, changed the region almost beyond recognition.  By the time Shadid arrived in Lebanon in 2006, he observes that

“Politics was refracted through unyielding religious discourse or more ancient affiliations, and identity flowed exclusively from them, irrespective of culture and language.  It seemed we have been left with tribes bereft of citizenship.  Home, united, as other generations had known it, had long been lost, though an older architecture still whispered of times glimpsed in broken masonry and solitary arches.”  (6)

The Lebanon that Isber once knew was gone, as Shadid acknowledges, and yet that does not stop him from continuing his quest for home.  If the Lebanon of the present reality has little continuity with the Lebanon of his imagined past, then what does he hope to find there?  One could argue that he is seeking to live with people who share his identity, but who are these people?   Identifying as a Lebanese-American has little meaning to him because of the artificial origins of this nation, with its boundaries demarcated by European colonial powers.   He believes these borders and boundaries are toxic.    He asserts that “Marjayoun suffered with the advent of borders, losings its true hinterland in Palestine and Syria and all the more accessible towns there.  Those towns of an older antiquity—Haifa, Jerusalem. . .—shred with it  common geography, history, trade, and culture, unfettered by borders, and for generations that land was the place of opportunity for those who chose to remain in Marjayoun.  Now they no longer could” (98).

A broken man returns to the land of his ancestors, hoping to find a place where he fits in, hoping to find a home in the deepest sense of the word.  Instead, he finds that almost everything worth cherishing is gone, destroyed by the ravages of war.  One possible reaction to this loss would be despair.  He could give up on the whole idea of finding something meaningful in his family’s past and recreate himself as a newborn American without a past.  (I would argue this is what happens with many, maybe most Americans.)  However, Shadid does not take this path.  Instead, he (metaphorically) looks around the culture and history of the Middle East and picks up the “bits and pieces” that he finds useful and beautiful.  In a process of bricolage, he incorporates these remnants into his newly emerging identity.

The pieces of the Middle Eastern identity Shadid finds most useful is the idea of the Levant.  The Levant for him is more than just a geographical concept.  He notes:

But the Levant was really more a culture than an expanse of land or group of nations or homelands.  It was a way of living and thinking that bound Asia Minor to the Middle East and Egypt to Mesopotamia.  It was, in essence, an amalgamation of diversities where many mingled, a realm of intersections, a crossroads of language, culture, religions and traditions.  All were welcome to pass through the territories and homelands within its landscape, where differences were often celebrated.  In idea at least, the Levant was open-minded, cosmopolitan; it did not concern itself with particularities or narrow concepts of identity. (119)

The quality of the Levant that Shadid finds attractive and wishes to retain is its diversity, what he calls the “mosaic” of different cultures, different identities which, for the most part, were able to live together in relative harmony.

Intriguingly, Shadid finds a material artifact that symbolically represents his ideal of the best of the vanished Middle East:  the cemento tiles that he installs on the floor of his restored house.  He devotes a significant portion of his memoir to commenting on these tiles and what they mean to him.  Here he describes the moment when he first notices them:

“As I walked toward the smooth stone stairs, I noticed some ornate Italian tile peeking from beneath all the dust.  I was immediately drawn for reasons I can’t explain.  I am no aesthete, but I knew that the tiles were called cemento (though they were known these days as sajjadeh, Arabic for carpet, a name suggested by their repeating colorful patterns.)  Through the dirt I could see only black and white, but I suspected other hues lay hidden beneath all those years.” (29)

These tiles captured Shadid's imagination.
These tiles captured Shadid’s imagination.

Click here for photo source.

He said he had undoubtedly walked on cemento tiles many times before in the Middle East, “but it was the cemento here in Isber’s house that drew me.” (30)

These tiles drew him in, I suggest, because they offer him a concrete means by which he can construct his new identity.  These tiles, for him, represent what is best about the Middle East, the Levant of his great-grandfather’s time.  He says, “The tiles at my feet were the remnants, in Arabic the atlal, of a lost Marjayoun.  They were artifacts of an ideal, meant to remind and inspire, vestiges of the irretrievable Levant, a word that, to many, calls to mind an older, more tolerant, more indulgent Middle East.” (118)

The endless fighting and narrow sectarian identities of the current Lebanon appall Shadid.  The cemento tiles, however, hearken back to an earlier time and a way of life that values craftsmanship rather than war. These tiles

“did not speak of war, or frontiers, and the spaces they narrowed, but rather grandeur.  The tiles returned one to a realm where imagination, artistry, and craftsmanship were not only appreciated but given free rein, where what was unique and striking, or small and perfect, or wrought with care was desired, where gazed-upon objects were the products of peaceful hearts, hands long practiced and trained.  War ends the values and traditions that produce such treasures.  Nothing is maintained.  Cultures that may seem as durable as stone can break like glass, leaving all the things that held them together unattended. I believe that the craftsman, the artist, the cook, and the silversmith are peacemakers.  They instill grace; they lull the world to calm.” (118)

Shadid spends a great deal of time, effort, and money to find just the right tiles (from different merchants) and then laying them in just the right way.  As he lay these tiles, he notes that “It felt as though I was lifting history and putting it back in its place.” (126)  I suggest that this effort is not simply to create a beautiful house; it is simultaneously his way of creating his own identity as a tolerant, cosmopolitan Levantine who values craftsmanship, art, and peace.  It is his way of lulling himself into an internal state of calm.   The way he shops for, chooses, and carefully lays the tiles as a way to create his house AND his identity exemplify the process of bricolage—in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

I find Shadid’s embrace of the tiles and their representation of  Levantine identity interesting for a couple of reasons.  First of all, he admits that this open-minded, tolerant Levant no longer exists.  His language (“in idea at least”) suggests that perhaps in its idealized version, it may not ever have existed.  Nonetheless, this imagined past can still provide emotional sustenance for him.  Also interesting to me is that the Levant, at least as he defines it, is a place that is attractive precisely because it does NOT represent a clearly defined, restricted identity.  Rather, the Levant is a “crossroads of language, culture, religions and traditions” that eschews “narrow definitions or identities.” Shadid, then, is a man who is hoping to find a more rooted identity by going back to his family home.  He does find this sense of home, but he does it by forming an emotional bond with a place that no longer exists and embracing an identity that paradoxically eschews narrow definitions of identities.  He is not really going back to reclaim an old identity.  He is creating a brand new one, one that incorporates the past, but just the parts of it he finds sustaining.

 Click here for a link to Shadid talking about the house and tiles on a Youtube video.