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House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

Matt Carney February 29th, 2012

Oklahoma City lost one of its greatest native sons Feb. 16 when Anthony Shadid succumbed to a severe asthma attack while reporting in journalist-hostile Syria. He was 43.

The loss was as unexpected as it was tragic. Shadid, born and raised here, was a true savant: a fluent speaker of Arabic whose ambition for storytelling heeded few warnings of danger.

He caught a sniper’s bullet with his shoulder in the West Bank in 2002 and survived a well-publicized kidnapping in Libya last spring, all the while churning out Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper coverage.

Shadid’s gifts as a writer were not limited to journalism, nor was his ambition only spelled out in ink. He took leave from The Washington Post in 2006 and 2007 to rebuild his family’s ancestral home in Marjayoun, Lebanon, which had been damaged by Israeli mortars.

That year of renovation is half of the subject of “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East,” the third and most personal book from The New York Times’ late Beirut bureau chief. He traces the many paths taken by his parents and grandparents who scattered across the U.S. and South America amid the instability and violence that struck Lebanon after World War I.

The result is a moving portrait of both a family and region in recovery.

“House of Stone” alternates between real-time passages depicting Shadid’s initial struggles with his foreman and his team of maalimen, or expert craftsmen, as well as his time spent in discussion with friends and neighbors, many of whom were suspicious of the American. Tireless years spent interviewing family members and poring over diaries and old photographs inform Shadid’s finely detailed flashbacks.

“House of Stone” affords readers a view into an Arab world that longs for peace and reclamation, and requires new identities in order to achieve them. The people in Marjayoun pay call to each other daily, sharing stories over coffee, celebrating family milestones and employing domestic customs honed by centuries of repetition.

In short, Shadid’s view of this small Middle Eastern town doesn’t seem especially different from our own, at least in terms of our desires for community and social interaction.

Shadid, who will be remembered at a 2 p.m. Saturday memorial service at the Civic Center Music Hall, eventually brings the story full circle to his parents’ early struggles living in Oklahoma City.

He writes that they established their own bayt, or community, in the city after having to leave everything behind in Marjayoun. But Oklahoma afforded them and Shadid the opportunity that his great-grandfather hoped for when he had to send them away.

That Shadid pursued his life’s work in the Middle East speaks to the cultural richness of the community his family brought with them to Oklahoma City.

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