Journey to the House of Stone

Fawzia Afzal Khan in The Friday Times:

StoneFrom the Hamra section of Beirut, one of those must-see areas for tourists, full of cafes and honking cars and far less appealing to me than the beautiful Corniche, after a lunch of grape leaves, tabouleh, spicy potatoes (batataharra) – a favorite of my guide Karim – we set out in his black Toyota Corolla 2016 for Marjayoun. I’m again on one of my obsessive literary journeys, this time to visit the House of Stone built by Anthony Shadid on his ancestral land in the south of Lebanon, an area which used to be largely Christian, but has since become a Shiite stronghold of the Hezbollah party. Shadid, a Lebanese American of Christian background, was a foreign correspondent for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer prize twice for international reporting, having written empathetically about the effects of the Iraqi war on its people, and was attempting to leave Syria in 2012 while covering the contemporary crisis, when he died tragically, supposedly of an asthma attack.

Ever since I read his beautiful, lyrical, haunting memoir about his quest to find his roots in the country his great grandfather migrated to the USA from, I became obsessed with wanting to see this symbol of one man’s determination to recover his past, and the past of his ancestral homeland, in a present riven by war. His memoir intertwines his intimate journey with the challenge of rebuilding his great grandfather’s abandoned home, which in 2006 was hit and partially destroyed by a half-exploded Israeli rocket. The book becomes a chronicle of the chaotic history of one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world which, because of its geographic location has seen war throughout its centuries old history, and part of Shadid’s goal in the book is an attempt to better understand the rise and fall of the Ottoman empire and the ensuing consequences which have embroiled Lebanon and the region of the Levant in an imperial game involving Britain, France, the US and their watchdog in the region Israel, ever since the beginning of the last century and lasting into our present time. Even as I pen this, US warplanes under President Trump’s directives, have started a bombing campaign in neighbouring Syria, which was once part of Greater Lebanon – or was Lebanon part of Greater Syria? Borders remain porous, reminders of the careless carving up of once autonomous regions into spurious nation states modeled on those of the Western powers who became imperial masters after they defeated the Ottomans who had ruled the Levantine region for centuries.

More here.