“Sometimes it is better to imagine a past than remember it.”

houseBooks on Tap read House of Stone  by Anthony Shadid at  Champion Brewery on October 5. A memoir about the months he spent restoring his family home in Marjayoun in southern Lebanon, the book was published shortly after he died from an asthma attack while reporting near the Syrian border. A memoir differs from an autobiography in that it typically focuses on a signal aspect of the writer’s life, such as sailing around the world or kicking an addiction. Or as Gore Vidal wrote,“a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Oddly, Shadid at times hides himself in the story, not delving into the pain of the separation from his first wife and daughter and only alluding to the other duties he has during this time frame. On the other hand, he is a writer, so he will write to process these feelings and the book as a whole reflects his reporting: chronological and fact-driven.

Shadid intercuts the struggles he has hiring tradesmen, buying supplies and understanding his neighbors with family history, tracing how the grand house was built, declined and rebuilt. He admires the great-grandfather who financed and built the house, the great-grandmother who maintained it as a widow and the grandmother who was born there but came to America to save the ensuing generations, who include doctors, lawyers and award-winning reporters.

The negotiations about the house provide humor as nearly every request explodes into a fight. This instant anger may be born of trauma, from the 1975 civil war to the Israeli occupation to Rafik Hariri’s assassination. It is also a useful rage, giving one the upper hand in negotiations. One of our readers noted that Americans need to know about this tendency if they are ever to help negotiate peace in the area.

While most people liked the book, those that didn’t agreed that it could have used a map and photographs. However, Shadid does define the Levant and the way of life practiced there until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Some of us struggled with the transitions between the family history and the modern-day restoration, but one astute reader among us noted that this structure mirrors the history of the house itself. As the family story progresses, the house goes from good to bad while during Shadid’s personal story the house goes from bad to good.

And what a family story. Over four generations, Shadid illustrates the pull of the area: the beauty of landscape, the interconnected lives of the residents, the limited options presented by the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the ensuing civil wars and the general  instability of life near the Israeli and Syrian borders. Again and again he returns to his family’s position in the town and the intermarriages which make him known to the residents before he even officially moves in. One book club member was struck that despite the bombing, occupation and ruin the house faces, everyone knows who the abandoned structure belongs to. Which turns out to be many people. Shadid is warned time and again by family in America and people in Marjayoun that he should under no circumstances rebuild the home because too many descendants have a claim on it and could cause trouble just after Shadid pours money into the project. Despite this foreshadowing, nothing comes of the warnings. Just the opposite happens, at the end of the book Shadid brings his second wife and their son to the house, declaring that no matter where they live, “this is home now.”

Our book club members recounted their own tales of the pull of the family place, from Switzerland to Lebanon itself. One woman generously shared her own experience of marrying into a Lebanese family in Kansas, who were drawn to the area in the 1920s when it was open territory with little infrastructure. Peddlers back in Lebanon, that serviced the new settlements, later opening grocery and furniture stores. Much like Shadid, her American-born son now feels more comfortable in Lebanon. Another club member reported similar chain migration in his area of West Virginia.

We also discussed the current state of migration to the US and the fact that, because of travel bans and xenophobia, Shadid’s family couldn’t do today what they did in the early 20th century, meaning that many of them would have died young and poor. Central Library recently screened the documentary Eight Borders, Eight Days which follows migrants from nearby Syria as they try to get to Europe in 2015. Shadid’s great-grandfather lived as an Ottoman gentleman, something that only a few Marjayoun residents are still able to do and are noted for it. While Shadid frequently alludes to the glory days of the empire,  everything collapses (as one member pointed out) and certainly other parts of the empire suffered.

Finally, we discussed the imagined past mentioned in the blog post title. As we struggle with preserving, contextualizing and assimilating history in Charlottesville, we have to acknowledge that because history is all too often remembered from a single perspective it is indeed imagined more than remembered.  

Next month we will be reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as part of JMRL’s WWI centenary programs.  To get a free copy of the book to keep, please email Sarah at shamfeldt @  jmrl . org.  We’ll also be choosing books for spring 2018, so bring your suggestions!

More Information:
About the author
About the book
New York Times Obituary
Shadid’s guided tour of the house
Cemento tile making
Lebanon timeline
House of Stone book club kit
Shadid’s previous book Night Draws Near
Articles by Shadid

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