As many of my friends and colleagues from around the world converged on a town in Lebanon to bid farewell to Anthony Shadid, I spent the past days reading his latest book, House of Stone. It had been sitting on my desk for several weeks; I’d been waiting to read it, ready to savor his tales of the idiosyncratic behavior of the villagers in Marjayoun, where he was rebuilding his great-grandfather’s house. I was looking forward to laughing over anecdotes that I, also of Lebanese descent, could easily picture.
But with Anthony’s tragic death last week at age 43, there was no time for leisure. So it was bittersweet to open his book and hear his voice. It is still too raw to accept that I can never ask him about stories that made me laugh out loud, or those that made my hands tighten in mourning.
I always thought that Anthony, an award-winning reporter for The New York Times, wrote English in Arabic. He was lyrical, in the way that Arabic is. It’s an evocative and colorful language. People don’t merely say Good morning to you, for example; it’s rather Morning of flowers. I felt in his writing the color and texture of a place and its people, their conflicts and poisoned choices recounted in an unflinching way that, thankfully, made it to the front pages of newspapers—most recently The Times—forcing others to read and perhaps gain some understanding of what war really meant to those who had to endure it.
In 2006, after Israel obliterated much of Lebanon’s south in its war with Hezbollah, Anthony decided to restore the stone house that his great-grandfather Isber Samara built in the early 1900s.
It’s a sentiment I understood. While Anthony was clearing broken tile and glass shattered by an Israeli rocket on the sunken second floor, I was downing endless cups of bitter coffee with the mayor of Jdeideh, a Beirut suburb. I was persuading the mayor to give me a copy of the registry listing all the Tarabays who had lived there. Weeks later, he handed over to me a red manila folder cataloguing my grandfather, his wife, their 14 children, and my great-grandfather and his wife and all their children; the earliest entry was the late 1800s. That was when Hana Tarabay left his mountain village of Baskinta to work the rolling farmlands of Beirut. Any further Tarabays, Mayor Youssef Safi told me, I would have to go up the mountain to find. I always wanted to get there, but Baghdad and other wars called me instead.
He took a year out of life to live in Marjayoun, which means “field of springs.”
But Anthony stayed. He took a year out of his life to live in Marjayoun, which means “field of springs.” There he stayed to cajole, berate, inflame, and pay, pay, pay to bring back Isber’s house—a house in which, as an “heir to Isber Samara,” he owned barely a 1 percent share. He did it for his daughter, Laila, whose name he weaves throughout his book in a final letter of love to the young girl he says has been betrayed by his career. At one point, lonely in Marjayoun, he writes: “I often picture my daughter Laila walking past the stone wall, up the buckling driveway, and toward the antique door I was determined to save. I thought of the day I would bring her here, to a house she could call hers.”
At the core of Anthony’s book—between the infuriating contractors, meddlesome villagers and relatives, and a war sputtering in the background—is the need for a home. The Arabic word is bayt, and as he writes: “Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.”
Home is in the heart of every person transported to a new life, whether in a different town or a different country. Tumult took Anthony’s ancestors from the village of Marjayoun to America, from Texas to Oklahoma. It’s what took millions of other Lebanese to new lives in Africa, Australia, and South America. It’s what’s taking people away from the carnage in Iraq, Syria, or Libya—places they may never see again.
When he explains the trajectory of Isber Samara’s life, interwoven with his own quest to restore the stone house, Anthony casts a light on the near-universal experience of the immigrant, whether political or economic. A man might be a doctor in his hometown, but in a new land where electricity runs 24 hours and uniformed men don’t care what sect you belong to, he is a taxi driver, a janitor, or a grocery-store owner.
That feeling is what lives in the heart of everyone who knows they have a home somewhere and dreams they may one day be able to see it. Anthony finished the house and harvested olives; he imagined eating some with his daughter from the tree he planted for her when he began the renovations.
We know what we’ve lost in a journalist whose unparalleled dispatches from the Middle East summoned us into broken lives struggling to survive. We know what we’ve lost in a friend who, in a world of egomaniacs and bullet chasers, never threw his success in anyone’s face. But more than anything, we know what Anthony’s family will never again have, and that is the greatest loss of all.
Late one afternoon over the weekend, I played soccer with my 3-year-old son, acutely aware that Anthony would never see his son, Malik, mark his second birthday. In the face of that pain, I smiled at my boy, chased the ball around our garden with him, and thought of my lost friend as the sun disappeared into the gray sky.
This article appears in the Feb. 25, 2012, edition of National Journal.