The death of the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid in Syria on Feb. 16, was a devastating loss for journalism and for the Middle East he did so much to illuminate.
But Shadid’s voice is still with us — in the form of a posthumously published memoir, House of Stone, published this week.
The book describes how, three generations after his family left Lebanon for Oklahoma City, Shadid was drawn back to his roots — and to rebuilding his connection to Lebanon in a most literal way. In 2007, he took a year-long leave from the Washington Post to painstakingly reconstruct his great-grandfather’s abandoned home in the town of Marjayoun.
In House of Stone, Shadid writes, “I gleefully, frenetically lost myself in the tile as I once had with stories in Beirut, Baghdad and Cairo.”
This love of nuance and the ability to immerse himself in the task at hand distinguished Shadid’s reportage.
“He could tell the difference between Arabic spoken by somebody from Najaf versus somebody from Anbar province,” Rajiv Chandrasekaran tells NPR’s Rene Montagne.
Chandrasekaran, a fellow journalist at the Washington Post who worked alongside Shadid in Baghdad, covering the invasion of Iraq, recalls how intimately Shadid could speak with his subjects and consequently, the extraordinary vividness of his reportage.
“It was [the difference between] taking a picture and photocopying it,” Chandrasekaran says, comparing Shadid’s journalism to the work of his peers.
Not only was Shadid’s reporting flush with evocative detail, but it was marked by compassion and prose so precise it approached beauty — even as he described horrors.
In a Washington Post article from 2003, “A Boy Who Was ‘Like a Flower’,”” he describes a mosque caretaker tending to the body of a dead 14-year-old boy named Arkan Diaf: “With a cotton swab dipped in water, he ran his hand across Diaf’s olive corpse, dead for three hours but still glowing with life. He blotted the rose-red shrapnel wounds on the soft skin of Daif’s right arm and right ankle with the pose of practice.”
Shadid dedicated House of Stone to his young children Laila and Malik and his wife, Nada Bakri. Bakri met him just after he fell under the spell of the house — he fell in love with two olive trees on the property.
“He would pick them one by one, the olives,” Bakri recalls. “In Lebanon, the way they pick olives, they just beat the tree until all the olives fall. But Anthony would pick them up, one by one. He would have a pile of the perfect olives, a pile of the less perfect olives. It was an art. He would be so happy doing it.”
For a writer who documented brutality, who survived attacks and death threats, gentleness — in even the smallest things — became of vital importance. Shadid could scarcely tolerate the ordinary roughness of the harvest.
“He wanted to do things differently,” Bakri says. “He loved these trees. He just could not bear the thought of being aggressive with them.”
But Shadid — and his ambition to rebuild the family home — weren’t initially welcomed in Marjayoun.
Marjayoun is full of beautiful, old homes lying abandoned, says Bakri. The Lebanese call them, “stone without people,” a term Shadid used himself. “Seeing someone who actually came back and cared and wanted to rebuild was first met with a lot of skepticism,” she says. “Later, a lot of people were very proud of what he did. And they would often come up to him and tell him, ‘We wish others would do the same.’”
One of the very last things Shadid wrote was a meditation on the word “bayt,” which interchangeably means “house,” “family” or “home.” Shadid writes:
As I had so often, I walked beside Isber’s house of stone, passing the two most ancient olive trees, still standing from the day my grandmother had said goodbye. I thought of my daughter, soon to arrive, walking up the steps from which her great-grandmother had departed, waiting to hear Raeefa’s songs. In my mind’s eye I saw Laila, suddenly grown, beside these trees and repeating the Arabic words that I would one day teach her, words that would take her back to Isber’s world, where the Litani River runs, over Marjayoun, over what was once our land.
This is bayt. This is what we imagine.
“To Anthony, finding this place, or this home, or this ‘bayt,’ was everything,” says Bakri. “Where he imagined his kids to be one day, where he found peace.”
Bakri spread Shadid’s remains at their home in Marjayoun. “I put him between the two olive trees that he loved so much, and I put tiles on top of the spot where I put him,” she says. “I think he’s happy there.”