Anthony Shadid was a Lebanese-American Middle East correspondent (he died in 2012, about a month before House of Stone came out, of an asthma attack while he was covering the war in Syria). He was born and raised in Oklahoma, but even as a teenager he knew that he wanted to be a journalist with a focus on the Middle East—partly in order to better understand his own Lebanese identity. In August 2007, exhausted by his work as a wartime journalist and by his divorce, Shadid moved to Marjayoun, in southern Lebanon, to begin the project of restoring his family home.
In order to understand why a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist would retreat to his ancestral village to restore his great grandfather’s house, you have to understand the meaning of the word bayt as he describes it in the first lines of his book, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East:
The Arabic language evolved slowly across the millennia, leaving little undefined, no nuance shaded. Bayt translates literally as house, but its connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve, or without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.
The book revolves around the house’s past—its original building by Shadid’s great-grandfather, Isber Samara; its place in the community of Marjayoun; the history of the family who lived there and slowly left—and its present, in a once-bustling town with a dwindling but proud population, bearing the damage of war after war. But it focuses most acutely on the way restoring that house of stone helped Anthony Shadid find his own place in this community that, even after being gone for generations, his family can still call home.