...literally means "house" in Arabic. Due to the "root" structure of words in Arabic, there are additional connotations, and in this case, one of them is literally "roots": a sense of the community that nourished you. Anthony Shadid is an American of Lebanese origin; he is also a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times and the Washington Post. Like Alex Haley a generation earlier, whose book and TV mini-series is literally entitled (Roots), Shadid went back to his ancestral home in the village of Marjayoun, which, in Arabic, means "Field of Springs." My pre-release Vine copy does not contain a map of the region, a deficiency that will hopefully be remedied in the final version. Nonetheless, I checked a map, because the village's location explains so much: it is only 10 km from Israel, and only 10 km from Syria, with views of often snow-covered Mt. Hermon. The Litani River is nearby, and after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Marjayoun was in the Israeli-occupied zone until the year 2000. Major Saad Haddad, of the South Lebanon Army, and an active Israeli collaborator, lived for a number of years in Shadid's ancestral home.
One of the narrative threads of the book, always printed in italics, is the history of the Marjayoun area, dating back roughly a century and a half. It is enough to make you nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire! The sharp political demarcations of today: Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan and Iraq did not exist. Marjayoun served as several cross-roads, and trading with the Bedouin (as well as the occasional raids) was frequent. The author works in the tentative link, seemingly of all the Arabs throughout the Middle East, that their family's northern migration dates back to the breaking of the Marib Dam in Yemen, as mentioned in the Koran, in the 6th Century. Shadid paints a picture of a much more tolerant Levant, where the ethnic and tribal groups largely co-existed. For sure though, grudges, vendettas, and open armed-conflict did occur. One of Shadid's better lines, perhaps apocryphal, is in conversation with one old man about the injury a person of another clan had done to his family, forty years before. Revenge? "No, it is still too early." Shadid could have tempered his nostalgia a bit more if he had specifically recalled the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, as one of the Empire's dying notes. Somewhat ironically, it is when the area fell under French and British "Protectorate" status, after World War I, that the lawlessness and out and out starvation forced so many of both sides of his family to emigrate: to Brazil, West Africa and the United States. In the States, they largely settled in Oklahoma and Kansas, and, in general, prospered. His grandmother, in particular, seemed to develop those Depression-era values of never wasting which led to their financial success.
The other strong narrative thread is Shadid's successful attempt, which commenced in August, 2007, and lasted a year, to restore the stone house of his great grandparents, Isber and Bahija. Dealing with contractors, and undertaking numerous financial arrangements, of a non-routine nature, can provide immense insights into the current state of the village, and of Lebanon as a whole. I recalled parallels with Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. For sure, Mayle had it easy by comparison, and the "ghosts" of his ancestors were not present. The characters on Shadid's project are rich and variegated, starting with the "foreman," with the mixed named that is symbolic of so much of Lebanon, "Abu Jean"; and anyone who has ever worked with contractors knows that "insh'allah" and "bukra" ("if Allah wills it," and "tomorrow") are universal constants that transcend cultural specifics. One of the greater anomalies in Shadid's project is that he did NOT (and perhaps still does not) own the house that he restored; rather he owned (owns) a fractional amount, along with all too many cousins, scattered across three continents. Surely the concept of "moral eminent domain" should be operative somewhere.
Other Marjayoun residents that Shadid portrays is one of the "last gentlemen of the Ottoman Empire, Cecil Hourani, who was born in England, and Dr. Khairalla, who ran the local hospital, and was tried for treason by Lebanon after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. He mentions, but does not elaborate on another famous man whose family's roots are in Marjayoun, Dr. Michael DeBakey. Underscoring the 6 degrees of connectivity theory, DeBakey, and his team, operated the heart program at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in the early `80's. Shadid's book resonated in numerous other ways, one of which is the aphorism: "Coffee without cardamom is like a bride without her gown" (p. 23). Another is the quintessential: Any American living, working, and who is actually INTERESTED in the Middle East has to be in the CIA!
A warm, lovely, insightful book, written by a man who has already been quite lucky on the battlefield. Go carefully. 5-stars.
There are essentially two.
First, to acknowledge that within two weeks of posting the review, Anthony Shadid died, in Syria, of an acute asthma attack. He left us far too early, and is dearly missed.
Second, seems that I made a significant mistake in my review, one for which "Westerners" are famous in the Arab world; trying to correctly differentiate individuals with similar names. I received a courteous email from Lina Haddad, who does not explain her exact relationship with the individuals involved, though I suspect there is one. She said the following:
You state that "Major Saad Haddad, of the South Lebanon Army, and an active Israeli collaborator, lived for a number of years in Shadid's ancestral home."
In the book Anthony Shadid talks about Albert Haddad , the collaborater who squatted his home and not Major Saad Haddad.
From first hand Knowledge I assure you that Major Saad Haddad lived with his family in the house he built on a land he bought, before the Lebanese civil war ever started.
Major Haddad died in 1984, and Albert Haddad left the house in 2000 (as the book states) upon the IDF withdrawal from South Lebanon.
Another inaccuracy, Major Saad Haddad established "the army of free Lebanon" and not the South Lebanon Army. As for being an active collaborator, I think that you would be surprised to know, that Major Saad Haddad was sent to Marjeyoun via the port of Haifa under the orders of the legitimate government of Beyrouth.
I sincerely hope you will correct the inaccuracies.
I stand corrected. Many thanks Ms. Haddad.