William F. O'Brien
Against the Grain
OKLAHOMA CITY —
At the memorial service that was held at the Oklahoma City Civic Center for the late New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid earlier this year, a video was shown that featured the reporter offering a small tour of the house that he was renovating in Marjayoun, Lebanon, that had been the home of his great-grandfather.
Shadid’s experience in that community as he oversaw that structure’s renovation is the subject of his final book, “House of Stone, A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East.”
The author details how his Arab ancestors were Orthodox Christians who were citizens of the Turkish Empire before the First World War, and how after that conflict ended the Middle East was divided into different nation states by England and France, and Marjayoun became part of the new nation of Lebanon that was under French control.
Under the Turks, we are told, the area was connected through trade routes and the various ethnic and religious groups who lived there were fairly tolerant of one another, and Marjayoun was a thriving community that shipped goods to cities such as Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut. But the economic hardships that resulted from the First World War and the Turkish efforts to draft young men into the army resulted in many people in that community emigrating to the United States.
Shadid’s ancestors were among those who journeyed to America where they became peddlers and small shopkeepers in Oklahoma. One of those who left the house that Shadid later purchased was his grandmother, Raeefa Samarra, who was initially denied entrance to the U.S. at Ellis Island in New York City because of the supposed poor health of the male relative with whom she was traveling.
She managed to make her way to Mexico before they could deport her, where she boarded a train to Ciudad Juarez and then walked to El Paso, Texas. From there she took a train to Ardmore, where she was met by a family member who was operating a store in neighboring Wilson, Oklahoma. Such a tale makes one more sympathetic to those who live among us at this time who also came to the U.S. from Mexico without legal authorization.
Shadid explains how he initially came to Lebanon as a reporter for the Washington Post, at a time when that nation was recovering from a civil war among its various religious and political factions. It had also been occupied by Israel during that nation’s military incursion into Southern Lebanon in the early 1980s.
Hezbullah, a political party and military organization that represents the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon, kidnapped several Israeli soldiers in 2006, and Shadid describes the Israeli military response to that action as well as the differing opinions regarding Hezbullah that he found among the citizenry of Marjayoun. But much of his book deals with his efforts to renovate his home, and the colorful crew of contractors and handymen who assisted him in that endeavor.
The author also gives us insights into his private life, including the loss he felt when his first marriage dissolved, and the love he has for his daughter Laila. Shadid reports that when he would call her from the Middle East he would always tell her that he loved her and that she would always reply that “He was the best daddy in the world.” Laila Shadid, who is 10 years old, spoke at the Oklahoma City memorial service for her father, and used that phrase to describe him.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.