Four prints by the 19th-century Scottish painterDavid Roberts hung in the Beirut apartment that I rented in the early 1970s when I was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Roberts produced them from sketches he’d made during his tours of what was then called the Near East.
One, “Sidon Looking Towards Lebanon,” shows a group of caravanners, garbed in turbans and the baggy trousers known as sherwal, resting beside kneeling camels and tethered horses on the Mediterranean shore. Serene, flooded with light, the scene captivated me, not only because of its artistry but because of the emotion it evoked — nostalgia for a Middle East (as the region is now inaccurately called) that had vanished decades before I got there.
The picture sprang to mind as I read “House of Stone,” Anthony Shadid’s wonderful memoir of the year he devoted to restoring his great-grandfather’s home in the southern Lebanese town of Marjayoun. His symphonic narrative strikes many notes — elegiac, ironic, angry, funny (in a rueful sort of way). But a yearning for the Levant that flourished under the Ottoman Empire runs throughout, a hymn for a world and a time not without tumult but far more civil, gracious and ordered than the blood-dimmed chaos of the present-day Middle East.