Obituary: Anthony Shadid, the poet of war reporting

The New York Times’ foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid was top of my Most Admired list in journalism. He was bureau chief for the Times in Beirut. A double Pulitzer Prize winner, and also an author, Shadid died in Syria last Thursday of an asthma attack as he and photographer Tyler Hicks were crossing the border into Turkey.

Aged only 43, Shadid had accomplished much during his career in reporting on shifting power play in the Middle East and had expected to achieve much more. He saw the region slowly start to change, and with it the long-held passivity towards despots beginning to crumble. There was nowhere else in the world he wanted to be.

I sometimes travel vicariously through the work of seasoned foreign correspondents who report from the world’s worst shitholes. I’ve been to a few shitty places myself, and I can’t say reporting in Athens was a picnic, but these journalists bust their asses daily in serious conflict zones for stories they file to brutal deadlines. It’s one of the most sought after jobs in journalism, and it has a casualty rate, mentally and physically.

One of Shadid’s strengths was that he spoke fluent Arabic. By all accounts he was a superb listener.  He also had the advantage of his heritage which gave him ready access to grassroots Arab society. In his book Night Draws Near he took the reader into Iraq at a deeply personal level – the homes, hearts and minds of Iraqis suffering mightily during that costly, ghastly war. His prose has the precision and lyrical quality of  poetry, yet it’s also stunningly spare. Just the way I like it.

An excerpt from his 2010 Pulitzer prize entry: Recitation of the Koran, mournful but consoling, played from a scratchy cassette as the men gathered in the funeral tent for condolences. They sipped bitter Arabic coffee, only enough to leave an aftertaste. As they smoked cigarettes, an American helicopter rumbled overhead, its rotors sounding the familiar drumbeat of war.

The men had arrived on this day in June 2003 to pay their respects to Hashim Mohammed Aani, a chubby 15-year-old who was one of three people killed a day before in a U.S. raid through this lush region on the sweep of the Tigris River.

An omen, a soft-spoken former judge called the shy boy’s death. Other mourners called it a tragedy. To the rest of Iraq, it was little more than a statistic, incidental in the killing fields the country would soon be reduced to. The raid itself was a footnote.

American born to Lebanese immigrant parents, Shadid loved America but also thoroughly explored his Arab heritage. He studied Arabic and spent most of his time in the Middle East after 9/11, working for The Boston Globe before The Washington Post and then finally the Times. Shadid took risks to get the best stories. He was shot in the back in Ramallah in 2002. He reported extensively from Iraq and was imprisoned, beaten and threatened with death during the uprising in Libya.

Last week he was about to cross the border into Turkey when he had an asthma attack, caused by his severe allergy to horses.  His reporting mission had been clandestine – Syrian authorities have banned Western media – and he and his photographer were on their way out of the country. He died just shy of the border, and Hicks carried his body into Turkey.

I didn’t know Shadid personally, but I grieved as if I had lost a friend and colleague. I paced my hallway and living room until 3am one humid night, the tragedy whirling around in my head.  I loved the way he kicked aside the bullshit and gave us clear-eyed knowledge of what’s really happening in the maelstrom of the planet’s most troubled region, where truth is hidden behind complex facades. It’s news reporting at its finest, and travel at its most raw - going in there with your eyes wide open, seeing into the hearts of ordinary people and sharing the knowledge with the utmost integrity and sensitivity. He was a passionate witness.

Other journalists have written over the past few days that Shadid is irreplaceable and the world is now a little darker for his passing. I don’t think Shadid would want to be irreplaceable. He was unique, but we can draw inspiration from his example.

He wrote Legacy of the Prophet in 2002. Night Draws Near was published by Henry Holt in 2005, and is available on Amazon. Shadid’s latest book, A House of Stone, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on February 28, tells of his effort to rebuild the family home in Lebanon after decades of bloodshed. It’s already garnering high praise. Dave Eggers (writer, editor, publisher, literary trendsetter) writes: “Six pages into this book, I said to myself, if Anthony Shadid continues like this, this book will be a classic. And page by page, he did continue, and he wrote a honest-to-God, hands-down, undeniable and instant classic….I have no idea how Shadid pulled all this off while talking about the history of modern Lebanon, how he balanced ribald humor and great warmth  with the sorrow woven into a story like this, but anyway, we should all be grateful that he did.

Anthony Shadid is survived by his wife Nada Bakri, their son Malik, and daughter Laila from an earlier marriage.

More info, visit the New York Times or www.anthonyshadid.com

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