Anthony Shadid: ‘A Gatherer, An Observer, A Listener’

One of his former editors remembers the greatest foreign correspondent of his generation

For many readers and listeners of the news, the work of foreign correspondents is surrounded by legend and yet strangely taken for granted. Each day, on television and the radio, in newspapers and magazines and online, we see the correspondents standing in the dust of the latest bomb blast, or dodging bullets in an orchard, or navigating a natural disaster. But the truth is that coming face-to-face with these upheavals is personally wrenching. It can test the very fabric of human emotion and endurance. The correspondent’s great gift and essential skill is to set aside his or her own feelings and tell the story—no matter how agonizing and disruptive. This is why Anthony Shadid’s dedication to journalism was such an inspiration to those who were fortunate enough to share it with him. He understood how essential it was to portray the victims of war and oppression, and to show how they had become victims. He succeeded at this with a startling clarity and depth, drawing from his relentless reporting and bottomless personal empathy.

Anthony died at age 43 on Thursday in Syria, of an apparent asthma attack, while on assignment for The New York Times, where he had been Baghdad and Beirut bureau chief since late 2009. Before going to the Times, he had been at The Washington Post, where I was his editor, since 2002; and before that at The Boston Globe and The Associated Press. He was widely admired as the greatest foreign correspondent of this generation.

His journalism was magical, built on a foundation of prodigious reporting. His determination was not only getting to a war zone, but once there, to document every sound, sight, smell, and sentence. He wrote down what was said in lightless rooms as bombs fell, he took notes of the graffiti on walls, he scribbled fragments from books in dusty stores. I once talked to him about how he would create what became his second book, Night Draws Near. Soon, I realized that he had left Iraq with a bulky archive—in my mind’s eye, it is tied together with string—of hundreds of reporter’s notebooks, each of them carefully labeled and marked. He was first and foremost a gatherer, an observer, a listener.

For any journalist in the midst of so much turmoil, thinking about what would come in a week or a month can be a challenge. Anthony wanted to know what would happen years from now. He often speculated that the Iraq war would have a knock-on effect that would take a decade or more to discern and understand. He toyed with a title for his new book, Years from Home, and although he eventually chose a different one, the words captured everything about his vision and sense of history—it spanned deep time and great horizons.

One evening in 2006, we went for a long walk around downtown Washington to think out loud about where his journalism would go in the coming year. It was cold and I remember holding a coffee for warmth and listening intently to what Anthony had to say. He was certain that the old order in the Arab world was crumbling. He could see it everywhere on his travels: frustration among the young and ambitious, stagnation and repression by those in power, and an inchoate search for some kind of new identity. He loved the idea of examining how people saw themselves; he had an unquenchable curiosity about identity.

But on this night he was also uncertain. He saw that many people were reaching for ancient garb, ethnic and sectarian, in the absence of anything modern to satisfy them. He knew that it would not be enough. We talked that night about how to capture this crumbling of the old regime and the rise of something new. As always, we talked not so much of newspaper headlines but of something more akin to literature—narratives and landscapes, chapters and characters. I remember being so entranced with his vision and so drawn into his quest that I lost track of everything around me. Suddenly, I tripped on an unseen curbstone and started to fall toward the street. Anthony caught me just in time, and we laughed.

What Anthony had sensed that evening was the coming of the Arab Spring, and when it happened in 2011, it was his life’s work unfolding before his eyes. He took enormous pleasure in the excruciating days and nights of work covering that story in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Syria. He told me once last year that he had witnessed scenes that were the most gripping and profound of his entire career. They were, he added, “epic.”

Only someone who has been hit in the shoulder with a bullet, as Anthony was in Ramallah in 2002, could have carried such sensitivity to violence and danger. He was never the archetype of a war correspondent—he could not be hardened or swashbuckling or unfeeling. He was at heart a genuinely modest person who hated the bombs as much as those who were caught under them and told him of their fears. He had a deep attachment to his colleagues, friends, and family, often unsettled by the pain and worry they had endured because of his work. He was intensely happy at the time he met his wife, Nada Bakri, who graduated from Columbia in 2009 with a master of science degree, and he was deeply devoted to his daughter Laila and son Malik. Only weeks after his son was born, Nada brought him to the awards luncheon at the Low Library on Columbia’s campus, where Anthony received his second Pulitzer for coverage of the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

It is hard to overstate the impact that Anthony’s work had on his colleagues. His portraits of suffering in Iraq during the last decade were literary gems. His friend Steve Fainaru observed that Anthony wrote poetry on deadline. When he returned to the Post newsroom in 2003, his colleagues stood and applauded him for his courage and skill. But he was not one to bask in adulation. He had offered his own ovation in his page-one stories for those unfortunate Iraqis caught in the terrifying grip of war.

I have always remembered the time in Iraq that he took a driver and car down an uncertain road and made it through a very tense checkpoint in pursuit of a story. As his car pulled away, he saw, through the rearview mirror, that one behind his had not been so lucky and had been hit, exploding in a fireball. He called me later on a satellite telephone. His voice trembled. He had a passion for life, and he was shaken. He had experienced more misery and violence than many correspondents see in a lifetime, but not for his own glory. He went to those places to make sure the voices of dispossession would be heard and the victims of war would be seen. From his life’s work, we must aspire to continue this great mission.

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David E. Hoffman is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy and a former assistant managing editor/foreign at The Washington Post. Tags: , , , ,