The best way to understand the enduring greatness of Anthony Shadid is to begin with the words of Anthony himself, so here’s something he wrote after his first Pulitzer and after his second Pulitzer, at a time when he was considering the life that reporting had given him and who he had become. It’s from his memoir, House of Stone, a copy of which I keep on my desk, always nearby, in part because of the writing and in part because of what happened after he wrote the following eight paragraphs.
Then came March, when I found myself in a town in Libya whose name I had never previously bothered to remember. Soldiers for a government crumbling but still forceful had taken me and three fellow reporters captive at a makeshift checkpoint. Bullets ricocheted around us. The soft dirt popped as they entered the earth. I had run, then stumbled on a sand berm, every muscle in my body taut. Minutes passed, and I found myself on my knees next to a simple one-room house where a woman clutched her infant child. Both cried uncontrollably. Soldiers trained their guns on us, beat us, stripped us of everything in our pockets, forced us to lie face down. One, slighter than the others, surged toward me. “You’re the translator!” he screamed. “You’re the spy!” Seconds went by, but it felt far longer, and another soldier approached. Rage flared from his eyes. He shoved my face in the dirt.
“Shoot them,” the soldier said calmly in Arabic.
As I lay motionless on the ground, I sensed something familiar, a feeling I recalled from Ramallah where, years before, I had lain under a cemetery-gray sky, waiting to die from a bullet wound in my back. I recalled it from Qana in 2006, where the people had cried, “Slowly, slowly!” as Lebanese soldiers, Red Cross workers, and volunteers dug with hoes, shovels, and their bare hands, searching for pieces of lost lives. I had felt it in Baghdad in 2003, when the mother of Lava Jamal, whose mauled torso was pulled from the wreckage of an American bombing, vomited at the sight of her daughter’s severed head. I remembered it from Marjayoun, where I came upon a house on a hill whose grandeur had given way to insult. It was emptiness, aridity, hopelessness, the antithesis of creation, imagination.
We ended up in jail the next day, in a city called Sirte, on the Mediterranean. I suppose there are worse prisons in the Arab world. This one was relatively cheerful, painted yellow. My colleagues and I were handcuffed and left in a basement cell on ratty mattresses with a bottle to urinate in, a jug of water, and a bag of sticky dates. Tahrir Square seemed far away. Graffiti of devout prisoners were scratched into the wall. “God bring us relief,” one line read in a plea to the Almighty. Scrawled next to it in tiny letters was a more intimate aside: “My beloved Firdaus.”
By morning, we had been transferred to a military airport, where the beatings were worst. Blindfolded and bound with plastic handcuffs, I was hit by the butt of a gun to the head. I staggered and waited for the next blow, and the next, and wondered how many there might be. As I sat in the plane that took us to the capital, Tripoli, I panicked as the restraints dug into my wrists and numbed my swollen hands. When a man approached me, hearing my cries for help over the drone of the cargo plane’s engines, I turned my head, waiting for another fist to land. I couldn’t see his face, but as he leaned toward me, I could feel his breath on my ear. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
The next day, in Tripoli, shortly before Turkish diplomats negotiated our release and drove us from Libya, we sat in a lavish office as an urbane Foreign Ministry official chatted with us. His small talk suggested embarrassment, and I forgot everything he said, save a few words he quoted to my colleague in idiomatic British English.
They were two lines from a poem by William Butler Yeats: “Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love.”
I hated him, though. I hated the billboards I saw as I left the country after a week in captivity, the propaganda of a regime that did not deserve to be mourned. Forty-one Years of Permanent Joy, read one slogan superimposed over a sunburst. Democracy Is Popular Rule, Not Popular Expression, read another. I hated what this had cost. I wanted to go home . . .
Those are the eight paragraphs, and every time I reread them I wonder how many among us know enough to be able to write the sentence: I suppose there are worse prisons in the Arab world. And has there ever been a better use of the phrase: relatively cheerful? The greatness of Anthony, though, has less to do with the accumulated knowledge in those paragraphs than what happened next.
He went back to the story.
In that decision is where, to me, he stands apart, and I don’t mean that as an easy sentiment. It’s so much more complicated. Going back troubled him, and it also made him happy. It allowed his work, and it ended his work, and whether he did it out of need, or just a desire, it’s a decision that remains as unknowable as any involving the mysterious parts of any human heart. Why did he go back? Why did he keep going back? I think about it, often, and in the end, there is only the uncertainty that comes when you only have facts to work with.
He was blindfolded and bound and beaten and heard someone say, “Shoot them”—those are the facts—and he went back.
Before that, too many times to count, he felt the true fright of a bomb blast, from which no one ever quite recovers, and he went back after those.
He was shot—no one ever recovers from that, either, I imagine—and went back after that.
He went back, and his stories kept coming, and you can read any of them and know that he was the best kind of reporter and writer: He knew how to ask questions and hear any kind of answer; he knew the value of silence and the power of understatement and the effects of juxtaposition and the need for compassion, but only so much of it; he knew the right way to write the sentence, “I’m sorry,” he whispered, as well as the importance of the preceding sentences.
Plenty of other reporters and writers know such things; the Pulitzers are testament to that. The difference is that Anthony was one of the few to go back and back and back, and if you are a reporter and want to be as great as the great Anthony Shadid, that’s the one thing above all that you need to keep in mind. While others talk admiringly, or, worse, romantically, about such things as your bravery and your commitment to the story, you go, and then, even though you know what it means to have gone—I wanted to go home—you go back.
Two years into the war in Iraq, then-Washington Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett asked David Finkel to write about President George W. Bush’s central foreign policy initiative: democracy promotion. “It couldn’t have felt bigger or more abstract or more intimidating,” Finkel recalls of the assignment, for which he would win a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2006.
He started looking for a US government program he could watch from beginning to end. But what program? And where? It had to be in the Middle East because democracy promotion was tied to security, and the threat of the moment was Islamic terrorism. Finkel felt drawn to Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home. The US government funded only a few programs there, and one aimed at helping sheiks resolve tribal conflict captured his imagination.
At a gathering of tribal leaders in Yemen’s capital, he met Rabea al-Okaimi, a sheik from al-Jawf, a poor, remote area riven by blood feuds. Al-Okaimi offered to take Finkel to al-Jawf, but only if he was willing to hear what residents really thought about America. “To me, the best journalism is journalism that feels like an act of understanding,” Finkel says. In al-Jawf, he met people who had never seen an American and people who wanted to kill Americans. He brought that story home, along with the story of democracy promotion in all its complications, from the best of intentions in Washington, DC, to the best of intentions in a place as far from Washington as can be imagined.