Anthony Shadid on Reporting in Baghdad and Telling the Story of Ordinary Iraqis


Anthony Shadid, foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, has reported from the Middle East for a decade. He has been the Cairo correspondent for the Associated Press and reported from the West Bank and elsewhere for the Boston Globe. For his reporting in Iraq, he has received the Overseas Press Club Award (his second), the Michael Kelly Award, and the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. His book, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War was released in September. He spoke to CJR Daily from the Washington Post’s bureau in Baghdad.

Paul McLeary: Your book traces the lives of several ordinary families in Baghdad just before the war in 2003 and after the city fell, and closes with the January 2005 elections. There is another set of national elections coming up on December 15. Being back in Baghdad for these elections, what differences do you see in the attitude of Iraqi people?

Anthony Shadid: I was actually thinking about that very question the other day. It strikes me, looking back at the January election — I guess I was most struck by what the vote represented. I think to a lot of people, it was exercising rights they’ve long been denied. The voting was the point in itself … they were able to go to the polling stations and they were able to take matters into their own hands. I think that’s why in some ways the moment was so remarkable, because it was such a dramatic show of that. When I was here in October covering the constitution, in talking to people, what stayed with me from those conversations was this idea that the constitution was somehow going to be a means to end this uncertainty. …

I spent the day yesterday riding these mini buses that ferry people across the city — and what struck me was that there is a certain sense of despair now, even desperation, and an element of unease over what this election is going to mark. To give you just a couple examples, I was in Karada, which is a commercial district, and one person told me he was only going to vote for the most hard-line Sunni candidate because he wanted to bring balance. In other words, he thought there were hard-line Shiites already in power and he was going to vote for the most hard line Sunni possible to upset what the religious Shiite candidates were doing. Next to him was a Kurdish merchant who put the odds of civil war at 90 percent. Riding around with these passengers yesterday, there was just a certain sense of anger and desperation that the government hasn’t done all that much since January, that there hasn’t been improvement in people lives. There’s real conviction that this election is going to change things, but I think a lot of people are hoping that things will be different.

PM: You speak fluent Arabic and are intimate with Arab culture. Obviously, this gives your reporting a different flavor and perspective than many other Western journalists. Do you think you’re able to gauge the mood of a situation better than other journalists because of this?

AS: Oh, I don’t know. To be honest, I think to me it’s more the approach to the journalism — it’s what kind of reporting you want to do or what kind of journalism you want to do. I’ve always found this kind of reporting most interesting to me. I think we can read a lot into a story about the sentiments that are actually out there — what people are saying in the street.

PM: In March 2002 you were shot in the shoulder while on assignment for the Boston Globe in Ramallah, in the West Bank, and you wrote about it for CJR at the time. How has that effected your war reporting, and did you consider not going into danger zones after that?

AS: I haven’t been back to Israel and Palestine since the shooting, and I don’t have a real desire to go back there, either. Eventually I probably will go back to report, but it’s just not something I’ve felt like doing since then.

I don’t want to overstate the risks, but there are always risks with any story, and you have to gauge on your own whether the story justifies those risks. Iraq is one story that I think justifies those risks because of the importance to both our country and the country that we’re in charge of at this point. So, you do worry about it. I was trying to go to a village in the Sunni triangle this week and I went up there three days trying to meet the right people in order to go to the village, and in the end I couldn’t get the guarantees I thought I needed to be safe, and I turned back. You know, it’s frustrating, as a reporter you want to report the story in the most comprehensive way possible, but even when you’re willing to take risks, there are risks that are sometimes too great — and I had to turn back each day from the village.

PM: How would you rate the freedom of the press to travel around Baghdad and the country in general, say, now compared to two years ago?

AS: I’ve always looked at April 2004 as kind of a turning point. That’s when there was the fighting in Fallujah and the uprising of Sadr’s people. I think that there seems to be the reporting before April 2004 and the reporting after April 2004. [The danger level] goes up and down. A couple months ago I felt a little more encouraged because the kidnappings seemed to have abated, but that’s not the case any more, there seems to have been a recent series of kidnappings over the past few weeks, so people are feeling a little bit uneasy again over freedom of movement. I try to get out every day, just to avoid that kind of siege mentality, and often you don’t get that much accomplished just going out, but at least you’re trying to get out there and see what’s going on.

I feel like I can do anything in Baghdad at this point, but some neighborhoods you want to be careful about. There are still stories to do in Baghdad and there are still people to talk to, and you’re still able to get out there more than many people in the states might be led to believe.

PM: You guys aren’t in the protected “Green Zone,” which many people seem to believe.

AS: We have our own compound near the Hamra hotel, which just got bombed a couple weeks ago. We have a house down the street from the Hamra hotel, but it’s within that guarded compound.

PM: There seems to be this impression that’s given here in the media that reporters are huddled up in the Palestine hotel and don’t really get out.

AS: Yeah, I think that’s misleading. When I read that I always raise my eyebrows, because there is more reporting going on than people realize and the journalists here who are doing this on a permanent basis — though there’s not as many here on a permanent basis as there once was — but those here do take a lot of risks and still try and get out and get the story to a much greater degree than people realize.

PM: Did you go into this story thinking you might write a book about it, or did this unfold more slowly as you kept reporting?

AS: It’s funny you ask that. When I first got here — I had been here before in 1998 and 2002 — a little bit before the war, I had just joined the Washington Post, and I was just single-minded about reporting the story for the newspaper. After the war, I was approached by my publisher about doing a book on just the coverage of the invasion itself, exploring in greater detail the families and individuals that I met before the invasion, and to be honest I was reluctant to write the book at that point — I just started at the Post, and I had a suspicion the invasion was kind of less a climax and more a preamble to what was ahead, and I was interested in seeing how this played out over the next year. So I said “if you guys give me a year, I think I can write a better book that really develops these people.” We still don’t have distance from the story, obviously, but at least after a year [I thought] I could have a little more distance from the story itself.

PM: I think the book is probably the most human look at the conflict that I’ve read yet, since you’ve spent so much time there, and spent time with ordinary Baghdadis. I think this is the first time we’ve really got that in the Western media.

AS: That was definitely my ambition. I didn’t want to tell the story of the occupation, I didn’t want to tell the story of the American experience, I really wanted to chronicle the way ordinary people live in times that aren’t ordinary, and sometimes when you write that for a newspaper or for a book it can be very quiet writing — you’re not saying all that much necessarily, but the accumulation of those experiences and those words and those interviews can allow you to paint a portrait of how people do endure.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.