The Journalist as Hero: An Appreciation of Anthony Shadid (1968–2012)

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ed Ou / New York Times / AFP / Getty Images

Anthony Shadid, center, of the New York Times interviews residents of Cairo's impoverished Imbaba neighborhood during the Egyptian revolution on Feb. 2, 2011. Shadid, 43, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist whose richly crafted dispatches captured more than a decade of Middle East turmoil, died of an asthma attack on Feb. 16, 2012, while reporting inside Syria, the Times said

Like so many other journalists here in Beirut, I woke up this morning to the tragic news of Anthony Shadid's death, the result of a fatal asthma attack as he was clandestinely crossing back into Turkey from Syria, where he'd spent the past week reporting on the Syrian opposition. I saw him just before he embarked on that fateful journey, his last assignment for the New York Times. We were in Antakya, near the Turkish-Syrian border. We talked briefly about the story unfolding next door but mainly about personal news. His whole face brightened when he spoke of his wife Nada Bakri and his young son Malik. (Shadid also has a daughter, Leila, from his first marriage.)

Now that fate has turned it into the last time I ever saw him, I can only think of the things I would have loved to have said.

I would have thanked him. I first met Anthony in 2005, shortly after he moved to Beirut for the Washington Post. I was a frustrated freelancer at the time, full of self-doubts and insecurities, many of them imposed by people who declared they knew better about journalism. "You don't know how to write," one correspondent had told me, explaining why my stories weren't being passed along to the editors at the foreign desk even though my reporting was being used in a story with that correspondent's byline.

In 2005, I was applying for a news-assistant position at the Washington Post's Beirut bureau. Anthony and I met in a chic Beirut café. He had read my work and had several of my clips in front of him. "This job isn't for you," he said abruptly, plunging me into despair before paying me the biggest compliment of my life. "Your writing, your voice," he said, "reflects shades of mine." I didn't get the job, but I did get the morale boost to move forward. He was a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most acclaimed journalists of our time. Yet he was unfailingly gracious, so uncharacteristic in an industry full of egos undeserving of their girth. He knew the power of his words — whether in print or in conversation.

His writing was permeated with the telling detail, the perfect nuance and the necessary but eloquent context. He knew the Middle East like a scholar but also like a native son. I remember many conversations with Anthony about identity, about being both Western and Eastern, of straddling both worlds, of fitting in and standing out. He was an American of Lebanese heritage; I am an Australian of Lebanese heritage. We each had a grandmother from the southern Lebanese town of Marjeyoun, and both women were from the same family, the Khourys. We had both come to the Middle East as adults to understand a little of our families' pasts and make our futures. He told me he always wanted to write a book about identity and Marjeyoun. That book, Anthony's third, will be released within weeks. House of Stone is "a memoir of home, family and a lost Middle East," according to its publisher — exactly what Anthony had said he would always get around to writing. I had extracted a promise from him of several signed copies. How much I wish he were here to simply inscribe his name.

He used the dichotomy of his identity to enrich his work, capture it, inform it and translate it for his audience. He was a masterly storyteller for a region that desperately needed one, particularly after 9/11 had American audiences recoiling in fear and anger at the Arab world. He humanized that world. He voiced the experiences and views of ordinary people living through extraordinary times. He put faces to names and put names to the faceless.

Before I bumped into him in Antakya one week ago, it had been a while since I'd seen him. E-mail was easier for communication, given his hectic reporting trips. We had exchanged several messages about his brutal captivity in Libya and the risks of covering Syria. Early last year Anthony and three of his New York Times colleagues had been detained and treated harshly by government loyalists. Their driver, Mohammed, was killed in the frantic moments after their capture. "I've had highs and lows, and the lows revolve around Mohammed's fate," Anthony wrote to me. "I'm struggling a little bit with the decisions and how and why I made them." His empathy set him apart from others in this business. But it also caused him to weigh circumstances and consequences heavily.

His clandestine trip to Syria last summer was "the scariest thing I've ever done," he said, adding that he was glad to get out in one piece. Yet he went back in, not because he was an adrenaline junkie but because he had a genuine curiosity and a profound desire to tell the story. "When I left, I felt very lucky to have gotten a chance to see it," he said of his summer dash into the country.

Anthony, we were the lucky ones — lucky to have read you, met you, been inspired by you. Allah yirhamak.