“Like her country, Karima—a widow with eight children—was caught between America and Saddam. It was March 2003 in proud but battered Baghdad. As night drew near, she took her son to board a rickety bus to join Hussein’s army. “God protect you,” she said, handing him something she could not afford to give—the thirty-cent fare.” (Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, Anthony Shadid, 2005)
Few are the journalists who obtain a consensus among their colleagues, and even rarer are those who have achieved that status with a mixture of professionalism and humility. The American journalist Anthony Shadid was a unique figure among his generation of journalists who covered foreign affairs, and reported from battlefields and warzones. He is one of the few to have managed to win the “Pulitzer” prize twice, in 2004 and 2010, in recognition of his journalistic work in Iraq, which the judging panel said consisted of a series of neglected human stories written in a highly professional manner with the language of fine literature.
Anthony Shadid (died aged 43) grew up in Oklahoma City as part of a Lebanese immigrant family. He became interested in the Middle East from an early age and decided to study the Arabic language alongside his journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin. In the mid-1990s he went to Egypt as a correspondent for the Associated Press, before moving to the Boston Globe in 2000, then the Washington Post in 2003, until he settled as a reporter for the New York Times in Lebanon. This is where Shadid was married for the second time, where he restored his family’s old home, and where he wrote his autobiography, due to be released soon under the title: “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East” (2012).
I met Anthony several times during his visits to Saudi Arabia, and I read his work in the Washington Post with great gusto, and then in the New York Times in later years. I read his stories on the pages of the International Herald Tribune during plane flights, and they were illustrious in their high professionalism, not to mention the beautiful language and style that characterized Shadid’s writing. I invited him to dinner at my family home in Riyadh in the spring of 2006, as he was returning to Iraq. We chatted about the rise of Sunni-Shiite fundamentalism and sectarian conflict; we talked for several hours during which time he took notes about the views of a man a decade his junior in terms of years, experience, and journalistic status. Anthony Shadid’s distinguishing feature was his attention to detail, as if he were devoted to writing stories from the mouths of the narrators, whoever and wherever they were. Whether sitting at a popular old café in Cairo, or in a narrow alley between the houses in the city of Najaf, Shadid met with leaders and politicians as well as taxi drivers and laborers. He spent long hours listening to the desperate, bereaved and destitute as if he were a Catholic priest tasked with hearing the confessions of those suffering on the ground.
I asked him once what distinguished his journalism, and how he would describe a successful writer. He answered, with great humility: “It is not a question of being a successful writer, but rather the story itself must be inspiring. For that you must ask questions and convey the facts to the reader. When journalism students ask me for advice, I tell them: Learn the language and read the history until you become close to the people”. He added “I always feel that there is a story to tell”. Perhaps this motive made such a brilliant journalist reluctant to work in offices, and prompted him to turn down the job offers he began to receive as his fame grew. He opted to remain as he was; writing stories about ordinary people in the forgotten streets.
His book “Night Draws Near” is a dramatic literary work about Iraq’s widows, through which Shadid is able to paint a tragic picture of the desperate situation experienced by most Iraqis after decades of war, deprivation and abuse. After you finish reading the book you feel like you’ve finished an epic Greek tragedy rich in history, characters and themes, not a journalistic account of contemporary issues. Some of the expressive images in the book – such as the story of Mariam – bring tears to your eyes and remain long in the memory.
On Shadid, Veteran American journalist Steve Coll said: “Journalists recognize each other’s signatures and tricks. One of Anthony’s was to frame a story around the proprietor of a single café, bookstore, or university department. It’s not easy to bring a passive character and setting of that sort to life, but Anthony did it again and again. Reading the whole body of his work was like reading a linked series of stories about a world of (usually) men bathed in cigarette smoke, hyped up on coffee, and ready to talk about why the world is the way it is. Like a great short-story writer, Shadid’s use of these characters was neither too heavy nor too light; he let them breathe and speak, and they allowed the reader to join in, to slip inside worlds and ways of thinking normally closed off”. (Postscript: Anthony Shadid, 1968-2012, The New Yorker, 17 February 2012)
When you read Anthony Shadid’s work you do not feel any bias from the author; he does not want to impose any agenda upon you. His ideological inclinations, or even his moral bias against authority, cannot be gleaned from his written lines. He told the stories of ordinary people, a mix between mass scenes and specific case studies, and perhaps this is what makes his stories stand out from others.
Anthony Shadid died on the Turkish-Syrian border, not from a bullet wound but as a result of an asthma attack. He was shot during his coverage of the second Intifada in 2002, and miraculously escaped death with three of his colleagues when they were captured by Gaddafi’s militia in March 2011. Yet, in the end, the famous investigative journalist died from asthma, a disease that had been with him since childhood, despite a decade spent on the frontlines of wars. Indeed, when Shadid wrote about that experience [of working in warzones] he evoked the verses of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who said: “Those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love”.
Unfortunately, the Arab press has largely ignored the passing of this journalist, who enriched us with his coverage of the region. Only Asharq al-Awsat acknowledged him adequately and gave him the obituary he deserved.
The death of Anthony Shadid is not only a loss for his newspaper, but for the profession as a whole which itself is suffering from decline and atrophy. Since 2008 America has ceased publication of around 40 newspapers, and the print advertising sector has lost around 48 percent of its revenue since 2006. The material losses may be serious, but what is even sadder is that the honest press, i.e. those establishments that see themselves as a neutral party and a means for conveying the facts, is no longer being funded or invested in, because we are in an era of new media and no one has come up with a profitable model to ensure its survival. The situation is very concerning, and a televised debate during the program “Primary Sources”, held at New York University (8 December 2011), revealed that what is most frustrating is the serious declining standards of professionalism among journalists, who now prefer being stars on satellite channels, or on the pages of social networking websites. They talk of the great struggles from the “control rooms” of their offices, while no one wants to go down to the squares and witness the reality and record witness accounts of history in the making. If this is not documented, then the truth will be lost forever.
In a study conducted by the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California (December 14, 2011), it was revealed that almost 1,400 daily newspapers in America will cease printing within five years, to the extent that only four newspapers will remain on the national scene: USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. If this prediction turns out to be true, then the rigorous standards of the press are about to change. Despite nearly two decades passing since the dawn of digital media, when the Chicago Tribune offered daily material in conjunction with AOL in 1992, the professional conditions and standards of internet journalism have fallen dramatically.
In the era of social networks and smart phones the reader is able to obtain endless information, but they do not have a sober journalistic intermediary such as Anthony Shadid to analyze the information, examine the facts, and ask the necessary questions in order to understand the reality of what is happening. Shadid said: “When I write, there is no distance between myself and the reader except 1,100 words”