On Anthony Shadid

(The Nation, April 25, 2012)

“You should listen to Shadid,” a one-armed fortuneteller instructed Nasir Mehdawi in 2003. “You should do whatever he says.” The fortuneteller, Hazem, had a mouthful of blackened teeth and a wardrobe singed with holes from the cheap cigarettes he chain-smoked. Turned into a piece of human wreckage while fighting in Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran, Hazem, trained as an engineer, underwent a fierce religious conversion and, from the doorway of a two-room concrete house in the Iraqi capital, became a renowned soothsayer. Among those he regularly counseled was his old friend Mehdawi, who, in lieu of dinars, brought him food—sugar, tea, rice and the occasional chicken.

Mehdawi, who was in his mid-30s, first encountered Anthony Shadid in March 2003. Shadid had arrived in Baghdad to chronicle the imminent US invasion for the Washington Post. Mehdawi was his official government escort, but he wasn’t very assiduous in his duties, routinely allowing his quarry to slip away on brief reporting excursions. Nor was he an admirer of the dictator. When Saddam was deposed, Mehdawi was hired by Shadid as his fixer, and an intense friendship bloomed. For a year the two men worked together seven days a week. In Night Draws Near (2005), his masterpiece, Shadid acknowledged that his weightiest scoops in Iraq, including an interview with the fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, would have been inconceivable without Mehdawi’s contacts, legwork and conscientiousness.

In the wretched months that followed the US invasion, Mehdawi would sometimes threaten to resign, but Hazem advised patience: “Wait for Shadid…. He’s a good friend, and he will serve you.” The chaos of the occupation left Mehdawi with a deep sense of foreboding, and Hazem’s counsel took on a darker cast. In the fall of 2003 the soothsayer warned Mehdawi that his dogged reporting alongside Shadid had brought them both to the precipice, which prompted Mehdawi to inquire if he would be slaughtered in the burgeoning violence. “No,” Hazem replied, “but the situation will be messy. It will be scary…. You should be very, very careful.” Shadid was fascinated by Hazem: “I was always struck by his prognostications, which Nasir would relay to me. They were uncanny, oddly insightful, although it also seemed to me that they could be interpreted in any way that might be appropriate to the situation.”

While driving around Baghdad in a white Chevrolet, with frequent excursions to chaotic and unstable outlying regions, Shadid and Mehdawi consoled themselves with “fatalistic humor.” “I’ll be in prison tomorrow” went Mehdawi’s refrain. They hypothesized about the various ways death might come calling—car bomb, rocket-propelled grenade, machine-gun fire. No, Mehdawi would insist, “these fates were conventional,” Shadid wrote in Night Draws Near. “Daggers—they would be our end. And then we would laugh, even after having made and heard the prognostication many times before.”

“You should listen to Shadid.” For a long time, many of us could do nothing but that, interpreting the labyrinthine politics of the Middle East through his voluminous reporting. Shadid, who died on February 16 at the age of 43, was an exceedingly rare creature in the thinning ranks of American journalism: fluent in Arabic; intellectually and morally serious; utterly enamored, in a historically minded way, of the Middle East and its multifarious people; and a graceful, erudite writer. His idealism was lightly worn but deeply rooted. With his linguistic and reportorial prowess he could easily have been Professor Anthony Shadid, or a house intellectual with a gilded sinecure at an establishment think tank. He chose instead to work in a hazardous corner of the world for wire services and newspapers, under whose auspices he took substantial risks—a bullet believed to have been fired by an Israeli sniper nearly destroyed his spinal cord in Ramallah in 2002—so that a fickle American public might have access to nuanced reporting about ground-level realities in faraway lands. In the end, it wasn’t a car bomb or daggers that felled Shadid when he was on assignment for the New York Times but what appeared to be an asthma attack, triggered by an allergic reaction to a horse, during a clandestine and audacious reporting trip to a Syria shaken by repression and revolt.

I knew Anthony Shadid a long time ago, in the newsroom of a college newspaper, the Daily Cardinal, in Madison, Wisconsin, when we were both editing it in 1988. He was a Lebanese-American kid from Oklahoma. Gentle and reserved, but emotionally guarded, he had already conceived the ambition to file newspaper dispatches from the Middle East. Late one morning I strolled into the Cardinal office. The lights were off, and a rustle caught my attention. Turning around, I saw Anthony, silhouetted by a dim light bulb, standing at his desk and smoking a cigarette: on the floor was a hefty boom box from which wafted the scratchy sounds of elementary Arabic; he had just taken up the language and was pursuing his studies with steely determination. Back then everyone pronounced “Shadid” the American way, ShAHH-did; later Anthony began to pronounce it in the Middle Eastern manner: “Sha-dEEd.” His study of Arabic was complemented by his march through Middle Eastern and Palestinian history, which fueled his imagination and loosened his tongue. One night he walked over to my desk to tell me, with astonishment and dismay, about the sectarian exploits of George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a fiery Marxist who spearheaded many attacks against Israel, and who was, until his death in 2008, an outsize figure in the ranks of the Palestinian opposition.

I saw Anthony again in New York City in the early 1990s, when he was working as an editor on the international desk at the Associated Press. Mostly we talked about what we were reading. Tina Brown had just devoted an entire issue of The New Yorker to Mark Danner’s epic treatise on the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, and the piece had left a deep impression on each of us. “It’s the most amazing piece of journalism I’ve ever read,” Anthony confided in a whisper. A few months later he mentioned he was reading Hugh Thomas’s history of the Spanish Civil War and was struck by Thomas’s ability to “write like a novelist.”

In 1995 Shadid said farewell to editing and moved to Cairo as a correspondent for the AP. The five years he spent in that post were crucial to his formation as a journalist and provided the raw material for his first book, Legacy of the Prophet, published by Westview Press early in 2001. Confidently written, but with no trace of swagger or conceit, Legacy of the Prophet is the work of a purposeful reporter determined to master his craft and his subject. The book is built upon Shadid’s exhaustive travel in the region between 1995 and 1999—there is an unexpected but stirring chapter on Sudan—as well as his unusually wide reading of the finest academic literature on the Middle East. (In an admiring blurb, Edward Said called Legacy of the Prophet “a brilliantly reported book on contemporary Islam.”) Shadid wrote about the upsurge of religious faith after the cold war, the increasingly grassroots orientation of Hamas and Hezbollah and the move toward electoral politics taken by the Center Party in Egypt and the Refah Party in Turkey. Terrorism was an erroneous prism through which to view the Middle East, he argued, in a rejoinder to prevailing American attitudes; he insisted that the region must be grasped and analyzed on its own terms. In an updated introduction to the paperback edition of the book, published in 2002, Shadid calmly defended his ideas in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Of the men responsible for the violence, he commented: “the militant Islam under whose banner they operated was in retreat in the Middle East and much of the Muslim world.” A “new politics of Islam,” Shadid insisted, was “beginning to take hold.”

Nine days before the US invasion of Iraq, Shadid traveled to Baghdad for the Post. One of his editors at the paper, Steve Coll, recently observed that on the job Shadid was frequently drawn to artists, writers, intellectuals and bookstore owners, as well as people who knew the West. Shortly after his arrival in Baghdad, he went to the Hawar Art Gallery, situated on a tranquil street near the Tigris River. On the day he visited, the gallery was filled with painters, sculptors and ceramists, and all of them were in an edgy and pensive mood. Yet they embraced the American in their midst. To one ceramist, Maher Samarai, Shadid conveyed a declaration that George W. Bush had just issued to Iraqis: “The day of your liberation is near.” Samarai wearily replied, “They’re going to burn the forest to kill the fox.” For Samarai, Bush’s comment conjured up bleak memories of British imperial rule in Iraq, specifically the infamous words uttered by Maj. Gen. Sir Stanley Maude, who arrived in Baghdad in 1917: “Our armies do not come…as conquerors or enemies but as liberators.”

As the day wore on, the conversation, fueled by endless cigarettes and cups of sugary tea, turned to the glories of medieval Baghdad, its libraries, zoos, public baths and hospitals, as well as its luminous personalities—“the caliph Haroun al-Rashid, the poet Mutanabi, and the tenth-century philosopher al-Hallaj.” Shadid, who possessed an exquisite grasp of Baghdad’s past and present, added: “In the West, the names of the geniuses behind the city’s golden age mean little, but in Baghdad, in the Arab world, the names of those times remain heroic, even fabled. Their mere mention evokes two centuries of intellectual splendor, drenched in confidence.”

Why did Shadid go to Baghdad in March 2003? In Night Draws Near, he stated that “there was perhaps an element of ambition there; it is sometimes difficult for a journalist to desert a story of such proportions.” There was also a political and humanistic motive: “I didn’t want the Pentagon to write this war like a screenplay.” He stayed in Iraq for fifteen months, and his articles for the Post earned him his first Pulitzer Prize. Night Draws Near conveys only a glimpse of what he personally endured in the harrowing days and weeks following the US invasion, when he lived in Room 622 of the Palestine Hotel, but the few details about his existence offered by the book are striking. On his diet: “tuna, an Egyptian brand of somewhat bland beans known as ful, and a particularly loathsome canned cheese.” On sources of electricity: “small generators, gasoline and car batteries stood on the porch outside our room, to charge computers and satellite phones in the event of a blackout.” On his sleeping arrangements: “On the first night of the bombing, we wore our clunky blue flak jackets and black helmets to bed.” It was typical of him to discount his own bravery, while honoring the stoicism and courage of ordinary Iraqis. The day after the invasion’s first barrage he spoke to a middle-aged acquaintance, who remarked, “Last night was a little rough, but life goes on…. To tell you the truth, I was neither shocked nor awed.”

A remarkable feature of Night Draws Near is Shadid’s ability to navigate the various layers of Iraqi society, from the spacious homes of doctors to the garbage-strewn hallways of slum tenements. His fluency in Arabic was essential; but he also needed lessons in etiquette, over which Mehdawi the fixer presided.

I learned that throwing water behind departing loved ones wards off evil and hastens their return. I was told to hold the tiny cup of bitter Arabic coffee in my right hand and to shake it, ever so slightly, if I didn’t want it refilled from the swanlike spout of the kettle. I understood that the person on the right enters a door first when two or more people approach. I was reminded never to yawn without covering my mouth. I was taught respect.

After the invasion, there was little time to sip coffee. Baghdad was burning, and Shadid had work to do. On April 7, 2003, a B-1 bomber dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on the Mansur section of the capital; the goal was to kill Saddam Hussein. When Shadid got to Mansur, he found a scene of “awesome devastation.” Surveying the crater and the rubble, he detected an eerie silence, followed by a shout from local residents: “They found something!” What he saw was not a story line in the Pentagon’s screenplay: “The mauled torso of twenty-year-old Lava Jamal was pulled out…. Moments later, a few feet away, others found what was left of her severed head, her brown hair tangled and matted with dried blood. Her skin had been seared off.” That image would haunt him. So would the image of a child he glimpsed a few weeks later in the emergency room of a Baghdad hospital: she had “a flop of thick black hair and eyes like glimmering black pools. In three places, shrapnel had torn her soft brown skin like paper.” Shadid fled to his hotel room, where he stood “for a moment, on our sixth-floor balcony that overlooked the placid waters of the Tigris, to take a break from the reality.”

The Americans had effortlessly taken Baghdad, but they had no idea how to administer it, and many Iraqis were livid. Shadid’s damning portrait of the first year of the occupation—perhaps the best account we will have from a Westerner—would later become conventional wisdom in the United States; but let us remember that his work preceded that near-consensus, and helped to prepare the ground for it. In Night Draws Near Shadid tells the history of that first year through Iraqi eyes, and many things seen are refracted through their consciousness—the looting, which Shadid compared to a “knife dragged across the city, digging wounds that would never heal”; the utter lack of security; the burning of the National Library and the looting of the National Museum of Antiquities. The book shows, with vividness and subtlety, how the initial months of the occupation opened the way to a resurgent Shiism, a vicious insurgency and a sinister flood of bombings that have continued to this day. Halfway through his narrative, Shadid steps back from his ground-level reporting and observes:

Another scenario for life after Saddam was perhaps possible: the ruler falls, to the joy of many; a curfew is imposed in the capital, and a provisional government is quickly constituted; basic services—electricity, water, and sewerage—are rapidly restored; security, at times draconian, is imposed in the streets; and aid starts pouring into Baghdad…. The occupation might have unfolded that way—but it didn’t.

Shadid was not privy to events in Washington, and doesn’t concern himself with the Pentagon’s planning process before the invasion; he wrote about what he saw in Iraq, and what he knew in his gut. A central motif of Night Draws Near is that the United States—its government and its people—never bothered to understand Iraq and the Iraqis, a sentiment most clearly expressed in the prologue, when Shadid declares, with tightly coiled and uncharacteristic fury: “Our televisable notions never captured the haunting, ambivalent, and bitter complexity of even one conversation, during war or in its shadow,” with an Iraqi citizen.

“Anthony was not a thrill seeker,” his indomitable Times colleague Tyler Hicks has written, “but he understood that the truth had to be found at the source.” In the summer of 2003, the US military unleashed a counterinsurgency campaign in the Sunni Triangle, and Shadid and Mehdawi traveled to the beleaguered village of Thuluyah, where they found residents seething about the tactics employed by the American occupiers: a 15-year-old had been shot in the arm, which made him drop a baby he was holding; a mentally retarded teenager had been beaten with rifle butts; and more than 400 residents had been arrested. Villagers focused their rage on a local informer named Sabah, who had supposedly identified insurgents to US troops. As Sabah was escorted about by the Americans with a burlap bag over his head, his mangled right thumb and yellow sandals made him instantly recognizable to the villagers.

Shadid soon returned to Thuluyah to probe the fate of Sabah, whose destiny was grim. Relatives of two men killed by American troops had issued a chilling injunction to his family: they must kill their son or be killed themselves. Shadid wrote, rather laconically, “The logic was cold but, in the context of resurgent tribal justice, flawlessly sound.” This is the moral terrain of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and in its description of these events Shadid’s prose has a shimmering precision. Sabah’s family tried to resist the ultimatum, but their efforts were futile. Shadid recorded what happened next.

Sabah’s brother and uncle brought him back to Thuluyah in July. He never left again. On the day after his arrival, two hours before the dawn call to prayer, the village still shrouded in silence, his executioners entered his room. The decision was already made. Sabah’s father and brother each carried an AK-47. And with barely a word spoken, they led him behind the house, nestled in orchards of fig and almond trees, vineyards and groves of oranges and tangerines. His hands trembling, the father raised his rifle and aimed it at his eldest son. “Sabah didn’t try to escape,” Abdullah said. “He knew he was facing his fate.”

Toward the end of the book, Shadid visits the weather-beaten British cemetery in Baghdad, and stands before the weedy tomb of Maj. Gen. Stanley Maude. In the hands of a hack, such a visit, heavy with symbolism, would be a creaky literary device. But Shadid, who rarely offered his political opinions, had earned the right to yoke British and American imperialism. A year after the invasion, he returns to Baghdad’s Firdos Square, where the massive statue of Saddam had been famously toppled. There, surrounded by Humvees blasting songs by Blondie, Guns N’ Roses and Johnny Cash, he encounters an older man who tells him, “They got rid of Saddam for us. None of us could have done it. But they should have provided us with something better. Instead, we got something worse.”

As the book concludes, relentless violence has splintered Shadid’s inner circle. Nasir Mehdawi’s house is bombed, and when Shadid arrives to join the cleanup, he is jolted by graffiti in the neighborhood: “We will cut off the heads of the Americans.” In a panic, Mehdawi seeks the advice of Hazem, who declares: “I told you not to remodel your house…. You must leave.” Mehdawi and his family soon flee to Jordan. Pondering the meaning of his friend’s exile, Shadid reaches, as he often does in the book, for an Iraqi proverb: “Everything short of death is acceptable.”

In 2006, while covering Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Shadid learned that his ancestral home in the small village of Marjayoun—the home in which his great-grandparents had resided and from which much family lore originated—had been damaged by an Israeli rocket. He decided to take a year off, moving to Marjayoun to undertake the restoration of the house.

It was a necessary sabbatical. When he moves to Marjayoun he is physically spent; his mood is bleak, his soul parched. He cannot vanquish from his mind an image from the Lebanese town of Qana: “Where Israeli bombs caught their victims in the midst of a morning’s work, we saw the dead standing, sitting, looking around.” His personal life has reached its nadir. The years spent chasing stories—he refers ruefully to his “career building”—have wrecked his marriage to an American doctor, and he feels a corrosive sense of guilt about living thousands of miles away from his 6-year-old daughter, Laila: “To her, I was an untethered voice on a cell phone.”

House of Stone is Shadid’s account of his year in Marjayoun, a place he describes as “fading”: “It can no longer promise the attraction of market Fridays, when all turned out in their finery—women in dresses from Damascus, gentlemen with gleaming pocket watches brought from America.” The book is also a family memoir, with a great many pages devoted to the lives of his ancestors and their journey from Marjayoun to Oklahoma. By any measure, it’s a lesser book than Night Draws Near, which, like Legacy of the Prophet, is a full-bodied and finely textured narrative, ambitiously conceived and painstakingly realized. By contrast, House of Stone is baggy, tentative and, in some places, forced, shortcomings that could be signs of a struggle to write in the first person after decades of traditional newspaper reporting.

The book’s most affecting pages chronicle a path to renewal as the house slowly takes shape and Shadid, with no deadlines to meet, gradually finds comfort in the gossipy, claustrophobic village of his ancestors.

Each day, I probably walked around the plants four or five times, watching roses coming out, plums and peaches appearing on trees I had planted only weeks before, flowers blooming from a clump of wild tulips I transplanted, and buds emerging on grapevines that once seemed lifeless. The petunias had taken root. So had the honeysuckle…. I learned to respect the garden, where rituals and right actions prevailed. Patience was requisite. There was redemption in silence. Seasons were restorative.

Choosing the right antique tile for the house becomes an obsession, and a chance for Shadid to lose himself in books about the history of tile; his account of being gouged by wily tile merchants exposes his guileless side. In the end he buys more than 2,000 tiles, and devotes himself to the arrangement and scrubbing of each one: “I brushed the tiles, washed them with casual swipes that always revealed something interesting—unexpected colors or swirls that at first seemed random, but when put together revealed some intricate design.” As the house begins to attain its former grandeur, despite many delays in the restoration, Shadid finds repose: “I had spent most of every evening outside, eating fresh almonds, sipping scotch, and feeling a peace that I had not felt in a long time. The house was utterly tranquil but for the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. The fragrance of jasmine enveloped me.” By the end of the book, Shadid has fully acquainted himself with the ghosts of his ancestors and created a physical space—a house of stone and tile and flowers, for himself and his descendants—of deep spiritual resonance: “Nothing could wreck it; no war could destroy it. I could always go there. It was always with me.” It pierces the heart to know that his two children—he had a son with his second wife, Nada Bakri—will not see him in it.

Following his year in Marjayoun, Shadid once again became entangled in deadlines, but he never forgot about Sabah, the alleged informer. In 2009 he returned to Thuluyah, and heard things that made him wonder if Sabah had been the victim of a plot hatched by village elders. In 2003, a few weeks after Sabah had been killed, Shadid initiated one of his most arduous interviews: a conversation with Sabah’s father. The scene is described in Night Draws Near, and it is the soul of the book. The three men—Mehdawi is there too—are sipping tea in a cinderblock house in Thuluyah; the host clutches his prayer beads. Shadid, in his mind, replays the question he needed to ask: had this man really killed his own son? In the end, the reporter chooses to remain silent: “Even as a journalist, in a job that celebrates provocation and whose standards require confirmation, I couldn’t muster the courage to broach the question. In a moment so tragic, so wretched, there still had to be decency.”

Decency, and courage—may these qualities always be associated with Anthony Shadid.