New York Times’ reporter, Anthony Shadid died unexpectedly this week. With his passing we lose America’s finest reporter on Arab World issues–”at the time when Americans need his work more than ever. The importance of Shadid’s writings to Americans and Arabs cannot be overstated. His reporting was unique, reflecting both his understanding of the history and culture of the Arab World and his concern for its people.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Anthony appreciated the fact that the story of the region didn’t begin the day he got the assignment. His reporting reflected a historian’s appreciation for context. He understood contemporary Arab realities, because he knew from whence they had come. And for this reason, he also had a better sense of where Arabs were going than most of the pundits and commentators who fill our airwaves with their endless and often wrongheaded chatter.
More than that, Anthony’s work was also distinguished by a poet’s sense of texture. He wrote not with an ego, but with an eye for detail and an ear for the voices he heard. Where others "embedded" with troops, he walked the streets of war torn Arab countries "embedded" with people, bringing to life, for the rest of us, what ordinary Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, etc. were seeing and saying and feeling. He cared about the Arab people. To him, they were not faceless objects or the "other side" of a conflict. They were real people with hopes and fears, with stories worth telling.
What he brought home to his readers were the voices of his subjects and their story as it was unfolding through their eyes. When you read a Shadid dispatch from Baghdad, Beirut, or Tripoli, it was as if you had been transported to the place. The sounds and smells of the streets where he walked, the warmth of the homes he visited, and the emotions, and concerns of the people he met – all came through in full force.
He often put himself in harm’s way to bring us stories we needed to read. He was shot and wounded by the Israeli military in 2003, covering West Bank violence; he was at risk in Iraq, staying with families whose lives were impacted by war and terror; he was kidnapped, held hostage and abused in Libya, telling the story of the early stages of that country’s revolt; and he died of a freakish asthma attack while researching a story inside Syria that no one else could or would cover in quite the same way. The last time I spoke with Anthony was after his release from captivity in Libya. He didn’t dwell on what had happened to him, he was on to the next story to tell. In a way, he was relentless in his passion for his craft. It was more than a job, it was his mission.
For his work, he won two Pulitzer prizes. But for the contributions he has made to our understanding of a region we need to know, but do not, we owe Anthony Shadid so much more.
If not for him, the voices of everyday folks across the Arab World would not have had an outlet to be heard. We would not have known of the dilemma faced by ordinary Iraqis as they struggled with the life and death issues of war and occupation; we would not have seen up close the impact of Israel’s horrific bombing of Lebanon; or experienced the Arab Spring, with all its exultation and frustration from Egypt to Syria.
The Arab American Institute recognized Shadid’s work in 2007. Following a moving tribute by Hollywood actor, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony took the stage. What impressed everyone most was his quietness. He was a gentle and humble soul. His greatness lay not his projection of "self,” but in his ability to serve as a conduit for others–”he told us their stories, not his own; he brought them to life and made us all aware of their reality.
Anthony Shadid was a man for others, for Arabs and Americans. He was our bridge to a world we impact so profoundly, but whose reality we do not know. And now he is gone. I grieve for him and for his family. And I grieve, as well, for the countless souls in a troubled region who told their stories to Anthony so he could relay them to the rest of us. He was a man for others. This was his greatness and this is why we must lament his passing.