The Middle East’s Translator
By Jess HillFebruary 19, 2012
The death of 43-year-old Middle East correspondent Anthony Shadid has devastated people all over the world. Why has his death affected so many people so deeply?
I didn't know Anthony Shadid, but when I heard about his death on Friday morning, I cried like I'd lost a colleague, and a mentor.
After a decade reporting in Iraq and being kidnapped last year in Libya, Shadid died from an asthma attack in Syria. He'd spent a week documenting the civil war brewing in the country's north, and was on his way back to the Turkish border. He had his medication, but it couldn't touch this attack, triggered by an allergy to the horses he was walking behind. For 30 minutes, New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks tried to resuscitate him. Then he carried Shadid's body across the border.
Shadid was a clear, honest voice in a region riddled with half-truths, hidden agendas and wannabe heroes. Oklahoma-raised with a Lebanese heritage, he studied Arabic in Cairo in his 20s, and moved to the region permanently after September 11 to report for the Boston Globe, then TheWashington Post and, finally, The New York Times.
His decision to sneak into Syria (which he did several times) wasn't taken lightly. But like so many other stories for which he risked his life, Shadid was worried that if he didn't go in, the story wouldn't be told. As he wrote in a recent email to his Times editors, "It's just nuts. I feel like no one there is telling the truth now… We have to get the details."
In December last year, after a clandestine mission to Hama, Shadid told NPR's Fresh Air host Terry Gross, "I got to spend a lot of time with [the activists] because I spent a lot of time in safe houses. And it reminded me of an old story in Islamic history, when the Muslim armies are crossing to Gibraltar. And the general who was leading them burned the ships after they crossed into Spain. And the idea was there was no turning back. And that story, I felt, resonated [with] almost every conversation I had."
That was Shadid's way of reporting - don't just go to the power, go to the people.
During the years he spent reporting from Iraq, Shadid went to extraordinary lengths to report outside the prism of American foreign policy, and to bring the stories of individual Iraqis to life. "Such a remarkable amount of violence has been deployed in these places," said Shadid last year, "so I think it is incumbent upon us as journalists to kind of recapture some of that humanity, those stories of individuals, of lives."
In late July 2003, while most journalists were busy filing "mission accomplished", Shadid was writing about the lives of ordinary Iraqis. Former Post colleague Kevin Sullivan recalls handing Shadid a local newspaper clipping, with a short news story about a man who'd been forced by people in his village to kill his own son, who they believed was an informant. Sullivan says he gave the story to Shadid because "with his flawless Arabic, his easy familiarity with the ways of Iraq and his titanium nerves, Anthony was the perfect person to determine just what had happened."
Shadid travelled out to Thuluya, about 70 km north of Baghdad, found the father, whose name was Salem, and sat down with him in his home. Salem told Shadid he had no choice but to shoot his son - villagers would have killed his entire family if he'd refused.
Shadid wrote: "'I have the heart of a father, and he's my son,' Salem said. 'Even the prophet Abraham didn't have to kill his son.' He dragged on a cigarette. His eyes glimmered with the faint trace of tears. 'There was no other choice,' he whispered." Salem's story was part of an entry that won Shadid the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. "I'll never forget that line," Shadid said, reflecting on that meeting last year, "because in just one sentence it captured the whole biblical tragedy of it. The story really did haunt me. A lot of people thought the story showed the brutality of what this conflict had done to the country, but I never saw it that way. I saw it as this kind of footnote to the war, the way the smallest intervention alters a society."
ANTHONY SHADID AND HIS STORIES were often in the back of my mind last year, when I was a producer for The World Today and PM on ABC Radio.
I lived and breathed the Arab uprisings for nine months, though I can't tell you where the Libyan rebels were positioned in May, or what Hillary Clinton said about Bahrain in June. But my memory is seared with the stories and voices of the citizens we spoke to, like the father in Tripoli, who had just a baseball bat to protect his home from Gaddafi's soldiers, and his little girl, who was wetting herself repeatedly out of fear.
In a region where even hard facts can seem suspicious, sometimes an individual's emotional experience is the truest thing you can report - and the most affecting. To Shadid, individual stories weren't just a bit of "colour" to bring a story to life - they were the story.
IT'S RAINING OUTSIDE AS I WRITE this in Cairo. A single muezzin nearby is making the afternoon call to prayer. It's mournful, reverent.
The Arab world has lost one of its greatest translators, at a time when clear interpretation is harder than ever. I feel the best way to honour his legacy is by working harder than ever: to keep learning, to find the people that bear out the region's stories, and to listen closely.
The day before I left Australia to move to Cairo for The Global Mail, my friend and colleague Mark Colvin gave me one last piece of advice: "Just remember, it's all about the people. Don't get caught up in the big issues."
Journalists rarely change the world. But a vivid story can change the way we understand it - and each other.
Anthony Shadid was 43. He leaves behind his wife, fellow journalist Nada Bakri, his daughter Laila, and his son, Malik.