Anthony Shadid: A voice telling our tale

Anthony Shadid, the celebrated Lebanese-American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, died on Tuesday, reportedly from an asthma attack, while covering news in Syria. He was only 42.

I first met Tony nine years ago through a common friend, Oklahoma University Professor Joshua Landis, and have followed up on his work ever since, rather religiously. It was in late 2003, months after the US invasion of Iraq, when he was working as Islamic Affairs correspondent with the Washington Post. He came to Syria looking for insurgents crossing the border into Iraq, six years before becoming bureau chief for the New York Times in Baghdad. The Sunni insurgency was on his mind, and so was the fate of Iraqi refugees who had fled to Syria, seeking refuge from the chaos in post-Saddam Iraq. In our meetings, after dabbling in contemporary politics, we often shifted to modern Syrian-Lebanese history, which he enjoyed, given his Lebanese origins. Tony and I both liked to interview elderly people whose memory’s were fading, to document their tale of what had happened in Ottoman Syria and Lebanon during World War I.

I looked up to Tony — as any aspiring journalist would, when I first met him in 2003. I was new in my career, and he was on his way to winning his first Pulitzer. He had everything that we lacked as Arab journalists covering the Middle East. He did not have to humor anybody and was unafraid to say the truth. He couldn’t care less if government authorities hated him — the most they could do was revoke his visa, or expel him from the country in 24 hours. He didn’t have the “I Can’t Write That Complex.” He wrote what he saw and felt, with no restrictions. Tony sympathized with ordinary people of the Middle East, admired their struggles, and since December 2010, was overwhelmingly supportive of the Arab Spring that ripped through the Arab World.

Tony learned Arabic as an adult, but claimed that he always bonded with the Lebanese emigrant community in Oklahoma, where he grew up. He spent most of his professional life covering the region, first with the Associated Press, and then with the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, for which he famously won Pulitzer Prizes in 2004 and 2010. Those awards never affected his ego — not the slightest bit. They were actually the least thing he was comfortable discussing, so as not to let other journalists feel that he was, in any way, superior to them. Tony was always more interested in day-to-day ordinary people than decision-makers — who he often had access to, because of his reputation as an insightful and fair analyst. A cab driver in Homs, for example, was by far more interesting to him than a cabinet minister, or a senior Baath Party official. In its citation accompanying the Pulitzer nomination, the New York Times wrote:

“Steeped in Arab political history but also in its culture, Shadid recognized early on that along with the despots, old habits of fear, passivity and despair were being toppled. He brought a poet’s voice, a deep empathy for the ordinary person and an unmatched authority to his passionate dispatches.”

Tony Shadid died while doing what he loved to do best in life: reporting from a hotspot in the Middle East. He probably imagined that he might get gunned down by government forces or insurgents, that a sniper bullet would end his life, or that he would get shot while sneaking into a country, or while covering an anti-regime demonstration in an Arab capital — certainly not through an acute asthma attack. Tony Shadid, however, lives on — through his articles, and through the young men and women who are standing up for freedom — a cause that he so passionately believed in, and defended, during his 15-year career as a celebrated journalist. He will be missed by all those who knew him and worked with him throughout the Middle East. My good friend Abdulsalam Haykal, a Syrian media entrepreneur, was one of them. In remembering him, he said: “Anthony was a gentle soul, and a unique mix of compassion and toughness. Plagued with pain and injustice, our region couldn’t have wished for a sharper, braver, or more driven journalist to witness its transformation. Anthony died as he lived: a voice telling our tale.”

Huffington Post, 17 February 2012