Anthony Shadid: Quite simply the best

Our veteran Lebanon reporter Nicholas Blanford recalls the courage, humility, and friendliness of his Lebanese-American colleague, who died yesterday while reporting in Syria.

Ed Ou/The New York Times/AP/File
In this February 2011 file photo provided by The New York Times, Times journalist Anthony Shadid, middle right, interviews residents of Embaba, a lower class Cairo neighborhood, during the Egyptian revolution. Shadid, the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, died Thursday of natural causes while on a reporting assignment in Syria.

Anthony Shadid, the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times who died Thursday of natural causes while on a reporting assignment in Syria, was, quite simply, the best.

The quality and depth of his reporting from across the region, particularly Iraq, was peerless, leaving the rest of us regional foreign correspondents stumbling in his wake in rueful admiration of his bravery, modesty, and innate talent. Perhaps part of that talent came from the fact that while he grew up in America, he was of Lebanese descent and thus had a cultural affinity with the region he was covering.

Although he began reporting from the region from 1995, first with the Associated Press in Cairo, then The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, it was in Iraq where he rightly achieved renown. Reading Anthony’s work, one sensed that he had an ability to shut himself off from the pressures of deadlines and the demands for instant analysis to take the time and thought to patiently locate, extract, and expose the soul of a story.

He did this with unforgettable and moving portraits of individual people attempting to cope with the rigors and fears of life in post-2003 Iraq. These elegantly written and nuanced reports, which became his trademark, offered a far more compelling and powerful insight into the realities of Iraq than the pedestrian daily accounts of the ebb and flow of the conflict.

His two Pulitzer Prizes for International Reporting, awarded in 2004 and 2010, were justly deserved.

A series of firsts

Anthony set a blistering pace in the competitive world of journalism. Even while he was busy racing between Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to report on the startling developments of the Arab Spring, he still found time to scoop us all in his coverage of Syria. In May 2011, Anthony scored a fascinating and frank interview with Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s über-oligarch and cousin and confidante of President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Makhlouf’s boast that the regime would fight to the end in a struggle that could turn into a sectarian war and destabilize the Middle East revealed the arrogance of power and also left embarrassed Syrian officials scrambling to downplay the impact of his words. Anthony had won an unprecedented invite from Makhlouf to Syria in response to his profile of the influential regime insider published in The New York Times days earlier.

Not content to land the first interview with Makhlouf in the Western media, Anthony returned to Syria days later, this time without an invite. He became the first foreign reporter to clandestinely slip into Syria, boldly riding a motorcycle across a remote stretch of Syria’s border with Lebanon to reach Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, which was just then beginning to bear the brunt of the regime’s crackdown.

Calculated risks

Anthony was an extraordinarily brave journalist. In 2002, he was shot in the shoulder by an Israeli soldier while covering the Palestinian intifada in the West Bank. Last year, he was one of four New York Times reporters who were abducted for six days and threatened with death while covering the uprising in Libya – an incident in which their driver almost certainly died.

In an article for the Times, they expressed remorse. "If he died, we will have to bear the burden for the rest of our lives that an innocent man died because of us, because of wrong choices that we made, for an article that was never worth dying for," they wrote.

Shadid was no gung-ho war junkie, however. Instead, he accepted that taking calculated risks were sometimes necessary to get to the truth of a story.

The first time I met him was at the beginning of the war between Israel and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. We were newly arrived in the southern port of Tyre where a growing band of journalists were mulling the risks of proceeding into the hill country south east of the town. The area had become a killing zone where all vehicles – even those bearing the supposedly protective motif “TV” taped to the roof – were perilously vulnerable to the Israeli jets and pilotless drones prowling the skies above.

While the rest of us were eyeing each other, wondering who would be first to make the move, Anthony quietly put on his flack jacket and climbed into his car. He told me he hoped to reach a village called Srifa which had been bombed a few days earlier, reportedly killing two dozen people. Anthony returned a couple of hours later, shaken. Bomb-cratered roads had thwarted his trip to Srifa and he had endured near misses from artillery and been harassed by angry and frightened villagers. But he had set the example for us to follow and in the days ahead we all began making perilous forays from the relative safety of Tyre.

Humility as well as courage

Yet for all his bravery, there was none of the swagger and bravado one sometimes finds in war correspondents. In fact, his courage was matched only by his genuine humility, friendliness, and quiet sense of humor.

Following the 2006 war, Anthony took time off to stay in Marjayoun, his ancestral town in south Lebanon. He was born and raised in Oklahoma City, which boasts a large expatriate Lebanese population, many of them originally from the Marjayoun area. He spent an idyllic few months fixing up his grandfather’s old home, exploring his Lebanese roots and writing his third book, “House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East," which will be published next month.

Anthony died on Thursday in Syria, not from a bullet wound, explosion or at the hands of a gunman, but from an asthma attack, according to his colleague and friend, New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks. The attack came as the two of them walked toward the border with Turkey after several days of covert reporting inside Syria.

His death has left a gaping hole in Middle East reportage, but his legacy will remain in his exemplary newspaper articles and books and in the inspiration he fostered among younger generations of journalists.

Last June, Anthony gave the commencement speech at the American University of Beirut, where, in reference to his recent unnerving experience in Libya, he spoke with typical modesty and eloquence about the risks he took to convey the story.

“There is nothing exhilarating about escaping death. Its very prospect felt to me like a poison, spreading through your body. It lingers far longer than the bruises, and it lasts long after the memories fade of hands and legs bound by wire, in scenes so familiar to me over so many years in Baghdad and all the other cauterized cities in Iraq.”

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