The Powerful, Lyrical Writing of Journalist Anthony Shadid (1968-2012)
It was shocking to read about New York Times journalist Anthony Shadid’s death last Thursday. I have been routinely reading his writing about events in the Middle East and, in the past year, the Arab Spring protests. Shadid had won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting and was the author of three books, with a fourth due out soon.
News coverage about Syria routinely points out that reports of events and the numbers of those killed are impossible to verify as the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad does not allow foreign journalists to report from within the country. Shadid died after spending a week in Syria, from a severe asthma attack that seems to have been set off by proximity to the horses of the guides, says the New York Times.
The assignment in Syria, which Mr. Shadid arranged through a network of smugglers, was fraught with dangers, not the least of which was discovery by the pro-government authorities in Syria. The journey into the country required both Mr. Shadid and Mr. [Tyler] Hicks [a photographer for the NYT] to travel at night to a mountainous border area in Turkey adjoining Syria’s Idlib Province, where the demarcation line is a barbed-wire fence. Mr. Hicks said they squeezed through the fence’s lower portion by pulling the wires apart, and guides on horseback met them on the other side. It was on that first night, Mr. Hicks said, that Mr. Shadid suffered an initial bout of asthma, apparently set off by an allergy to the horses, but he recovered after resting.
Shadid suffered a “more severe attack” of asthma as he and Hicks were walking out of Syria towards Turkey after a week. He collapsed and was no longer breathing after a few minutes according to Hicks, who administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation for 30 minutes but was not able to revive Shadid. Hicks was able to get Shadid’s body out of Syria to Turkey.
At least five journalists have died while covering the uprising that began in Syria almost a year ago, in March of 2011. As the New York Times’ Executive Editor, Jill Abramson, said in an email to newspaper staff on Thursday:
“Anthony died as he lived — determined to bear witness to the transformation sweeping the Middle East and to testify to the suffering of people caught between government oppression and opposition forces.”
Shadid won his first Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2004, for his reporting in The Washington Post about the American invasion of Iraq and the occupation afterwards. He won his second Pulitzer in 2010 also for his reporting on Iraq for The Washington Post. He was a finalist for the prize in 2007 for his coverage of Lebanon; the New York Times had nominated him for his coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East in the past year.
Many have written moving tributes to Shadid. This excerpt from his last piece for the New York Times about Libya’s new government’s struggles to control the powerful militias sets his reporting about the current realities in Libya against a broader historical and cultural framework:
Like Tunisia to the west and Egypt to the east, Libya is confronting a diversity Colonel Qaddafi denied so strenuously that he tried to convince the minority Berbers that they were, in fact, Arabs. The revolution has its variation on this theme, appeals that mirror the fears of social fracturing. “No to discord” and “No to tribalism,” declare slogans that adorn the streets.
They all hint at the truth that the Libyan author Hisham Matar evoked in his first novel, “In the Country of Men,” when he wrote, “Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that’s why many feel that it needs to be anxiously guarded.” Authority here peels like an onion, imposed by militias bearing the stamp of towns elsewhere in the west, neighborhoods in the capital, even its streets.
“Where is the rule of law?” asked Ashraf al-Kiki, a vendor who had gone to a police station, the Tripoli Military Council and a militia from Zintan in pursuit of compensation after militiamen shot holes in his car. The scent of the kebab he grilled wafted over speakers playing the national anthem. “This is the rule of force, not the rule of law.”
The New York Times has gathered excerpts from Shadid’s writing. As the newspaper’s former executive editor and columnist Bill Keller says,
“Anthony was first and foremost a witness — an incomparable, reliable witness.”
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Photo by Terissa Schor