New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid died Thursday in Syria of an asthma attack, of all things. He was 43. Phil Bennett, a former Washington Post editor who’d worked with Shadid during his stint at the paper, said, “There is no one to replace him.”
There’s often a great deal of hyperbole at work when a colleague or friend describes another as irreplaceable. If the personnel churn in journalism over the past decade or so has taught us one thing, it’s that fresh talent is always ready to lend energy and intelligence to the profession.
Yet Bennett is justified in reaching for superlatives. That there’s no one to replace Shadid shouldn’t be interpreted as a knock on the state of journalism, either.
Because it wasn’t just that Shadid spoke fluent Arabic. It wasn’t just that Shadid had a passion for the Middle East. And it wasn’t just that Shadid could write “poetry on deadline,” in the words of a former colleague.
It was that Shadid had all of those traits and he could find and tell a story.
In the days after the March 20, 2003, invasion of Iraq, we needed a storyteller on the ground in Iraq. We heard a lot about the movements of U.S. forces and their allies — where they were encountering resistance, where they were rolling over Iraqi forces, where they were likely headed next, etc.
Meanwhile, Shadid, then with The Post, headed into the home of an Iraqi family. What emerged from that visit told me more about life in Iraq than everything I’d read. Datelined Baghdad, March 27, 2003, Shadid’s story told of the struggles of a mother, Karima, and her eight children, one of whom she’d just sent away to fight against the invaders.
“God be with you,” she remembered saying, as her 20-year-old son boarded the rickety red bus for Mosul, a 30-cent fare in his hand. “God protect you.”
Those words, spoken a week ago, were their last.
Her son, a tall, gaunt soldier known for his generosity, traveled five hours to man an antiaircraft battery in Bartalah, about 25 miles north of Mosul. She returned to her three-room apartment, tears running down her face, under a black veil.
“A mother’s heart rests on her son’s heart,” she said. “Every hour, I cry for him.”
Shadid could have interviewed the woman about her views on the United States, thrown it into a survey piece about the mood of the populace and moved on. Instead, he went narrow and deep, a great decision:
Karima’s life has been a chain of tragedies, but she has proved resilient. Her husband died eight years ago. A driver for a Japanese company in Baghdad, he was killed in a wreck when another car’s brakes malfunctioned. She lost her job as a maid when the Lebanese doctor she worked for left Iraq two years ago.
In January, she was evicted from her home, a garage in which the family had pirated running water and electricity. Her eldest son, the breadwinner, joined the army a year and a half ago. Another son, 18, got on the wrong side of the law and served five months in jail for stealing a car. She said the youngest son, 9, is too young to work.
She managed to find another apartment in a run-down building, wires hanging from the ceiling and tattered furniture stacked in the dilapidated hallways. But her rent is about $18 a month, a sum she has no chance of paying. She expects to be evicted again soon.
The temptation here is to keep excerpting the story, but read it in full. You’ll find it on Pulitzer.org, part of the package that won Shadid the 2004 award for international reporting. He won another in 2010 for a number of stories with a ground-level feel.
What made the piece extra-extraordinary was how Shadid managed to get it. In those post-invasion days, Saddam Hussein’s regime, though wobbly, was still intact, and his “minders” from the Iraqi Ministry of Information were shadowing foreign reporters everywhere they went, the better to control the message.
For the story on Karima, Shadid had managed to lose his minder, a feat referenced in the story: “Speaking to a journalist, without the presence of a government escort, Karima expressed sentiments in Baghdad today that seemed confusing, even contradictory.”
Impressed with his maneuvers in such a frantic environment, I reached out to Shadid, who was gracious and happy to chat about his craft. “There is never a conversation that is completely honest in the presence of a minder,” Shadid told me (I was then working at the Washington City Paper).
Shadid says that his minder looked the other way on each of the two outings when he secured clean interviews with Iraqis. In one instance, he told the minder that he was off to visit a friend that he’d met during a previous Baghdad tour of duty. The minder didn’t appear to mind, recalls Shadid. “It may have been a little dodgy, and there were some questions later,” he says. “But we have a good relationship.... He has a job to do, and I have a job to do.... There’s mutual respect and a certain friendliness in that kind of environment.”
Circumstances were changing in Baghdad even as I interviewed Shadid. U.S. forces were closing in on the capital, and Shadid found his leash shortening. “Now is not a good time to be pushing the envelope,” he said.
That statement squares with the reminiscences about the foreign correspondent’s fine sense of risk and judgment. “He was not, in my mind, an adrenaline junkie,” said former Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru. No, he was a professional, a great professional.