In the summer of 2003, when the rest of the press corps in Baghdad fixated upon the lives of American soldiers in the desert and the nascent efforts to rebuild Iraq’s government, Anthony Shadid jumped into a white Chevy Caprice and headed south to the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
He spent days on end in Najaf’s labyrinthine alleys, gazing into seminaries and seeking out the most influential religious leaders of Iraq’s newly empowered majority sect. He grasped long before any other journalist, and well before the U.S. officials cloistered in the Green Zone, that the new center of power in Iraq rested with the grand ayatollahs of Shiite Islam. He called them the men with “ten-gallon turbans,” and he wrote the most vivid, insightful pieces about them, usually composed on deadline — on a Saturday afternoon for the Sunday Washington Post — fueled by two packs of Marlboro Lights.
New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner whose dispatches captured untold stories from Baghdad under "shock and awe" bombing to Libya wracked by civil war, died Thursday of an asthma attack in Syria. (Feb. 17)
He banged out such lines as: “Ahead of him was the future of a country where Sadr’s followers are seeking to turn his legacy into power and, en route, discover the elusive intersection of religion and politics that has bedeviled the Muslim world for a generation.”
It was vintage Shadid. Eloquent and prescient. Graceful and gripping.
His death on Thursday, from an apparent asthma attack while on a reporting trip in Syria, has deprived American journalism of its most gifted foreign correspondent in a generation. His coverage of the Middle East — from Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and beyond — was, simply, the best. He set the standard. If you cared about the region, if you really wanted to understand what was going on, you read Anthony. If you were in his presence, as I was — we were fellow correspondents and housemates in Baghdad — you watched his performances with the awe usually reserved for basketball stars and violin virtuosos.
His colleagues got it. He won two Pulitzer Prizes in a six-year span. His first, in 2004, was a result, according to the Pulitzer board, of “his extraordinary ability to capture, at personal peril, the voices and emotions of Iraqis as their country was invaded, their leader toppled and their way of life upended.”
He found humanity amid the rubble, compassion in the tableau of violence. He wrote about war by focusing on people, with intimate detail, revealing their lives in elegiac prose.
Anthony never let the plaudits go to his head. He could have had his choice of cushy assignments in Europe or the United States. He could have become a successful commentator or analyst. But his heart was in the Middle East — and in the story. He kept going out to report — to talk to people, to observe, to understand. Sometimes, it involved great personal peril — he stayed in Baghdad through the shock-and-awe bombing campaign, he traveled through southern Lebanon during the 2006 war and Israeli invasion, and he was kidnapped in Libya with three other New York Times journalists — but he was no adrenaline junkie. He did it because he wanted to know what was really happening. And that couldn’t be gleaned from a distance.