Colleagues recall Shadid as extraordinary reporter, kind friend

February 17, 2012

Here are some reactions from colleagues to the death of Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent who brought the Middle East alive on the pages of the Boston Globe, Washington Post and New York Times. Shadid died in Syria while reporting for the New York Times.

Phil Bennett, former Washington Post managing editor

It was about 3 a.m. in Washington in March 2003, on the eve of the war in Iraq, when Anthony called me at home. We’d ordered The Post’s correspondents out of Baghdad.

“I know you might fire me,” he said. “But I’m not leaving. I’ve been preparing for this my entire career.”

And so over the next three weeks, he stayed. His work then was the best run of journalism I’ve seen in 30 years; I don’t expect to see better. In those few days, Anthony somehow saw, through the simple accumulation of voices and details and his own quiet presence, the soul of Iraq and Iraqis in a way that anticipated what would follow: the confusion, hope, disillusion, distrust, sadness, heroism, futility and cruelty. The entire history of a misunderstanding, unfolding even before it could be fully understood.

How could he possibly have been prepared? Even in the most dire circumstances, with his life at risk, Anthony had the ability to match the big idea — about history, identity, faith, language — with the small things he could see in front of him, and the people around him. His courage never seemed fearless; he seemed determined to report and write through his fear. He lived as a witness.

Anthony wrote many great stories over the last decade. Nobody captured the language and emotions and roots of change in the Middle East with the same care, wisdom and feeling for the bridge between the past and present. He had come full circle in recent years, back to the Lebanon of his grandparents, of his wife Nada, restoring the Shadid family home in the town of Marjayoun.

In his memoir of that project, not yet published, he wrote about laboring to build something beautiful as an antidote to violence and war: “Cultures that may seem as durable as stone can break like glass, leaving all the things that held them together unattended. I believe that the craftsman, the artist, the cook, and the silversmith are peacemakers. They instill grace; they lull the world to calm.”


David Hoffman, former Washington Post foreign editor

Anthony Shadid’s magic was reporting. Everywhere he went, he absorbed stories about people and their trials. Once when he was working on his second book, Night Draws Near, we had a long talk about how to do it. And I saw how he did it: bundles of notebooks from Iraq, thousands of pages — stories, impressions, smells and sights. One young girl’s diary about those terrible days of war became part of the book, but the diary came to life in his hands.

For years before the Arab Spring, Anthony had given thought to the tensions building up in the Middle East. We had talked often about identity, and whether the old order would eventually crack. In early 2006, he wrote his editors at The Post a letter sketching out what he wanted to do. He wrote, “Identity, I think, sits at the heart of everything going on in the Arab world today.” He wanted to probe what would happen when the frozen leadership of Arab countries would crack. He said Arab peoples were asking, “ ‘How do we conceive ourselves? And what system best expresses that?’ So far, the answer is being formulated through a reversion to more ancient identities — ethnic and sectarian loyalties that are playing a role unprecedented in more than a century. To me, this moment is no less sweeping than that experienced by Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Cold War.” And he was right. The Arab spring was what he had been waiting for.

Anthony was extremely sensitive to the dangers of war reporting. For all his extraordinary journalism amid conflict, he hated the violence. Once, he passed through a tense checkpoint in Iraq only to see the cars behind him hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. He called me soon afterwards, voice trembling, and as he told the story, I knew how deeply he prized life.

He was also a courageous journalist whose motive was to bear witness to lands and peoples that he loved and deeply understood. During the last war in southern Lebanon, he drove by car through the hillsides of his forebears, one eye and ear cocked for incoming shells from Israeli forces. He knew of a hospital where the wounded would be taken. He took the risks not for his own glory but to tell their story.

He wrote in his page-one story July 25, 2006, from Tibnin, Lebanon:

The Israeli shells thundered into the charred hillside above the Tibnin General Hospital. There were two, then another, then two more, the uneven cadence of an attack on Tuesday. The walls shuddered and acrid smoke drifted through the building. Huddled inside were at least 1,350 Lebanese in hallways, rooms, stairwells, a lobby and a basement lit by a few candles, hiding with little water, less food and almost no hope of salvation from a war that provoked their flight and had returned to their doorstep.

“Oh Lord!” cried 60-year-old Saadeh Awadeh, leaping up from a tattered cushion against a wall. “God stop the bombs!”


Steve Fainaru, former Washington Post reporter, who worked with Shadid in Iraq

He was the best journalist I’d ever seen — without any question. He was the best reporter, his attention to detail was amazing, he wrote poetry on deadline. He’s just completely unflappable. (But) all I can think of is him as a person. He was one of the kindest, most compassionate, most empathetic people I ever met. He’s such a great friend.

And that’s what made him so great as a journalist — he was able to somehow find compassion and empathy in everything he touched and wrote about.

And he combined that with these extraordinary gifts that he had. He was also the hardest-working journalist I’d ever seen.

You were in awe of the guy. And he was fearless, in a completely understated way.

I remember one time we were in Kirkuk (in northern Iraq).... I remember asking at one place, do you think this is safe? His response was, “I don’t know.” And then he was gone. He was off reporting....

He was not , in my mind, an adrenaline junkie. He took the risks grudgingly, because that’s where the story was.


Omar Fekeiki, former Washington Post foreign correspondent

Back in 2003, when I was just starting to enjoy the adrenaline of reporting the news in Iraq, Anthony Shadid was already writing history. We worked together in Baghdad, although saying “worked together” is kind of a stretch. In reality, I was a student learning from one of the best mentors.

Of all the days and months and years Anthony and I worked together, there is one day I will never forget. It was sometime in early September 2003. Anthony called me outside our office in the Jadiriya neighborhood of Baghdad. We walked around the backyard, and he asked, “Is that what you want to do for a living, journalism?”

Days earlier, on August 29, I had compiled a report from several TV stories on a devastating car bomb in the southern city of Najaf that killed scores of Iraqis, including a prominent Shiite cleric. I e-mailed the report to Anthony, who was already in Najaf. I knew he was stuck reporting in a very short radius, given the hundreds of thousands of people who poured into the streets to condemn the attack. His e-mail back said only, “Thanks. That’s exactly what I needed.” That was the day my journalism career had started.

Back on that September day, I answered his question. “Yes,” I said. “I think I want to be a journalist.”

“Well. I’ll help you. You should start writing your reports as if you want to publish them. Send them to me and I’ll help you.” And he lived up to his promise.

Years later, in late 2006, I was attending a speech Anthony gave at a bookstore in Berkeley, Calif. Before he started, he mentioned me to the audience and said, “Omar is a colleague. I’m proud to watch him grow as a journalist, and I’m proud to be his colleague.”

That’s Anthony as I know him and will always remember him. If you met him, you’d have noticed that he’s not someone who walked with a sign on his chest saying “maybe the greatest journalist of our time,” but he deserved to do so. Sometimes I felt he was unaware of the effect his presence made on journalism students and readers like me, but we all knew who and what he was.

His stories about the day-to-day life in Iraq, my country of birth and my residence for 28 years, were so rich and full of information that I actually studied them. He taught me a lot about my country. The news of his departure is terrible for everyone who appreciates real journalism, let alone people who knew him and worked with him. A gentle soul and a great mentor, Anthony left a great legacy behind. I know I should not be sad that he’s gone, because people like him have a place in heaven, and he won’t be forgotten. But I will always feel sad that I won't find his byline in the newspaper, that I won’t be able to ask for his advice. It’s our loss.


Liz Sly, Washington Post Beirut Bureau Chief

Anthony Shadid had the gift not only of being able to penetrate the complexities of the Middle East but to elucidate them with a breathtaking eloquence that left you saying yes, that’s exactly how it is. He was also as wonderful a person as he was a journalist. He would have had every right to be arrogant, but that was the last word you would ever associate with him. He was a warm and generous colleague and friend, always willing to share insights, tips and help out with logistics. He could be endearingly humble about his own brilliant work and was quick to praise that of others. It was only at the poker table that you caught glimpses of his competitive spirit.  But even when he lost, which wasn’t often, he did so with the same easy grace that he brought to his writing. His death leaves a gaping hole for all those who knew him, the Middle East and journalism.


Leila Fadel, Washington Post Cairo Bureau Chief

In 2001, I was a news assistant at The Boston Globe, answering phones on the foreign desk, wishing I were a foreign correspondent.

Most correspondents who called in had no time to speak to a college student who aspired to be a journalist. Most didn’t even have time to be polite. Anthony Shadid was the exception. He told stories with extraordinary humanity about a region that he and I were inextricably linked to because of our backgrounds. Like him, I am an American of Lebanese descent.

One year, when I had been rejected from every newspaper internship I had applied for, I called him, dejected. He told me several intern programs had turned him down. He saved every rejection letter and looked back at them with belated satisfaction. They had been wrong about him.

That was Anthony. He always had time to offer advice, put in a good word for you, give you a pep talk between writing articles and making dangerous trips across borders. He was a terrific advocate for young journalists who looked up to him and sought to emulate his work, but never could.

He was a brilliant writer and reporter who shattered the stereotypes of the Middle East. He proved that there was a different way to tell stories from the Arab World, stories that unfolded outside the stale offices of politicians and diplomats. He risked his life to give the most vulnerable a voice. There was nothing in his work that painted a picture of otherness in a foreign land. He showed humanity, reporting on the tough decisions in the midst of war made by mothers, fathers and families. He told the truth in the most beautiful way, with history, humanity and unrivaled intellectual heft.

Even when he was shot in the head by birdshot in Tahrir Square last year, he didn’t go to the hospital because he was too busy writing what he’d seen.

His stories were an inspiration but his kindness was even more impressive than his talent. I was one of many younger journalists who turned to him for advice. Those phone calls led to an 11-year friendship that I cherish.

He set a standard of great journalism and unlike so many in this business of big egos, he had so much compassion that shined through in his stories and his relationships with relatives and friends. He spent so much time showing pictures of Malik and Laila, his kids, and speaking of his love and gratitude toward his wife, Nada. Laila had decided she wanted to be a writer like her dad and was learning Arabic.

In Baghdad, I complimented him on a beautiful piece he told of the loss of life in Iraq. He followed a mother and her family on the search for her missing son. The story took us from that first glimpse when she recognized her son among the pictures of unidentified corpses flashing on a screen at the Baghdad morgue to the burial in Najaf in southern Iraq.

He wrote back “that piece really took it out of me. I broke down at the cemetery. I felt like I knew him in the end, and I just sat staring, wondering why so many people had to die, and for what.”

That was Anthony.


Kevin Sullivan, former Post foreign correspondent, now Sunday and Features editor

In late July 2003, as I was preparing to leave The Post’s Baghdad bureau after a summer assignment there, a brief notice in a local Iraqi paper caught my eye. It was about a man who had been forced by his fellow villagers to kill his own son because he was suspected of being an informant for the U.S. military.

It was an extraordinary story, if true, but I doubted that I would be able to do it justice. In a village where they were killing people for talking to Americans, I didn’t imagine I would stand a chance of getting to the truth.

But I knew who would. I handed the paper to my colleague Anthony Shadid. With his flawless Arabic, his easy familiarity with the ways of Iraq and his titanium nerves, Anthony was the perfect person to determine just what had happened.

And a few days later, on Aug. 1, his story appeared on the front page of The Washington Post. It was lyrical and powerful as we had all come to routinely expect from Anthony. Not only did he find Salem, the father, but the man who had just shot his eldest son to death opened up and explained himself to Anthony. Here’s what he wrote:

“ ‘I have the heart of a father, and he’s my son,’ Salem said. ‘Even the prophet Abraham didn’t have to kill his son.’ He dragged on a cigarette. His eyes glimmered with the faint trace of tears. ‘There was no other choice,’ he whispered.”

Those lines, which were part of Anthony’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning entry, are how I will remember Anthony as a journalist and a person: smart and brave enough to find that story, kind and decent enough to treat that tortured father with respect and dignity, and gifted enough to write prose that sang elegantly of the cost of the war on ordinary Iraqis.

Mary Beth Sheridan, Washington Post editor

Anthony Shadid is justly remembered for his remarkable journalism. But what I’ll always remember is his kindness.

Shortly after Baghdad fell in 2003, I left my embed with the U.S. Army and made my way to Baghdad, joining a handful of other Post reporters sleeping on floors and doubled up in beds in a downtown pair of well-guarded hotels. Every night at about 1 a.m., I’d bring the story I’d just finished writing to Anthony’s room. I was no Middle East expert, and I wanted him to have a look before I filed.

Anthony would be bashing out his story by candlelight—usually a major 45-inch front-page piece. My offering was more modest. But every night, despite the deadline pressure, he’d stop and read my piece, offering an insight, correcting a date, making a suggestion. He would do it with a smile. (Anthony’s eyes smiled too).

I’ve been struck by what an impact he had on my colleagues at The Post. One staffer recounted how kind he was to her during one of his visits to Washington. “And I’m just a peon,” she said. That was Anthony.

Marty Baron, editor of the Boston Globe

(Recalling how he rushed to Israel in 2002 after getting word that Shadid, then a Boston Globe correspondent, had been shot in the West Bank on Easter Sunday during deadly street battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters):

I just got word he was shot in Ramallah. We didn’t know what the circumstances were, but he ended up in a hospital in Jerusalem. I flew over just to see him. It was amazing, seeing him in the hospital. Here was a person that, despite what happened to him ,was still remarkably positive about things, demonstrated a real eagerness to get out of the hospital, get back in the field. It was clear his wounds were not going to stop him, even though it looked like he was going to have severely limited mobility in at least one of his shoulders. He was amazingly resilient.

He had such a love for the story of the region, and a passion for telling that story.

James F. Smith, former foreign editor of the Boston Globe

(Recalling the 2002 shooting):

Even though Anthony was badly wounded, he didn’t want to come out of Ramallah unless he was allowed to take a Palestinian colleague with him through the Israeli checkpoint. It took hours to negotiate that passage, and Anthony’s life was at risk, but he wouldn’t come out on his own. It was an example of the kind of courage and concern for others that Anthony showed again and again, throughout his career.

Anthony was driven to be there, to see for himself and to tell the stories of ordinary people, in the very best tradition of foreign correspondents. He mastered Arabic so he could talk to people, unfiltered by others. No other reporter covered the region with as much depth of knowledge, cultural awareness and historical context as Anthony Shadid.

Len Downie, former Washington Post executive editor

Anthony Shadid was one of best foreign correspondents of his generation, combining rare erudition about the Middle East and Islam with on-the-ground detail and human stories. His writing combined prose poetry with sophisticated analysis. Tragically, he died as he worked, going to the heart of the story. He was also a wonderful person and a generous colleague. All of us who had the privilege of working with and knowing him will miss him terribly.


John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore, former Washington Post reporters

We were friends and colleagues with Anthony while serving as The Washington Post correspondents in Jerusalem at the height of the second Palestinian intifada and in the Baghdad bureau during the Iraq war.

Anthony was easily the best Middle East correspondent of our generation and one of the best writers in journalism today. He had unbelievable powers of observation and analysis built on the depth of his reporting. He possessed a narrative style that was incredibly eloquent, and all his own. He could use the life of a single individual, such as a simple bookseller, and weave a narrative of the hopes, fears and experiences of an entire nation.

Anthony was seemingly fearless, wandering the streets of Baghdad when the rest of us were cowering in the Baghdad bureau and even Iraqis dared not come out of their homes. And though Anthony went where no other reporter dared tread, none ever questioned the veracity of what he wrote. His work ethic was there for all to observe; you could see and read it in his face, and feel it in his copy.

What truly set Anthony apart, however, was not his writing or his journalism. Above all, Anthony was an extraordinary gentleman—a rare commodity in the rough and ego-driven world of foreign correspondents. He was generous with his wisdom; he was kind and tender-hearted. He never flouted his talent, his stature or his awards. He brought depth and intelligence into the Baghdad bureau every time he stepped through the door. He had a genuine smile that could light up the darkest days of the war.

Anthony was respected by all who knew him, from the Baghdad bureau staffers who risked their own lives to protect him to presidents he interviewed to the families who told them their stories over endless cups of sugared tea and helped him bring those stories to the world.

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