‘REMARKABLE’ ANTHONY SHADID
I KNEW him through the time of the revolution, seated - perched really - at a round table in the Cairo bureau of The New York Times. He was never alone. He had no office. The old three-legged wooden table was not a desk.
The pressure over the 18 days leading to Hosni Mubarak’s fall never relented. Nor did his delight in what he chronicled.
That was how I came to understand the quality of Anthony Shadid. “Remarkable,” he would say in that even but intense voice as the Tahrir drama twisted. At most, in search of a transition, he’d adjourn for a pace and smoke on the balcony; his civility and the gleam in his eye were unwavering.
He had his theme, caught by a sentence in his first dispatch from the square: “They seized control of their lives.” Arabs - long dominated, derided, dismissed - had become protagonists of their destiny on the very “Arab Street” once a synonym for their debasement.
Yes, remarkable - as was Shadid in his poise and modesty - leaning into his laptop at the epicentre of a bureau that purred without tension because of his passion to tell, but not to own in any confining sense, a story he had prefigured countless times. His explorations of Arab societies not static or dehumanised - freed from the distorting lens of the West - offered portraits of places and people adapting with difficulty to modernity. To reductive cradles of Islamic fanaticism, images that satisfied a Western thirst, his counterpoint was portraits of civilisations whose wounds did not efface their poetry. He relished contradiction. He abhorred the bellicosity of simplification in the angry post-9/11 age. This was important corrective work, brave and persistent, and until his premature death at 43 in Syria, it made a difference. A rare journalist in the cacophony still can.
“He had a particular gift for empathising with the Arab world and translating it for the West,” said David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo Bureau chief whose own generous spirit and boundless inquiry meshed with Shadid’s to make that bureau hum.
Kirkpatrick recalled a throwaway Shadid phrase that condensed millennia to contrast Tahrir with a self-mocked Egyptian submissiveness reaching back to the Pharaohs: “A people who once complained of their own quiescence would no longer stay quiet.” Shadid opened doors - in journalism; for some journalists; and to something transcendent.
First, the journalism: He was a listener prepared to sit through silences. He would go back, as to Thuluyah, the Iraqi town whose agony encapsulated a suffering Americans came to wave away; and to Syria, where Hama-style bludgeoning of Arab aspiration called.
He was haunted by victims who would not get heard and so gave each a name. He was after the big thought - he pressed me for what lessons the bloody aftermath of Communism’s fall in Bosnia might hold for the Arab Spring - but it was through people’s intimate struggles that he came to his ideas. He was a war correspondent uninterested in weapons. His last piece, a portrait of a Tunisian Islamist, captured the quest for a synthesis of faith and democracy at the heart of Arab transformations. Shadid, working from the inside out, saw psychology as history.
Second, the journalist: He was an Arab-American (albeit one who believed that “to hyphenate ourselves is limiting”) working at a time when Arab-Americans faced harassment. His courage had particular resonance. “He was huge for us and seemed to open up in American journalism a new space for the kinds of stories we were interested in,” said Kareem Fahim, a Times correspondent who was part of that Cairo bureau magic.
“After a lot of caricature, his long stories about ordinary people in the Middle East felt like a huge innovation.” Third, the transcendence: In a conversation in 2010 with Christopher Lydon, Shadid spoke of saying “something that might actually, you know, ripen with age.” Another word for that is literature.
He wrote with an awareness of the sweep of history, a healthy mistrust of “objectivity,” and a deep sense of place and identity. His majestic 2010 portrait of a destroyed Baghdad building, once the house of an aesthete, is full of an elegiac quality peculiarly Shadid’s: “There is a line of ancient poetry,” he writes, “that every educated Arab can recite. ‘Stop and let us weep,’ it famously begins, ‘for the beloved and the home’.” In this spirit he had returned in 2006 to his family’s Lebanese village of Marjayoun to restore a house built by his great-grandfather - the subject of his forthcoming book ‘House of Stone.’ The house had been partially destroyed by an Israeli rocket. Shadid invited me to visit.
A regret among many is that we will not now have the conversation we might have had there - one between differently-hyphenated Americans touching on the ironies of history and family upheaval and destroyed villages from central Europe to the Middle East and what such violence bequeaths.