Anthony Shadid: Death of an honest witness

Anthony Shadid, at work in Cairo. Photo by Ed Ou. Used with permission.

Rare is the day when the death of a journalist merits a national period of mourning.  But that’s how the passing of New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid feels from here.

Shadid, who won two Pulitzer Prizes while with the Washington Post, was well known for his courage, having survived a shooting in the West Bank (most likely by an Israeli sniper), a kidnapping in Libya, harassment and intimidation by Mubarak cronies in Egypt, and, as an unembedded Post correspondent, the American invasion of Iraq. “After anthony shadid’s unauthorized trip into Syria, the Gov put him on television and called him a spy,” tweeted Shadid’s Times colleague, David Kirkpatrick. “He went back again.”

But courage alone doesn’t explain the unique contribution Anthony Shadid made to American journalism and culture.  As a bilingual, bicultural, Christian Arab American of Lebanese descent, he was predisposed to bring an unprecedented level of understanding to events roiling the Arab world.  The key to his profound contribution, however, goes beyond religion and national origin.  He found his inspiration in the alleys, roadsides and warrens of everyday Arab life.  The insight Shadid transmitted to his readers was gleaned not by simply talking to the powerful in their respective capitals, but from his conversations with barbers, tailors, fruit vendors and the unemployed.

At the brink of the U.S. war with Iraq in 2003, Shadid wrote that Arab disenchantment “flows not from a clash of civilizations or resentment over Western values and lifestyles, but from frustration over U.S., Israeli and official Arab policies.” This conclusion came in large part from listening to the words of Palestinian refugees in the camps in Jordan. “We want just a little justice from America, that’s it,” said Lutfi Khalil, a customer in a “sparse grocery store” with “rows of honey jars alternating with empty shelves.”

From a war-ravaged Baghdad in 2006, Shadid wrote of “the final, frenzied maturity of once-inchoate forces unleashed more than three years ago by the invasion” of Iraq.  This perception came not from chats with commanders and diplomats in the Green Zone, but from life-risking conversations with people like Karima Salman, the “stout Shiite Muslim matriarch” living beside a “dented, rusted steel gate perched along a sagging brick sidewalk,” whose daughter Fatima told Shadid: “One-third of us are dying, one-third of us are fleeing and one-third of us will be widows.”

And Shadid’s assessment of a band of Libyan rebels in the spring of 2011 was reported alongside the formerly faceless protagonists he came to name. “Fear is half of courage,” a 39-year-old rebel named Khalifa al-Awkali told Shadid, as he stood “atop a hill, waving an opposition flag and carrying binoculars.”  The rebel added,  “But we’re not scared, and we’re not going to surrender in the face of this tyrant.”

Four days later, Shadid and three of his Times colleagues were kidnapped by pro-Qaddafi militias.

Shadid’s brilliance lay in relying on his own eyes, ears, and voice – not on status quo conclusions about WMD or the realpolitik of Washington-Arab World relations.  He risked his life not out of bravado, but because he was determined to get on the ground, talk to everyone, and tell a true story.  That’s how he earned his readers’ trust.  And so it will continue, after his death:  In his lovely forthcoming memoir, House of Stone, Shadid turns his keen gaze inward, as he describes literally rebuilding his past in the land of his Lebanese ancestors.

Anthony Shadid was a journalistic giant in the tradition of George Orwell; a chronicler of the voices of ordinary people, in the spirit of Studs Terkel.  As a fellow journalist who’s spent 17 years covering Israel and Palestine, I always sought out Shadid’s writings to help put the broader region’s turmoil into context.  And as someone hoping to transmit journalistic values to the next generation of reporters – first at Berkeley, now at USC – I have treasured his journalism of the heart; his legacy of staying on the ground; his insistence in being an honest witness.



Comments (5)

  • So very sad. Lovely tribute, Sandy.



  • Ranwa Haddad

    Very beautiful and well deserved eulogy. Thank you Sandy.

  • elaine hagopian

    Many thanks to Sandy Tolan for this moving memory and tribute to Anthony Shadid, one of the greatest journalists ever for his insistence on telling the story of the impact of war and power on the lives of ordinary people. Tolan himself shares this category of reporting with his eloquent and informed portrayals of downtrodden peoples.

  • Sandy,

    A moving and lovely tribute to Shadid. You have spoken eloquently for many of us. Well done.

  • Sandy I finally read your blog post about Shadid. A fitting tribute. Thanks for sharing.
    Look forward to catching up soon!