The importance of Shadid’s writings to Americans and Arabs cannot be overstated. His reporting was unique, reflecting both his understanding of the history and culture of the Arab world and his concern for its people.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Shadid appreciated the fact that the story of the region didn’t begin the day he got the assignment. His reporting reflected a historian’s appreciation for context. He understood contemporary Arab realities because he knew whence they had come. And for this reason, he also had a better sense of where Arabs were going than most of the pundits and commentators who fill our airwaves with their endless and often wrongheaded chatter.
More than that, Shadid’s work was distinguished by a poet’s sense of texture. He wrote not with an ego, but with an eye for detail and an ear for the voices he heard. Where others were “embedded” with troops, he walked the streets of war-torn Arab countries “embedded” with people, bringing to life, for the rest of us, what ordinary Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, etc., were seeing and saying and feeling.
He cared about the Arab people. To him, they were not faceless objects or the “other side” of a conflict. They were real people with hopes and fears, with stories worth telling.
What he brought home to his readers were the voices of his subjects and their stories as they were unfolding through their eyes. When you read a Shadid dispatch from Baghdad, Beirut or Tripoli, it was as if you had been transported to that place. The sounds and smells of the streets where he walked, the warmth of the homes he visited and the emotions, and concerns, of the people he met, all came through in full force.
He often put himself in harm’s way to bring us stories we needed to read. He was shot and wounded by the Israeli military in 2003, covering West Bank violence; he was at risk in Iraq, staying with families whose lives were impacted by war and terror; he was kidnapped, held hostage and abused in Libya, telling the story of the early stages of that country’s revolt; and he died of a freakish asthma attack while researching a story inside Syria that no one else could or would cover in quite the same way.
The last time I spoke with him was after his release from captivity in Libya. He didn’t dwell on what had happened to him, he was on to the next story to tell. In a way, he was relentless in his passion for his craft. It was more than a job, it was his mission.
For his work, he won two Pulitzer prizes. But for the contributions he made to our understanding of a region we need to know, but do not, we owe Anthony Shadid so much more.
If not for him, the voices of everyday folks across the Arab world would not have had an outlet to be heard. We would not have known of the dilemma faced by ordinary Iraqis as they struggled with the life and death issues of war and occupation; we would not have seen up close the impact of Israel’s horrific bombing of Lebanon; we would have not experienced the Arab Spring, with all its exultation and frustration from Egypt to Syria.
The Arab American Institute recognised Shadid’s work in 2007. Following a moving tribute by Hollywood actor Tony Shalhoub, Shadid took the stage. What impressed everyone most was his quietness. He was a gentle and humble soul. His greatness lay not in his projection of “self” but in his ability to serve as a conduit for others — he told us their stories, not his own; he brought them to life and made us all aware of their reality.
Shadid was a man for others, for Arabs and Americans. He was our bridge to a world we have a profound impact on, but whose reality we do not know. And now he is gone.
I grieve for him and for his family. And I grieve, as well, for the countless souls in a troubled region who told their stories to Shadid so he could relay them to the rest of us.
He was a man for others. This was his greatness and this is why we must lament his death.