It's hard to accept that there won't be any more Anthony Shadid bylines in my morning paper. He'd been doing it so well for so long that I'd begun to take for granted his readiness to get the story of the Arab world, however hard the place—Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Syria—and bring it to us with his characteristic thoughtfulness and grace. What's happening in the Iraqi south now that the Sadr militia has joined the political process? Anthony knows that terrain better than any foreigner. Is Tripoli about to fall? Shadid will get inside as soon as he can. Is Cairo having another revolution? He's there and knows how to explain why it's happening. If anyone can get into Homs, it'll be Anthony. He combined professional excellence with quiet indefatigability, so that you only noticed it when he wasn't on the scene. He was the Cal Ripken of foreign correspondents.
By the time I got to Iraq in the summer of 2003, Shadid knew so much about the state of Iraqis under American occupation that it was impossible to imagine anyone in the tribe of foreign reporters ever quite catching up. I met him in early 2004 at a poker game in the Washington Post bureau (it consisted of a few disorderly rooms at the decrepit and frequently targeted Sheraton Hotel). He was a little too gentle and transparent to be as good a poker player as he was a reporter. He wore the depth of his knowledge so lightly, and was so open with any newcomer who wanted to tap into it. I remember Anthony complaining about being taken for a spy by Sadrists in Najaf, a hazard of speaking fluent Arabic and passing in a crowd. It was a liability few other foreigners could hope to have. He kept returning to the subject of the Mahdi Army: he expressed a lot of empathy for the poor young Shiites who were flocking to its banner, even as he worried about their capacity for violence and extremism. (Not long after that night, the Sadrists staged an insurrection across the country that radically changed the course of the war.) Most of all, he knew that Iraq's future belonged to those young Iraqis, not to the nominally pro-Western politicians with whom less deeply immersed journalists spent their time.
His book "Night Draws Near," about the Iraqis he got to know so well those first two years of the occupation, didn't get as much attention as it deserved. Americans, predictably, were more interested in books that focussed on themselves, their own ambitions and sacrifices and wrongdoings. Now that Anthony is gone, I hope more readers will discover his book's lyricism, its humaneness, and will see how much of the tragedy of the Iraq War was contained and foreseen in the astounding work that Shadid did in those early years, when he roamed the country on his own.
The foreign reporters covering that unpredictably brutal war sometimes expressed surprise and relief at how few of us were even hurt, let alone killed. (By contrast, Iraqi journalists and fixers were getting killed almost every week.) After enough escapes and near misses, you start to think that it won't happen to you, or to anyone you really care about. But ever since the battle and the story have moved from Iraq to other countries, the odds have caught up and the world has lost—in addition to Libyan, Syrian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Afghan, and other local journalists—the filmmaker Tim Hetherington, the photographer Chris Hondros, and now the reporter Anthony Shadid, while the photographer Joao Silva was terribly wounded by a mine. To me, the fact that Tyler Hicks, who was with Anthony when he died and has been through everything that war has to offer in the decade since September 11th, is still alive constitutes a small miracle.
The usual thing to say is that they are risking, sometimes giving, their lives in order to bear witness to human facts that the rest of us need to know. This is also the correct thing to say. Anthony and the others deserve honor and gratitude as much as any fallen soldiers. Still, I wish it weren't so. I wish they didn't have to do it. I wish their kids, if they had them (Anthony had two), got to grow up with fathers. And I hope some of my friends will slow down, maybe even stop and turn to less dangerous subjects, before the wars claim them, too.
Photograph by Bill O'Leary/AP Photo/The Washington Post.
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