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The war witness

The Middle East was Anthony Shadid’s muse

Written by Alia Allana | Published: February 20, 2012 2:21 am

The Middle East was Anthony Shadid’s muse

The deep static on the telephone line gave his voice a superhuman feel. I was in an unlit phone booth,in a small town found along the porous Syria-Turkey border,desperate to speak to Anthony Shadid,the seasoned,storied and celebrated Middle East War Correspondent.

The town was in the Hatay Province,somewhat like the Wild West of the Middle East where stories of rebels and arms circulated with alarming frequency. Straining my ear to catch every word,I managed to get this. “We will all die. You have the privilege of bearing witness,no time for fear,” he said in response to my question on whether I should cross over into the lawlessness of Syria.

Shadid died in that very same province,crossing the border,due to an asthma attack on Thursday. He was working on a story on the Syrian opposition for the New York Times.

Neither the journey nor the topic was a first for him. In the early days of Syrian uprising,when the rebels were relative unknowns,Shadid travelled with a group on motorbikes and lived underground in safe houses. He wrote of his escapade in the New York Times: “The fear of what’s next — what would follow the collapse of the government — is more pronounced in Syria than anywhere else in the Arab world,and Syrian officials cling to a kind of negative legitimacy: us or chaos.”

An Oklahoma boy of Lebanese descent,he had a passion for stories and the Middle East was his muse. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (in 2004 and 2010),a reporter frenzied to telling the common man’s story,Shadid painted a picture of the Middle East with words. His reportage on Iraq won him both the Pulitzers. He wrote,“Not to say that there is peace in Iraq. As many people are killed today as on any day in 2003 and 2004. Nor is there victory. For any Iraqi,the word,translated into Arabic,draws a dumbfounded look. Victory for whom?”

“My country had taken over another country,and I was watching it happen,” Shadid wrote. Inflated hopes and abandoned promises,he concluded,were reasons why Iraq was a failure. His contribution was in giving voice to the faceless in the war,recounting the common man’s tales of crumbling homes and broken families. Night Draws Near is a portrait of the people of Iraq — from the street sweeper to the terrorist — caught up in the chaos of a world without Saddam Hussein and an occupation that secured the lives of just a few.

“If you go into a house,find out the type of sugar they use,” he once told me. His commitment to detail,his attempt at peeling the very last layer,will also be evident in House of Stone to be published next month. After years of covering the Middle East,Shadid journeyed back to his ancestral village in Lebanon to rebuild his grandmother’s home. The result is a tale of hope and loss: “Cultures that may seem as durable as stone can break like glass,leaving all the things that held them together unattended.”

Shadid was no stranger to danger. In 2002,while reporting for the Boston Globe in Ramallah he was hit by a bullet on his shoulder. More recently,he was kidnapped in Libya while reporting on the invasion. His commitment and conviction to the story,he once said,placed him in “silly” risks but he wouldn’t live life any other way.

His death came hours after the UN General Assembly had overwhelmingly voted for a resolution condemning the violence in Syria. In our many conversations over the course of the “Arab Spring”,Syria,he said,was the most volatile crisis in the Middle East. What had once started as a peaceful cry for change in a hermit state had morphed into a civil war that continuously showed signs of escalation. He expressed fear,that parties nor rebels,nor the government,would back down. World players,he said,were “too chicken” to intervene.

He toiled over the risks associated with reporting on Syria because of the government policy on keeping journalists out. Tyler Hicks,the Times photojournalist on the story with Shadid,said the asthma attack could have been brought on by animals as they were riding horseback. Ironic because only recently had he questioned whether the Syrian government wanted to take the people back to the dark ages where trade was conducted in caravans and barter was the norm.

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