Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Journalism Without Anthony Shadid!

By Namo Abdulla -- for Rudaw

Anthony Shadid- photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post

The New York Times can no longer be as good as it once was on the Middle East. From now on, we will know much less about this intricate, tumultuous, but pivotal region. That is because Anthony Shadid has died.

After I returned home from university on Thursday evening, I did what I usually do: opened the New York Times website to learn where Syria’s pro-democracy protestors stood in their long and bloody struggle to topple a dictator who exercises little restraint in murdering his own people. I was hoping to read another masterpiece by Shadid, who had secretly snuck into Syria from a border demarcated by barbed wires.

Instead, I was told that the best journalist of the era hadn’t lived more than 43 years.

I didn’t believe what I was reading. I wanted to shout: “The New York Times is the worst liar.” After all the adventures he took, Shadid couldn’t have died from asthma triggered by horse allergies.

But soon my eyes seemed to believe the news as they started to send teardrops down my cheeks. It had been a long time since I had wept. But this time it was for Shadid, one of the best and kindest persons I had ever known and had the honor to work with as a translator, fixer and reporter. I will forever remain honored by a single byline I shared with him.

Long before working with him in late 2010, I had made Shadid my must-read author. I was a constant reader of his dispatches for the Washington Post, where he won two Pulitzer prizes for his reporting in Iraq, where he went when the war broke out in 2003.

On Jan. 22, 2010, after reading a story by him, I wished I had his email so I could tell him, “Thank you for this great work.” Right away, I thought of Ayub Nuri, a friend who is now the editor of this website and had previously mentioned that he had met Shadid. He sent me the address:“shadida@washpost.com.”

But it wasn’t helpful. By the time I wanted to send him an email, he had already left the Post to join the Times. After a few months, an opportunity came up for me to work as a stringer for the Times in Kurdistan, where I finally met Shadid.

The first time I met him was at the Safeer Hotel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan where giant oil fields had been discovered, allowing the region to flourish like nowhere else in Iraq. He was accompanied by Ayman Oghanaa, a photographer, and Duraid Adnan, a Baghdad-based reporter for the Times. Since I had previously known both of them, we shook hands and hugged each other. Then, I found myself standing in front of Shadid, who introduced himself just like an unknown, ordinary person. “I’m Anthony,” he said. I looked at him for a bit, saying, “You think I don’t know you?” He laughed. I said something else that made everybody laugh: “Just tell me how can you write like that?”

After that, Anthony became a great friend who always fulfilled my never-ending demands, be it a job recommendation letter or even proofreading an essay. He would write, “Let me know if there's anything more I can do. Good luck, my friend!” To be exact, I copied these two sentences from his last email nearly two months ago after he wrote me a reference letter. He put aside all his great reporting on an increasingly tumultuous Middle East, which he singlehandedly helped the world understand better, for a while to do me a favor. “What kind of person is he?” I wondered. “For a journalistic giant,” wrote Tim Arango, the Times Baghdad bureau chief, about Shadid, “the only thing missing from his toolbox was a massive ego.”

“One of my milestones was hiring Anthony Shadid in 2009 -- on at least the third try,” said Bill Keller, former executive editor of the Times, which said, “Mr. Shadid's hiring by The Times at the end of 2009 was widely considered a coup for the newspaper.”

First through his writings and then his friendship, Shadid taught me that journalism was more than just a profession. It seemed that Shadid himself loved it more than his life. He was shot, arrested and tortured but never quit war reporting. For two decades, Shadid risked his life in Palestine, Iraq, Libya and Syria to allow us to know better and, in our case, to be heard better. He never regretted what he was doing. “I felt that if I wasn't there, the story wouldn't be told otherwise,” he replied to a NPR reporter’s question on why he was risking his life by going to Syria on motorcycle to report on a bloody protest. Shadid seemed crazy about the truth.

Shadid wrote many unmatched stories about Iraq, where he, unlike many other foreign reporters who would report from their hotel rooms, took advantage of his fluency in Arabic to go to Iraq’s troubled slums and towns to dig up stories no one else could uncover. It was he who, long before everybody else, told the world that it was Iraq’s turban-wearing Shiite clerics who would have most influence in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where President Bush once promised to deliver democracy with guns.

One of the most powerful passages that I still remember was in a story he wrote about the withdrawal of some American troops in 2009:

"From the once-proud city of Baghdad, they have withdrawn through a landscape that bears the scars of the battles they fought and witnessed, where the echoes of occupation still sound along the road in the grunts of anarchy and the whispers of abandonment. Everything seems bent and broken, torn and tangled, from the railing on the highway to the signs bearing names of faraway destinations to the rubble piling up along the curbside. At least those curbs are not yet crumbling."

Unlike most terms suffixed with an “ism,” journalism is not an ideology. But it might be a religion, which makes people like Shadid passionately practice. Last week, this era’s prophet of journalism died.

The author is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School. Follow him on Twitter at #namo_abdulla, or email him at: naa2138@columbia.edu

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