Against Cynicism

Anthony Shadid

The veteran American reporter Anthony Shadid died on Thursday while on assignment in Syria for The New York Times. He was a well-respected, award-winning Middle East correspondent who had worked for a string of prestigious newsgathering organizations based in the US. He was 43 years old at the time of his death, and leaves behind a wife and two children.

He collapsed as he was smuggling himself across the Turkish-Syrian border, together with a colleague from the newspaper, photographer Tyler Hicks. The cause of his death was believed to be an asthma attack. He died at the scene, despite attempts to resuscitate him.

His death brings to an end an illustrious career in American journalism and his admired coverage of the Middle East. Unlike many of his contemporaries Mr Shadid was fluent in Arabic, and was famed for his ability to tell the stories of ordinary people struggling to survive amidst conflict, with elegant and engaging prose.

Born into a Lebanese-American family in Oklahoma City in 1968, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1990, and went to work as a journalist, becoming a correspondent for the Associated Press in Cairo five years later in 1995. He would later move to the Boston Globe and then The Washington Post.  He joined The New York Times in 2009, and covered the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria for the paper.

It was while reporting from Iraq that he won not one but two Pulitzer prizes—the highest award in American journalism—for his reporting on the lives of ordinary Iraqis swept up in the chaos of the invasion and occupation. The first was awarded in 2004, the second in 2010, and he was nominated again in 2011. He also received several other honors, including the Ridenhour Book Prize in 2006 for his book The Night Draws Near, the Michael Kelly Award, the George Polk Award and an Overseas Press Club Award. The American University of Beirut awarded him and honorary Doctorate last year, the same institution where he had been a Fellow in 2008.

He had faced death and injury in the course of his work before, but was not deterred from continuing his work. In 2002 he was shot and wounded while reporting from Ramallah in the West Bank. The bullet entered his shoulder, narrowly missing his spine. While reporting from Libya in 2011 he was detained for a week and beaten by pro-Qadhafi militiamen, together with three fellow journalists, and their driver was killed.

He also faced official harassment while reporting from Egypt during the ouster of Mubarak, and was once forced to hide his team’s computers to prevent them being confiscated or destroyed during a police raid designed to silence them.

As well as his newspaper reporting, Mr Shadid was the author of three well-received books: Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats and the New Politics of Islam in 2000, The Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadows of America’s War in 2005, and the forthcoming House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East.  The latter will be published this year, and discusses his family’s ancestral home in the Lebanese town of Marjayoun.

Colleagues and friends were quick to pay tribute to him when news of his death emerged. Steve Fainarau, a fellow Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who worked with him in Iraq, told The Washington Post that he was “the best journalist I’d ever seen – without any question.”

Many also remembered Mr Shadid’s passion for the Middle East and its peoples. In a commencement address at the American University of Beirut he told the graduating students: “Somebody has to be held accountable for the brutality and vulgarity that decades of dictatorship have inflicted on our proud societies that never deserved what was delivered. Someone has to be sanctioned for wrecking the vision of so many people…In your lifetime, occupations will end, struggles will lose their cynicism, legitimacy will come through the voices that you raise. There is hope today, a hope that can be inspired by the ability to imagine something more.”

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