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In Memoriam: Anthony Shadid

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Anthony Shadid in Baghdad, Iraq.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Last night, we received terrible news. Anthony Shadid, the 43-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times, died while covering the conflict in Syria. According to the Times—the paper where Anthony had worked for the past two years—a severe asthma attack killed him after he’d smuggled himself into the northern part of the country.

This is an  unbearable loss. A legendary journalist—a man with a wife and a family who had dedicated his life to covering this past decade of war—is gone.

Like most, I got to know Anthony first as a fan and admirer, reading his work at the beginning of the Iraq War in the pages of the Washington Post. More so than those of any other reporter, his dispatches from Baghdad seemed to open up the possibility of truly understanding that country, and the chaos that engulfed it. Anthony’s writing effortlessly bridged the usually impassable chasm between the Western’s foreign correspondent perception of a nation and the actual reality of a country. By the time I got to Baghdad myself in 2005, his first book, Night Draws Near, had become required reading for any journalist heading to cover the war. It was one of the prime texts of the conflict: the book literally shaped the way we thought about Iraq, and how we would tell the story of the war.

In late 2009, I returned to Baghdad after a lengthy absence. I was living alone, in the Hamra Hotel, the twice bombed-out de facto international news bureau. The hotel was right across the street from the Washington Post house, where Anthony was living at the time. A mutual friend invited me to dinner with him. I was star struck and totally awed by his graciousness and humility. He gave me an open dinner invitation to come over to the Post house every night I was in country—a meaningful gesture, as the quality of room service at the Hamra had declined dramatically after seven years of sectarian war. Perhaps he sensed my loneliness, or perhaps he was just being cool. (One of his favorite movies, after all, was The Big Lebowksi.) I would later learn that gestures like this were the reason everybody liked Anthony. Scratch that: why everybody loved Anthony.

During the dinner visits, I took the opportunity to learn from one of the masters of journalism. He’d turned newspaper writing into something of an art—he was that rare breed of deadline artist, his daily and weekly stories reading much closer to prose than column-inch copy. I remember asking him about a story he’d just written about a powerful Sunni sheik in Anbar—he’d reported this amazing moment in the piece where he described the sheik’s watch. A gold Rolex, if I recall correctly, the kind of craftsman’s touch other journalists can’t fail to appreciate. The sheik had told him exactly how much it cost. (A few years salary for the average Iraqi.)  It wasn’t a detail one is usually eager share, especially if one is pretending not to be corrupt. How’d he get it? Anthony looked at me and laughed. “How’d I get him to tell me about his Rolex?” Anthony said to me. “I asked.”

 A few weeks later, I remember being at a dinner with him at the CNN bureau. A dozen U.S. diplomats were there, along with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. All were equally in awe of him. There was something close to receiving line at the table to talk to him.  I was amazed—Anthony’s reporting was often extremely critical of U.S. foreign policy. How come these U.S. and Iraqi officials were still wanted to talk to him? The answer: there was a respect of his expertise and experience. And, as importantly, he had an elegance to his writing that allowed him to express the most damning criticisms in way that everyone, even the damned, could appreciate.

Months later, I found myself in a well publicized media controversy. Anthony was one of the few from the often insular world of foreign correspondents who was ready to offer his support.  “Whatever the criticism, hang in there,” he wrote me, among other very generous words of guidance. To get an email like that from Anthony Shadid! Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner! It meant more to me than I could probably ever have expressed to him.  We would exchange emails a year later, after he’d gone through another horrifying ordeal in Libya, detained for days without word by Qaddaffi’s crumbling regime. “You’re the best, and very glad to see that you are all free to keep kicking ass!” I wrote to him, in part, after he was released. He responded with another amazing note—and because it was Anthony Shadid—I forwarded it to my wife immediately, as kind of humble brag. “Keep up the fight,” he emailed me back. “Hope we get to cross paths soon.”

When I awoke this morning, I was still in a state of shock. I had this kind of feeling--Jesus, God/Universe, are you fucking kidding me? Out of all the bastards running around this world, you pick Anthony? One of the good guys?  I can only claim to know have known Anthony personally for three years, and I probably could easily count the hours I spent with him on two  hands.  But his writing, how he handled himself, and the guidance and wisdom he offered to me had a profound impact on my life.  Not to mention the lives of countless others whose stories he brought to light. Grief, sadness, despair, anger. With these few thoughts, I’d like to express my profound sympathies to his family, his friends, and his loved ones. My thoughts and prayers with them, and with him.

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