Anthony Shadid’s Middle East is as intimate as it is unfriendly, a place where the booms of Katyusha rockets overlay the muttered prayers of prostrate mourners, a place where brilliant flags fly atop razor-wire fences, a region divided along religious lines but united by a growing mistrust of the United States.
Shadid’s dispatches from Baghdad for the Washington Post in the first weeks of the Iraq War—remarkable for their insight into the effect of the fighting on the ordinary lives of Iraqis—earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He adapted much of that reporting for his 2005 book, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, which New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called “a harrowing portrait of life in postwar Iraq.”
In one astringent Post story from August 2003—the contents of which are part of the book’s narrative—Shadid recounted the experience of an Iraqi father forced to execute his own son when villagers discovered that the younger man had aided American forces in an operation that left four villagers dead. The village gave the father an ultimatum: Kill him or we’ll kill the rest of your family.
Shadid wrote: “In his simple home of cement and cinder blocks, the father, Salem, nervously thumbed black prayer beads . . . . ‘I have the heart of a father, and he’s my son,’ Salem said. ‘Even the prophet Abraham didn’t have to kill his son.’ He dragged on a cigarette. His eyes glimmered with the faint trace of tears. ‘There was no other choice,’ he whispered.”
Last July, after Hezbollah militants in Lebanon crossed the Israeli border to kidnap two Israeli soldiers, Shadid traveled to Beirut to cover the aftermath. A swift and forceful response by the Israeli government followed, reducing to rubble much of the infrastructure in the south and as far north as the Beirut airport. Shadid captured the explosions, troop movements, and responses of Hezbollah’s leader, Hasan Nasrallah, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but also the fear and confusion in the communities, dating back to Biblical times, that were destroyed in the discord.
When 37 children were killed by rockets launched at a shelter in Cana—the town where the story of Jesus’s turning water into wine took place—Shadid reported that as a bulldozer plowed through the rubble, “Rescuers surged, then one emerged, his back slightly stooped. Cradled in his arms was the 27th victim pulled from a partially buried room. The victim’s name was Abbas Hashem, and he was 1 year old. His blue pacifier still dangled from his green tank top. Behind the pair was a book, tossed by the blast into a splintered olive tree. ‘The Keys to Heaven,’ its title read.”
For his stories from Lebanon, Shadid is the favorite to win this year’s Pulitzer Prize in international reporting, to be announced on April 16.
But it’s clear from these stories that Shadid’s motivation and greatest reward aren’t the accolades. Something more personal is going on, more elemental to his life.
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Of all the countries Shadid has covered, and of all the people, it’s obvious that he holds Lebanon and the Lebanese particularly dear.
Marjayoun—a neglected town of 800 people, mostly Christians, that was once a profitable farming and trading community in the southeast corner of the country—is his family’s ancestral home. In April 2006, three months before the conflict with Israel, Shadid traveled there for the first time to see the village and his grandparents’ old house.
“There is nothing masculine about the beauty here,” he wrote in ‘Lebanon, My Lebanon,’ a Post story. “It neither shouts nor declares. It is graceful and gentle—hills rounded by age and terraces crumbling with time.”
Shadid drank scotch and talked politics and religion with townspeople. He listened to folk tales and looked at family records. He marveled at Mount Hermon and the Litani River.
In front of his grandmother’s house, he discovered two olive trees, “no doubt the same ones my grandmother glanced at before she left in the 1920s for Beirut.” In an act signifying his newfound connection with his history, he planted a third tree beside them.
But most acutely, Shadid connected the plight of Marjayoun to that of the country and the region at large. He wrote, “As Marjayoun withers, so does a part of the Middle East. In a way, the village no longer makes sense, succumbing to the inevitability of urbanization and, more worrisome in the Arab world, the fading of its diversity as identity becomes defined by sect and ethnicity.”
In July, the town—nestled between the Syrian and Israeli borders—was confronted by those conflicts head-on when Israeli bombs descended. In the strike, Shadid’s grandparents’ house was hit, an occurrence Shadid will write about in a book from Henry Holt, tentatively scheduled for winter 2008.
Shadid is one of those rare reporters who write news with all of the detail and narrative nuances of a novel. Like his fellow Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran—whose book about life in Baghdad’s Green Zone, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, was a bestseller and National Book Award finalist—Shadid is a writer whose work belongs on bookshelves as much as his stories belong on newsstands.