When Anthony Shadid died of an asthma attack this week on his way out of Syria, near the end of a clandestine trip to witness the fighting and the human stories behind it, a number of cruel ironies occurred to those of us who’d had the privilege to cross his path in the field.
Anthony was quiet and thoughtful and wonderfully generous of spirit. Of all the ways he might have died, no one had imagined this. He was not an adrenaline junkie or a war lover. He was careful about the risks he took, but, still, in order to see firsthand the stories that others only heard about, he had had to survive so much: a bullet in the back in the Palestinian territories, beatings and the possibility of execution in Libya, and the many close encounters with death that come with covering wars but never make it into print or even into conversation.
That’s why so many of the tributes written to Anthony have talked about his courage, and deservedly so. But most emblematic of his bravery, I think, was his commitment to reason. There are, you may have noticed, damn few rational people talking or writing or even thinking about the Middle East, and now we’ve lost one of the best. Perhaps the best.
As an occasional acquaintance of Anthony’s and a devoted reader, I had always appreciated his feel for what was happening on the ground. And when he took leave to write a book, notwithstanding the wealth of good reporting by others at The New York Times, I missed his.
Then late last year he sent me an advance copy of his book, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East, and I started to understand just how deeply Anthony saw into the souls of the people there. As a bilingual Arab-American of Lebanese Christian descent, his exploration of his family’s roots becomes an extraordinarily nuanced portrayal of the region and the roots of almost all its conflicts. It is about the way family, place, history, and faith work their way into the blood, determining not only how people look at their past but how they go about trying to build a future.
Just as Anthony finished writing the book, the whole Arab world had begun to erupt with what has been called its springtime by some, its winter by others. Why must all Arab life be described in the endless clichés of dichotomy? In his magnificent epilogue to the manuscript, Anthony caught, with wonderful elegance and grace, the conflicting spirits of the moment and the reasons for hope about the future.
His description of his time held captive by the thugs of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi sums up in a paragraph his experiences of the worst the Middle East has to offer:
“‘Shoot them,’ the soldiers said calmly in Arabic.
“As I lay motionless on the ground, I sensed something familiar, a feeling I recalled from Ramallah where, years before, I had lain under a cemetery-gray sky, waiting to die from a bullet wound in my back. I recalled it from Qana [Lebanon] in 2006, where the people had cried, ‘Slowly, slowly!’ as Lebanese soldiers, Red Cross workers, and volunteers dug with hoes, shovels, and their bare hands, searching for pieces of lost lives. I had felt it in Baghdad in 2003, when the mother of Lava Jamal, whose mauled torso was pulled from the wreckage of an American bombing, vomited at the sight of her daughter’s severed head. I remembered it from Marjayoun [Shadid’s ancestral home in Lebanon] when I came upon a house on a hill whose grandeur had given way to insult. It was emptiness, aridity, hopelessness, the antithesis of creation and imagination.”
And yet there was also the moment in the dark hours after midnight in Egypt’s Tahrir Square as the Mubarak dictatorship was just about to end. “‘What I see here [says an Egyptian walking through the crowd with Anthony] is what I’ve never seen in my life.’ His grin turned to a smile. ‘Everyone here is awake,’ he cried.”
And then there are the closing lines of House of Stone, which I can barely bring myself to read this morning after learning of Anthony’s death at age 43.
After the Libyan ordeal he had gone back to Marjayoun, to the restored house of his family and the ancient olive trees around it. “I thought of my daughter, soon to arrive, walking up the steps from which her great-grandmother had departed, waiting to hear [her] songs. In my mind’s eye I saw Laila, suddenly grown beside these trees and saying the words that I would one day teach her.” They would be words that would take his daughter back to the world of the grandparents and beyond, to the memories of people and their land. “This is what we imagine,” Anthony wrote. “This is home.”
How terrible, how sad, and how frightening it is for all of us at this moment when the Middle East is so confused, but so awake, that Anthony’s own eyes have been closed forever.
House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Famly, and a Lost Middle East will be published next month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.