What He Knew

Anthony Shadid saw the deeper story in Iraq

Anthony Shadid is the most honored foreign correspondent of his generation: two Pulitzer Prizes, a George Polk Award, an Overseas Press Club award, book awards—the list is long. He grew up wanting to be a foreign correspondent. His grandparents had emigrated from Lebanon to Oklahoma, and he knew from a young age that he wanted to return to the Middle East, to try to comprehend it. He graduated from the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin and, with the help of a professor, landed a job on the night shift at the Milwaukee bureau of The Associated Press. He quit after a year and went to Cairo to study Arabic. He returned to the AP in 1992, and three years later was sent to Cairo at age twenty-six. “That was the great thing about the wires,” he says. “I can’t say it was all that good for the journalism. At twenty-six you think you know more than you really do. But it was great to be young and in the middle of a great story and a great city.” After the AP, Shadid worked for The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. He is currently the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. He was wounded by sniper fire while on assignment in Ramallah in 2002 and was kidnapped in Libya this spring. Terry McDermott interviewed him in Boston earlier this year, mainly about Iraq. Shadid first went to Iraq for the AP in 1998, reporting a series on the rise of political Islam. He went again for another month in 2002, this time for the Globe. Then he returned in March 2003, just before the American invasion, for the Post. When he got there, he quickly realized the story was more complicated than he had thought.

A Broken Society

People were buying guns. Iraqis always knew the potential within the society to go bad. That was another misconception of reporters in Iraq before the invasion: you’re in a dictatorship, therefore no one will talk. It was always more ambiguous than that. There were always many more shades of gray. People, in fact, did talk. They may have talked in coded language. They may not have talked as honestly as possible, but even before Saddam fell there was always more dissent than outsiders thought. But it did go bad. And it went bad fast.

If you had spent any time in the Middle East, you would have known that there’s going to be big problems. I’ll never forget standing in Firdos Square the day that statue [of Saddam] fell. I just walked down the line of tanks and interviewed people, and it broke down like this: a third saw this as an occupation and they were going to resist it; a third saw it as a liberation and they welcomed it; and a third were unsure and couldn’t figure it out. And that breakdown stayed pretty much the same throughout. Until it went to hell in ’04. That kind of gets to your point—the power of reporting. If you talked to enough people
you were going to get a sense of what was going on.

It wasn’t linear, like, okay, invasion, society traumatized, traumatized by Saddam, or whatever, and then things went bad. It was an accumulation of events that were easily reportable—from ’91 on, there was a decade of sanctions that destroyed that society. What they dealt with in 2004, 2005, and 2006 was a direct repercussion of the sanctions of the ’90s, it was the society coming to terms with the damage that was inflicted upon it. That was all reportable. And it was all reported. There probably should have been more, it was probably not done well enough. The connection probably should have been made stronger. But it was there before our eyes. What you saw was a broken society. It’s still broken, deeply traumatized. Very sad.

I think I was in Doha, one of those places, and I was talking to my editor, Phil Bennett, who is a brilliant editor. We were saying, okay, we’ll cover the invasion. This should be wrapped up in a month or two. Then let’s start thinking about where else we’re going to go in the region. Seven years later, 2010, I was still sitting in Baghdad. Through that first year, there was that notion of trying to get a better sense of repercussions of the invasion on the region. But in the end, the region changed Iraq; Iraq didn’t change the region.

Shades of Gray

On the first day, the first couple days, I was reporting on, I forget what they called it, fear and awe? Shock and awe? Shock and awe. So I was covering the bombing, but even in those first two days I was trying to get out on the streets and talk to people, and I was putting all that color at the bottom of the story. And I’ll never forget, we were editing the story the second or third day, and Phil said, “You know what’s interesting, Anthony? This stuff at the bottom, the popular sentiments, is the most compelling part of the story. The top of the story was just trying to find enough adjectives to describe the violence, the bombing and so on, but here you’re seeing nuance and ambiguity and again these kinds of shades of gray in what people are saying. I think you ought to focus on that and make it part of the story.” And it did prove to be the most compelling part of the story. The sentiments in the end were the arena in which the whole experience was contested. And it unfolded very quickly.

I had had it in the back of my mind to do some of that. Before the invasion started, I had talked to some friends there and made contacts so that I could go see them once the war started. I got lucky because I had a minder who did not stand in my way. I was able to see this woman who had sent her son off to fight; I was able to visit a former diplomat; I was able to see a psychiatrist whose son was doing his residency at Johns Hopkins. Those three, and then a professor who I had met before the war, those four characters, became the spine of the book that I wrote later on, Night Draws Near. Even in those first meetings, I knew if I could follow them, if I could understand what they were saying, and how they changed as the events unfolded, it was going to be something very compelling, and would somehow tell us what this war represents. In some ways the legwork was done ahead of time.

How to Understand

In moments of crisis, in moments of trauma, people want someone to bear witness. It was amazing how forthcoming everyone was, and how much they wanted to talk. This was no less an event for them than September 11 was for Americans. I think that cauldron of sentiments, often contradictory, often conflicting, kind of came forth. We knew how important popular sentiment was, so the challenge was, how do we bear down, how do we find that place? It sounds elementary but I hadn’t heard it before. Phil Bennett was all about, “You need to intersect environment with dialogue. Intersect the environment with interviews.” That became a really powerful tool. How can I tie those two things together? This event unfolds while I’m talking to them and they will intersect with everything going on around them.

There was a young boy who was killed in a bombing and I was able to stay with him the entire day. Somehow I had to tie the day in the life, in the death, of this boy, to the broader events going on in Baghdad. It worked okay. You’re on deadline; stories never match what you want them to be. In some ways, that’s the task of a reporter: I don’t understand this story. How do I go about making sense of it, understanding the forces at work and how those forces are interacting? We’re not only trying to help our readers understand it, we’re trying to help ourselves understand it at the same time.

The Most Chilling Story I Ever Covered

I did a long piece in 2009, but it was a story that began in 2003. I must have gone to this village fifteen or twenty times. There was an American military operation in May 2003, kind of a precursor to the counterinsurgency. They went into this village, made a mess of the place, arrested a lot of people. I went there to cover the aftermath of this raid. We were sitting there talking in one of these tents. All of the elders were there, sitting together. They started talking about this informer. This guy named Sabah. You could tell people were nervous because there were two tribes inside the tent. I kept asking questions and could tell they didn’t want to answer. So I asked what’s going to happen to this informer. Finally, a guy leaned over to me and said, “He’s a dead man, but not yet.”

I was stunned. They’re going to kill this guy for informing to the Americans. So I kept going back to the town to find out what happened to him. Finally, he was killed. His father killed him. The actual reporting on the story, how it happened, didn’t take that long. I’d say a week. The key was to see the father. The father actually did talk to me. It was the most chilling story I’ve ever covered. I think about it a lot. When the father said those words to me, “Not even the prophet Abraham had to kill his son,” it took my breath away. I’ll never forget that line, because in just one sentence it captured the whole biblical tragedy of it. The story really did haunt me. A lot of people thought the story showed the brutality of what this conflict had done to the country, but I never saw it that way. I saw it as this kind of footnote to the war, the way the smallest intervention alters a society. The American military enters this town. Sets off this chain of events that forever changes the landscape. That’s what was so compelling to me about it. Finally, in 2009 I got a chance to go back and write it that way. When I went back in ’09, I saw the father. He didn’t want to talk, but the brother did. He took me to the grave. We talked about it. This footnote in 2003 led us to this point in 2009 and still it is far from over. There’s a saying in Iraq, something along the lines of, someone’s father is killed, forty years pass and the son hasn’t exacted revenge. The son says, “It’s still early.”

Write It the Way You Feel It

The first or second morning after the invasion, I was so tired and I had spent so many years at the AP, learning the rules of keeping your distance from the story, and I said to myself, I’m just going to write it the way I feel it. From then on, I kind of just did that. I think you have to care about these stories to do them justice. And I did care about it. I care about the Middle East. You have to be careful and still there are certain rules you have to follow. But I think there’s enough gray there that you can kind of get away with being a little more interpretive. It’s not easy. What’s so rewarding about the reporting in Egypt, the reporting in Iraq is, if you just tell peoples’ stories, then they become the vehicles for these sentiments, these emotions. It becomes much more real in a certain way. Also much more honest.

The thing I see so often, especially with foreign correspondents, the longer they do this, the more the story becomes about them. I think it’s almost unavoidable for some of these guys who stay there for as long as they do. They’ve seen so much, they’ve experienced so much, they’ve talked to so many people, that in some ways to them it feels repetitive. Their own experience is so much more interesting and compelling. Which is a disaster; the antithesis of what we should be doing as foreign correspondents. It should be about the people we cover. That lesson gets lost over time. It is cynicism.

A Story Worth Dying For

What so powerfully strikes me when I go back to Iraq now, the very fabric of the place has been torn, how Iraqis consider themselves, how they see themselves, how they identify themselves, how they relate to the government, what the government represents—all those things are broken. Identity and politics have become so visceral, so tied together, it’s hard to see any broader notion of state or nation.

That’s kind of a feature that is writ small across the region, these conflicts over how we identify ourselves as Arabs. Those two notions, is it a broader identity or a smaller identity? I think it’s in part a legacy of the Ottoman empire, and a consequence of colonialism—the ideologies that have tried to live up to the ambitions of what the region wants to be. The dysfunction of all that, and of course the conflict with Israel, have fundamentally impacted these notions of identity. I think that’s where we’re at right now. That’s what’s so compelling about this Arab Spring—people at some level, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to heal the wounds of a century of, not just dysfunction, but of having governments fail to meet their ambitions.

Often, editors will say no story is worth risking your life for. I don’t believe that. I think there are stories worth taking risks for. The way these wars have been happening in the region for so long, it produces a certain dehumanization. Such a remarkable amount of violence has been deployed in these places, so I think it is incumbent upon us as journalists to kind of recapture some of that humanity, those stories of individuals, of lives, whether they’re broken or not. That felt a part of the job in Iraq, to understand these people on their own terms, in their own context, how their lives played out in ways they never expected, and maybe shouldn’t have expected.

I don’t know if I was always successful or not, and I think that’s the frustration with journalism, the stories never match your ambition, what you want to write and say. But I was lucky, especially in 2003 and 2004, I had the full engagement of the paper, I had a story that was reportable and coverable, and I got lucky in meeting the right people and becoming a part of their lives. I do look back on it as a good time. Not a good time, but….

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Terry McDermott spent thirty years at eight newspapers, most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where he reported from more than twenty countries. He is the author of the upcoming The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Tags: