When special people depart this world for another, as New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid did earlier this week, those of us who are left behind feel like a rowboat bobbing in the rolling waves of a large luxury yacht or ocean liner that has left us in its wake. We are slightly disoriented, momentarily losing our balance and direction, focused only on regaining equilibrium, and later anchorage, in a suddenly turbulent and frightening world. Acids that are only occasionally activated for special assignments go to work in the pit of our stomach. They generate sadness at the passing of his life, fear because we have been alerted to the fragility of our own lives, and also small jolts of confidence and hope — because his life and death remind us that our world was, and remains, full of gifted people like him.
The full measure of such people is in both the person and the profession, two dimensions that must be separated and fused together in order to capture the significance of each. I first met Anthony in 2000 in Amman, Jordan, as he was heading to Iraq for the Washington Post. We had remained friends and colleagues ever since. We met in many places — Amman, Beirut, Istanbul, Boston, on television and radio shows, and elsewhere — and I had many opportunities to encounter his personal and professional sides. In recent years, whether in my teaching reporting and writing, or discussing Western news coverage of the Arab World, his name and work always entered the picture. What he did professionally, and how he behaved personally, proved to be meaningful to many other people, because in both realms he set standards of excellence that transcended his own life.
One measure of his impact on the world of journalism in the Middle East was how often other people tried to contact him, to invite him to speak, or just to meet and chat. In my many decades of work in this arena, his phone and email were far and away the ones that others around the region and the world asked for most often. I would always ask him before passing on his contacts, and he would always reply with the same gracious reply, “I’d love to see them if it works out with my schedule.”
For those of us left behind, we owe it to the person and the profession to recall what made him so special. The answer from my perspective is short and easy: humility. I saw it in him every time we met, whether chatting over a coffee or meal, or in the field working, covering an event we both attended, or chatting with a person who would provide useful facts or analysis. Many of the testimonials about Anthony’s work today focus on his reporting historic events from the perspective of ordinary men and women. That is correct, but the reason it is significant is that in his encounters with ordinary people or experts and public figures, he constantly asked questions to learn about the world he was covering, and more importantly, he listened to the answers with obvious and genuine sincerity.
Such behavior is the hallmark of a quality reporter, in my view, and it is a character trait that I sense is increasingly rare among foreign correspondents or indigenous journalists in the Middle East, where the tendency is to slip away from the world of street reporting and slide into the world of studio oracles and web stardom. Anthony’s special gift was his ability to pose the questions, and record the answers, and leave the pontificating and moralizing to others. In the process he captured the nuances, the contradictions, and the warm and vulnerable humanity of individuals and families that in turn reflected the conditions of entire nations in situations of stress and change.
Whenever I saw him at work, his most frequent expressions were, “Oh, really?” and “You think so?” and “That’s really interesting” and statements like that, in which he reacted to the thoughts of others, acknowledging their thoughts, and parking his own. His analytical aggregating machine gathered such material, combined it with the telltale signs of societies in flux that he recorded with his eyes and ears, and ultimately offered it to his readers in his special, almost lyrical, style of writing that captured telling snapshots of men, women, soldiers and statesmen, merchants and crooks, and their many complex worlds.
The humility and warmth in his personal character generated trust among all who met him; that same humility in his low-key reporting manner generated among those he questioned or documented equally important comfort and confidence in speaking their minds honestly. The combination produced his rare example of reports over many years that accurately transmitted the world of the Middle East as it really is, and not as others in these or distant countries imagine it to be.
I will always be deeply impressed by the person of Anthony Shadid, and how he carried out his chosen profession of newspaper reporter. The stories he wrote, and the life he lived, can teach us for years to come — if we can muster his same combination of humility and diligence.
Thank you, Anthony, and God bless your memory.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri–distributed by Agence Global