“Poetry on a deadline” – remembering Anthony Shadid

By Merryn Johnson

A gathering at the Frontline Club was held in remembrance for Anthony Shadid, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, who died in February this year while crossing the border out of Syria.

The room was filled with family, friends and colleagues, including his wife, Nada Bakri; Jonathan Rugman, foreign affairs correspondent at Channel 4 News who was with Anthony in Syria; Kareem Fahim from The New York Times; and Katia Jarjoura, friend and filmmaker who documented the rebuilding of his family’s house in southern Lebanon. The evening was chaired by Granta editor, John Freeman.

The trials and tribulations of Anthony’s project to rebuild his family home are captured in Jarjoura‘s filming and in his posthumously published book, House of Stone, a book that moves beyond the story of a house, encompassing family, history and the hopes for a Middle East about which he was passionate.

“I was fascinated to see a war reporter – even though Anthony never wanted to be called a ‘war reporter’ – who could spend hours watching the colours of the stone change through the light, or the wind through the trees, or picking up olives, or just listening to the people around him – I never thought that such a person could exist.” — Katia Jarjoura

Such patience, warmth and listening was evident in his reporting, and Kareem Fahim expanded on Anthonys role in developing a new language in journalism – or ‘poetry on a deadline’, as John Freeman called it – and in redefining the relationship between the US and the Middle East.

“He was an incredible mentor, incredibly gracious, and he had a reputation as one of the good guys. I wasn’t prepared for how generous he was, how passionate he was about what he did or how disciplined he was as a journalist – he had an incredible number of gifts and he wore them all very lightly.” — Kareem Fahim

Fahim also spoke about how special the “Arab Spring” was to Anthony, how for him it was vindicating because he had so much love for the region and higher hopes for the people he was reporting on. And such was his insight and grasp, that what strikes him most now, is how much people miss his voice. He wasn’t an analyst but he illuminated things that others missed.

“One evening I walked into a room in northern Syria and there, sitting like a pasha on the floor wreathed in cigarette smoke, and engaged in conversation was Anthony Shadid. He had a pile of notebooks in front of him, which were bulging with his handwriting. And those were the stories he was going to write for The New York Times, which he never got to write.” — Jonathan Rugman

Yet, said Rugman, “he looked like a man in his element, because he’d got the story he wanted to tell, the story of remarkably ordinary people doing the most extraordinary things”. To him is left the memory of a Levantine dreamer, a man who believed in a better Middle East and was looking for it. Anthony’s approach to journalism and the stories he tried to tell is expanded in this conversation with Jillian Schwedler, Professor of Political Science at University of Massachusetts.

Rugman summed up Anthony with an extract from House of Stone about Dr Kkairalla, in whom he saw his reflection:

Simply put, he was the kind of man I wanted to be, but worried I would never become – gentle and kind, principled, ever curious. Choices didn’t seem to disturb him; in the fullest of lives, the way forward was easier to discern. I felt shy around him. I was too eager to impress, too reluctant to offend. I suppose I admired him too much.  

His wife and fellow reporter, Nada Bakri, said: “To me, this is Anthony. He was really fascinated by Dr Kkairalla because he saw in him all the things he wanted to be.”

The evening paid tribute to a man who loved to listen and to tell stories, no matter who was telling them. Oliver August from The Economist, who reported from Iraq alongside Anthony, remembered his inability to dislike anyone, even Ahmad Chalabi.

“Anthony liked people: to sit with them and talk with them. It was his thing. He really liked people and their stories.” — Nada Bakri

Watch the event here: