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Interrogating the NY Times' Anthony Shadid

The two-time Pulitzer winner on sneaking into Syria, being kidnapped in Libya, and the high cost of getting the story in a war zone.

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 4:00 AM PST
Shadid in Egypt, holding forth.

[Update, Feb. 16: Tragic news: Anthony Shadid died Thursday while reporting for the New York Times inside Syria. The apparent cause was an asthma attack. He was 43. He didn't live to see the upcoming release of his latest book, House of Stone, a subject of this interview published on Jan. 26.]

Anthony Shadid may have a hard time topping his last year's adventures. The New York Times' Beirut bureau chief and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for international reporting spent 2011 tracing the path of the Arab Spring. He traveled west from Egypt, where he covered the 18-day uprising that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak, to Libya, where demonstrations against dictator Moammar Qaddafi morphed into armed rebellion. During a battle last March in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, Shadid and three Times colleagues were captured by Libyan government forces. Over the course of a harrowing week, they were blindfolded, beaten, and threatened with execution before finally being released. Returning to Lebanon in August to report on the Assad regime's intensifying crackdown on Syria's protest movement, Shadid audaciously snuck across the Syrian border sans visa. For days he shuttled on motorcycle from one safe house to the next alongside some of the country's most wanted dissidents, emerging with a rare firsthand glimpse of a nation cascading toward civil war.

Despite his renown for daredevil reporting—in 2002, Shadid was wounded by sniper fire in Ramallah—it's his knack for penetrating the surface of rough-and-tumble conflict zones that makes him one of his generation's preeminent foreign correspondents. In his more than six years covering the Iraq War, he routinely unearthed the conflict's human faces with a lyricism that seemed to belie his prolificacy.

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Shadid's third book, House of Stone, due out in late March, demonstrates his uncanny ability to reclaim humanity from wreckage. It recounts Shadid's return to his ancestral village in southern Lebanon from 2007 to 2008 to rebuild his great-grandfather's abandoned home—and perhaps piece back together his own wayward life in the process. In an account infused with introspection, the Oklahoma-raised Shadid narrates a rich personal odyssey for community amid a war-torn region's struggle to reclaim a modicum of its former identity. I spoke to Shadid about the Arab Spring, the perils of his profession, and the path forward in Syria.

Mother Jones: What was it like growing up Lebanese in Oklahoma City?

Anthony Shadid: I had a great childhood. I think writers are always better off when they have more twisted childhoods, but I didn't. There's always a sense of community, of belonging to the Lebanese community, in Oklahoma. It's remarkable, when I talk to other Arab-Americans, how closed and tight-knit the community was, everything from the church that everyone shared—they all came from the same town in Lebanon—to the food that was served on every holiday and almost every day. There was a sense of coming from someplace else and having to make it in the place they ended up, and there was a lot of pride in that. The one thing that shaped my life was when I was 15 or 16: I knew I wanted to be a journalist. And not just a journalist, but a journalist in the Middle East, and to go back to the Arab world and try to understand what it meant to be Lebanese.

MJ: What resonated with you the most as you researched your family's history for the book?

AS: I didn't know a lot about my great-grandfather who built the house, and I'd done interviews 20 years ago, even before I went to college. I started doing some interviews with elderly people in the family because I knew they would pass away and we would lose the power of their story. But I saw a certain resonance with my grandfather's life and the decisions that he had to make in terms of his career and his family, in terms of sending his kids away. The more I learned about him, the more I understood him.

MJ: You write that some people in Marjayoun weren't too happy about a past story you'd penned about the town. How do you think your book will be received?

Sneaking into Syria "was probably one of the greatest risks I've ever taken as a journalist."

AS: [Laughs.] I have no idea. I'm actually building a fence around the house right now because I'm worried the reception might not be all that great. I think people will understand what the town represents and what the town means, and be very proud of the book. I've tried to offer a memorial to what Marjayoun is and what it was and hopefully what it can still be. But, it's a town, and a town is filled with gossip and rivalries and jealousies. I don't think the reception is going to be universally the one I would've hoped for.

MJ: So how do you determine which stories are worth risking your life for?

AS: I've struggled with that question a lot. I don't think there's any story worth dying for, but I do think there are stories worth taking risks for. What's so regrettable to me about Ajdabiya [where Shadid was kidnapped] was that I didn't feel like that story was worth taking that risk for, and I was too late in understanding that, and at great cost: the cost of our driver's life. That's something that all four of us have to live with. I took great risks when I went into Syria illegally and without a visa. That was probably one of the greatest risks I've ever taken as a journalist, but that story felt as if it wouldn't be told if I didn't go there. That's the arithmetic that I usually rely on. And those events in Syria over the summer were seismic. It's a decision that's a lot easier to make in hindsight. Emotion and, hopefully not, but ambition often get in the way of the judgment. But you go and hope you get it right.

MJ: Did your kidnapping just a few months earlier weigh heavily on your mind when you decided to sneak into Syria?

AS: It did. And I was scared, to be frank. In the back of my mind, I was wondering whether I was being foolish, whether I was being rash. In the end, it worked out all right, but I think any risk you're going to take like that you need to have that in the back of your mind.

MJ: Speaking of Syria, the Arab League just announced a timetable for a transition, within months, to free elections. Will that change the calculus on the ground at all?

"I think we'll see something very bloody, very chaotic" take place in Syria.

AS: There aren't a lot of options out there. There aren't a lot of mechanisms for diplomatic pressure. And I think this is a gesture that kind of highlights that. They've put this out there as another means of trying to force the situation. But how you deliver on something like this is very unclear.

MJ: Can you think of anything that might break the current stalemate between government and opposition forces?

AS: I think there are two trends out there that may shift the situation. One is the economy. You just have to look at the exchange rate right now of the Syrian pound. It's shifting rapidly. I think it's up to as much as 75 to the dollar when it used to be 47. That is very clearly going to create a lot of pressure on people first and foremost, but also on the government. The second thing is the balance of forces on the ground. If you look at towns like Zabadani or Duma—I don't want to say it's a situation like Hama last summer, where the city was in some ways liberated and Syrian forces were withdrawn—but I think you're seeing instances today where local residents are able to keep the forces of the government out, however temporarily. And I think that's something to watch very closely.

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