I woke up this morning to a flurry of tweets linking to a recent piece of mine. Ordinarily, I’d be flattered by the attention. But this time, the 20 or so mentions instantly knocked the wind right out of me. A few weeks ago, I interviewed legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid for Mother Jones. Last night, Anthony died in Syria.
I can’t add much at this point to the flood of sadness and gratitude that washed over the internet today. Many people who knew Anthony a lot better than I did have weighed in with powerful testimonies to the journalist and person he was. And if you ever read a story by Anthony Shadid, then you couldn’t have helped but sense his greatness. He was the perfect reporter: He braved the harshest and most dangerous conditions to get the story. He had a microscope of an eye for detail. And he wrote like a dream.
I interviewed Anthony over the course of two telephone conversations—one before I moved to Egypt in December, the other after. In the six-month internship at Mother Jones I’d just wrapped up, I’d gotten to interview some pretty cool people. But now, as an aspiring foreign correspondent about to embark on a career overseas, I was about to interview the giant of the profession. I don’t think I could have been any more excited.
You often discover, at one point or another, that your heroes aren’t quite who you made them out to be in your head. In Anthony’s case, it was exactly the opposite. From Beirut he told me about his passion for what he did, for the Middle East, and for people in general. His goal in reporting, he said, was to restore humanity in places where it had been lost. In spite of his almost unfathomable courage in covering conflicts in Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, he was no warzone-hopping cowboy. He was almost apologetic as he talked about his exploits. “I would never call myself a war correspondent,” he said. “The region I want to cover is beset by conflict and that’s regrettable, but it forces me to cover it.”
Through the publicist for his his new book—about rebuilding his great-grandfather’s house in a small village in southern Lebanon—Anthony knew that I’d be moving soon to Egypt, where he himself had gotten his start in international reporting. As soon I was through with my questions, he turned the conversation to my upcoming journey.
Do you know where you’ll be staying? What kind of stories do you want to cover? There’s a great falafel place just off Tahrir you need to try. Who have you been in contact with? If you need anything, give me call.
He meant it.
I was at home in New Jersey at the time, and after I’d gotten off the phone, I skipped over to my parents’ room, giddy. It wasn’t just because a famous journalist had been nice to me. It was because Anthony Shadid had long been my paragon of journalistic excellence, as much for the noble, deeply sincere person I envisioned him to be as for his famously lyrical prose and daredevil feats. And he was the real deal.
I talked to Anthony again over the phone three weeks ago to follow up about the situation in Syria before the interview ran online. He said he was frustrated at not being able to secure a visa to go report inside the country and having to write about the conflict from the outside looking in. I’m certain by this point he already had his next secret mission in mind.
He didn’t take such decisions lightly, though. The risks weighed heavily on his mind, especially as a father of two young children. When I asked him whether his experience getting kidnapped in Libya last spring had made him doubt his decision to enter Syria the first time, he readily conceded it had. He paused then for a long time, as if replaying the agonizing calculations in his head.
But he went. And he went again, this time at the cost of his life. It’s such a cruel irony that after having cheated death so many times before in Ramallah, where he was shot, or Libya, where his kidnappers nearly killed him, he died, of all things, of an asthma attack just miles from the Turkish border.
Even under such unusual circumstances, make no mistake about it: Anthony Shadid died in the line of duty. For Anthony, bearing witness to the big stories of the day was a sacred duty. And we’re all the better, wiser, more humane for his having told them.
I’m told I was probably the last journalist to interview Anthony before he died. It makes no difference. I’m so grateful I had the chance to speak to him at all.
Anthony Shadid was–in every sense of the word–a giant. May he rest in peace.