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The Reporter Who Knew

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Corentin Fohlen/Sipa
Anthony Shadid on the front line in Ras Lanouf, Libya, March 11, 2011

Reporters are notoriously loud, nosy, and pushy. Anthony Shadid was different. The celebrated Middle East correspondent, who died suddenly in February from a suspected asthma attack while crossing the Syrian–Turkish frontier, had instead the patient, avuncular air of a village padre. Fortuitously blending a native Oklahoman’s openness with the supple coaxing manners of a bazaar trader, he inspired trust effortlessly.

The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, Shadid had the flat American accent of his Oklahoma City upbringing and learned to speak Arabic fluently only later on. He would habitually lean forward slightly in interviews, projecting priestly gravitas as if from behind the screen of a confessional. His soft voice rarely seemed to prompt with anything so blunt as a question. The unfaltering kindness in his unblinking brown eyes, magnified by a midwesterner’s gently affirmative rhythmic nodding and accentuated by a Middle Easterner’s sympathetic slow shake of the head, with a raised eyebrow and a barely audible tsk followed by an intake of breath, combined to produce a magically cathartic effect. Long, detailed narrative confessions—great nuggets of journalistic ore—tumbled forth from Shadid’s interlocutors as if induced by a sudden burning need for expiation or redemption.

So it is perhaps fitting that Shadid’s last book, finished only months before his untimely death, should be in part a confession. Only in small part, really, because this book is many things: an Arab-American story of immigrant roots; an evocation of Lebanon and its anguished history; a lament for a vanishing Middle East; an exploration of the meaning of home.

Nor are the confessions of great or shameful sins. They are more in the nature of personal feelings that Shadid had hitherto preferred not to air. This may have been from a professional reporter’s instinct for separating self and subject, or perhaps, as he explains, due to an inherited Levantine predilection for remaining mastour, which is to say masked or concealed to preserve family honor and decorum: something akin to the Sicilians’ omertà.

This Shadid casts off, sometimes with amused relief. Exasperated by his relatives, he describes them as so prickly in temperament that they could “fall into an argument over the choice of a toothpick.” Even the most distant of family members raised manipulation of guilt to an art form, he complains:

I was always being pummeled.
Why haven’t you visited this month? the question went. If I had, it became: Why haven’t you visited this week? If I had gone that week it became, Why didn’t you come earlier today? Or: Why are you leaving so soon?

Among other revelations, Shadid hints at what initially attracted him about the Middle East, where he spent much of the past twenty years as a correspondent, most recently for The New York Times. “Especially compelling to me,” he writes,

was something difficult to articulate but that underlay everything, an approach to life—an ease, an elegance, an absence of the unnecessary. Anything hurried, superficial, purely mercenary, or delusory was rejected. Central was a slowness allowing for the consideration of every choice.

He also reveals what it was that brought him in the end to Lebanon, the country of his grandparents’ birth. The motive was not, as might have been expected, a curiosity to explore family origins. Instead, after the grueling years of reporting in Iraq that inspired his book Night Draws Near (2005) and earned two Pulitzer prizes, compounded by a divorce that he admits produced even more gray hairs, Shadid sought in Lebanon a respite from strife, a place for reflection. His life at this stage had been stripped down, he says, to “a suitcase and a laptop drifting on a conveyor belt.” He was tired.

But instead of finding peace, or revelry in the delights of Beirut, he stumbled instead into yet another war. The 2006 conflict in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shia militia, lasted just six weeks, but it was the real thing, leaving hundreds of civilians dead and thousands displaced. As always Shadid’s reporting was refined and sensitive. His description of the ghastly aftermath of an Israeli bombing raid on the village of Qana—an account that recalls his reporting of similar scenes in Iraq—bears quoting at length:

Most of the dead had choked on flying dirt and other debris. Their bodies, intact, preserved their final gestures: a raised arm called for help, an old man pulled on pants. Twelve-year-old Hussein Hashem lay curled in the fetal position, his mouth seeming to have vomited earth. Mohammed Chalhoub sat on the ground, his right hand broken. Khadija, his wife, and Hasna, his mother, were dead, as were his daughters, Hawra and Zahra, aged twelve and two. As were his sons: Ali, ten; Yahya, nine; and Assem, seven. “I wish God would have left me with just one child,” said the bereft former father.

War and tragedy were painfully familiar to Shadid. What differed, this time, was that the wounded setting bore a more personal significance. It was from the southern Lebanese town of Marjayoun, sixty miles southeast of Beirut and within eyesight of what was to become the Israeli border, that his grandparents and a host of other relations, Lebanese Christians, had made the seven-thousand-mile journey, back in the 1920s, all the way to Oklahoma.

After so much war and displacement Shadid seems to have felt a longing to reassert a link to something permanent, to breathe new life into the idea of home. There was in Marjayoun, at least, a physical structure to start with, the shell of the big stone house built by his maternal great-grandfather, Isber Samara. There were also the ties traced by family memory.

The house itself had been abandoned during Israel’s occupation between 1982 and 2000 of a slice of southern Lebanon. When Shadid visited shortly after the 2006 war he found the remains of a half-exploded Israeli rocket lodged on the upper floor. In the garden, desiccated and overgrown, Shadid planted an olive tree. Against the advice of everyone—who insisted that numerous relatives would emerge from the woodwork to squabble over the property, that he would be swindled by local workmen, or that Marjayoun itself was finished and fated to vanish—Shadid determined to restore the house to its original glory.

The story of this effort forms the frame of the book, with each stage of building intercut by tales of Shadid’s globe-straddling family across four generations. These stories, many of which one senses Shadid recorded for the first time while researching the book, are often poignant. It is hard not to be impressed by the courage and determination of the Lebanese who traveled such distances, and worked so hard to succeed in America. It is hard not to laugh sometimes, too, such as at the perhaps apocryphal story of the immigrant Lebanese grocer who habitually charges customers for the broom propped against his counter, and answers later protests by saying he had wondered why its new owner left it behind.

But the book’s greater depth comes from neither family lore nor the detailing of such things as the author’s search for patterned floor tiles to match the house’s original ones. Shadid’s more interesting discoveries are the tangential ones, made through meetings with living people and brought into sharp focus by his skill as a reporter.

What emerges is a rather sad picture of the state to which his new “home” has fallen. Marjayoun, which in Arabic means “field of springs,” was once one of the proudest towns of the Lebanese hinterland. Perched on a ridge, it dominated northern approaches to the Hula Valley in Palestine as well as the southern entrance to the rich Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. It also marked a halfway point between the open pastures of Hauran in Syria and the Mediterranean port of Tyre.

A century ago the mostly Christian town boasted churches and schools of several denominations, as well as four daily newspapers. The small Sunni Muslim community was so well integrated that one of Shadid’s ancestors, although a Greek Orthodox, regularly climbed the town minaret to deliver the call to prayer, simply because he was said to have the finest voice.

The town’s decline began with World War I. Struck by famine, the region around Marjayoun suffered terribly. One in three inhabitants died, and one in four homes were abandoned. After the war, many of those who could afford to leave—and these were largely Christians—fled Lebanon for places as far afield as Brazil and Oklahoma.

Politics in the ensuing decades diminished the town’s importance further, as new borders cut it off from its Syrian and Palestinian hinterlands. Lebanon’s vicious civil war of 1975–1990, with its shattering of sectarian cohesion, compounded by Israeli invasion, did the rest. By the time of Shadid’s arrival, Marjayoun has dwindled to a single main street, with fewer than a thousand inhabitants in all. Nearby Shia towns, which were mere villages before, have far overtaken it in size. It seemed to be, in Shadid’s words, “drifting out of circulation.”

These are not unique observations, but Shadid adds depth by revealing how the general decline, and the years of trauma and anxiety, seem to have left lasting wounds:

The ordinary has been, for more than a century, interrupted by war, occupation, or what they call in Arabic “the events.”…This is a nation in recovery from losses that cannot be remembered or articulated, but which are everywhere—in the head, behind the eyes, in the tears and footsteps and words. After life is bent, torn, exploded, there are shattered pieces that do not heal for years, if at all. What is left are scars and something else—shame, I suppose, shame for letting it all continue.

Even the hospitality and gentility for which the Arab world is justly famed seem to have eroded. Shadid is largely viewed by fellow villagers with suspicion or haughty disregard. When a priest comes to visit his house, instead of admiring the painstaking restoration he shrugs and says, “What a shame, it could have been better.” After many months of companionship, the swaggering, intemperate foreman hired by Shadid as a result much trial and error bestows a rare compliment. His employer may now justly claim to be a true son of Marjayoun, he declares, because Shadid has at last learned to insult the neighbors.

Shadid ends by spending much of this time with the town’s misfits and drifters, who while away nights smoking and quaffing Black Label. A lonely figure of nobility in Marjayoun, Dr. Khairalla, is venerated for having founded a hospital that treated hundreds of war victims from every sect. But after the Israeli withdrawal he is accused of having been a collaborator and tried. A doctor appointed by a Shia political party allied to Hezbollah takes over the hospital. Dr. Khairalla consoles himself with music and crafting exquisite lutes by hand, but he is dying of cancer.

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