The Reporter Who Knew

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,”…

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