Exploring ambiguity 

One of the biggest stories of Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Shadid’s
life is the one he never wrote. In March 2002, while covering the
increasing violence in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Shadid was shot
in the left shoulder.

The bullet damaged some of his vertebrae before exiting his right shoulder, and instead of turning in a story to The Boston Globe, Shadid was taken to a hospital and given morphine for the wound.

For Shadid, an Oklahoma City native, experiences like that in the West Bank have come to define not just his career, but also his life. After more than a year in Baghdad reporting for The Washington Post, Shadid is back in Washington, D.C., to work on a book about his experiences in Iraq. His hiatus — he described life in D.C. as “very easy, very quiet” compared to Baghdad — will be brief, however. In October he’s scheduled to go to Beirut, and soon after that he expects to be back in Baghdad.

In a recent interview with the Oklahoma Gazette, Shadid described returning home after being immersed in one of the most politically volatile places in the world. “It’s strange a little bit … kind of a life experience getting turned into a policy debate,” he said.

On the eve of the Iraq war, when many journalists and aid workers were encouraged to return home, the foreign correspondent was determined to stay. In his view, there were stories to write and it was his job to write them, regardless of bombs, snipers and kidnappings. “Not to have coverage in Baghdad would have been a disservice to readers,” Shadid said.

But Shadid’s coverage was more than just coverage of the war; what distinguished his writing — and earned him a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting — was the intimacy with which he portrayed his subjects. According to Shadid, there are those who wage wars, and there are everyday people who are the victims. Shadid decided his job was to tell the stories of the latter. “I did want to tell the story of Baghdad,” he said, but he aimed to use the war as a backdrop to cover the city and the human dramas therein.

Although Shadid’s harshest critics have pegged his work as one-dimensional — focusing on the tear-jerker elements of war instead of the larger picture — Shadid, as well as those who avidly read his frequent stories in the Post, considers his perspective an ineluctable part of the whole. “I don’t respond to that,” Shadid said, in reference to those who contend he covered only part of the story. To Shadid, the human, dramatic elements are just as compelling and important now as they were during the war.

“I’m struck by (how) maybe people don’t realize how bad it is at this point … how much it’s eroded,” Shadid said. “Erosion was month by month; it just got worse and worse and worse,” he said. Although Shadid has certainly learned more about the politics and people in Baghdad since the war’s inception, greater knowledge doesn’t necessarily imply greater understanding, he said. “The longer you are in a place, the more you see,” he said. “It’s more bewildering.”

And this, too, relates to why Shadid always considered telling the story of war through the stories of individuals important. According to Shadid, when a definitive picture does not exist, the specifics are more honest and credible.  

Powerful portraits of people’s lives can’t be written without a certain amount of trust between writer and subject, Shadid said, and part of what allowed him the freedom and access to such stories was his fluency in Arabic, something many other journalists and even military officials in the region lack. “It’s part of that process of building a channel,” he said.

Another crucial element of gaining trust was Shadid’s steadfast refusal to arm himself or travel with an armed driver during his time in Baghdad. Doing so would have tampered with the ethics of his role as a journalist and limited his access, he said. “Our best position as journalists is to see ourselves as noncombatants and be viewed as noncombatants,” he said.

The lives of several families in Baghdad will be the subject of Shadid’s forthcoming book. While his last book, “Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats and the New Politics of Islam,” was academic in nature, Shadid said this one will be a collection of intimate tales exploring how the war and its aftermath have affected citizens of Baghdad.

Although Shadid said many of the war’s ambiguities have only become amplified with greater knowledge, he’s learned one thing for sure — just how long a year can seem. Since returning home, the experience of rereading his notebooks from Iraq has been powerful. “I was always struck by the idea that you’re living a lifetime in a year,” he said.

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