megan dot greenwell at gmail dotcom
Shortly after David Hoffman, then the foreign editor of The Washington Post, overcame all of his better judgement and decided to send my 23-year-old intern self to Baghdad, he told me to go talk to Anthony Shadid, who was in Washington on book leave. It’s safe to say this prospect terrified me more than the actual trip to Iraq. Anthony was the best war correspondent in the business. He could also be gruff and intimidating. When he spoke at a brown-bag lunch for my intern class, he responded to the first question with obvious disdain.
I composed an email to Anthony, asking apologetically if he might possibly have time for a cup of coffee ifitit’snottoomuchtroublepleaseandthankyou. He responded within a few minutes suggesting lunch a few days later. When we met, he looked me over as if evaluating my fitness for the job. We sat down for lunch and didn’t stand up for almost three hours. He answered every question, calmed every fear. He told me he had read some of my work in advance of meeting me and that I had a “spark” that would serve me well. That was his word, “spark.” I’ll never forget that.
Of course, even before I met him, Anthony had done more than anyone except David Hoffman to get me ready to go to Iraq. His book Night Draws Near was the reason I wanted to go in the first place. I just pulled out my copy, which has dozens of dog-eared pages and hundreds of underlines.
My country had taken over another country, and I was watching it happen. The United States now controlled Iraq’s destiny; we would now decide its fate. And we understood remarkably little about it.”
Of course, Anthony understood more about it than anyone. He was fluent in Arabic, had family roots in Lebanon, and cared deeply about the entire Middle East. He didn’t see conflict in black and white, but in a textured tapestry of human stories. He did more than anyone else to make us understand the lives of people who were caught up in a terrible war because of something as random as where they were born. A lot will be said about his beautiful writing—his journalism was poetry—but even without his distinctive voice his reporting would have risen above all else. He was the best at what he did.
Anthony didn’t make a trip to Iraq during the few months I was there, but he emailed me occasionally. A few times he wrote to say that I had gotten something wrong, that I missed the nuance in a story—nobody understood the nuance of Iraq like Anthony. But sometimes, he wrote to compliment me. The first time I got one of those emails, I started shaking. I just reread the message and got goosebumps all over again. When I wrote a story I was particularly proud of, I would go to sleep with nervous anticipation over whether I’d get one of those emails the next day. I’ve never craved the approval of someone I barely knew like I did with Anthony.
Both in his writing and his personality, he was larger than life. I had initially taken his gruffness for unfriendliness, an unwillingness to help someone young and dumb. I was so, so wrong. He was a wonderful, generous teacher who wanted to help his colleagues. He cared deeply about the people he covered and the people he worked with, from the drivers and security guards to his fellow reporters. He shaped the world’s understanding of a tremendously important conflict. He was the most inspirational journalist I ever had the privilege of meeting. I only interacted with him a few more times after I got back—he spent the vast majority of his time in the Middle East—but he has shaped the way I think about the world immeasurably.
Anthony had survived kidnappings, car bombings, and shootings, so it seems particularly unfair that he could have been taken in his prime by something as seemingly pedestrian as an asthma attack. He and my dear friend Stephen Farrell were kidnapped by a government militia in Libya last year. He was shot in the shoulder in the West Bank in 2002. He made it through it all and kept going back. And then it was asthma that killed him. I think he would have found that fairly annoying, but he had seen too much senseless violence to believe that life is fair.
Thank you for everything, Anthony. We will miss you.