Early in the morning the voice on the phone was blunt, “Did you hear about Anthony Shadid?”
“No. What about him?”
“He’s dead. He died getting out of Syria — on horseback. He had an allergy attack, and died.”
I had struggled to write about Syria this week. The chaos, death and destruction roiling that ancient land has been on my mind. The tragedy unfolding in a country I knew well was at once too complicated, too big and too personal to get my mind around in a simple column, I thought, until today.
I never knew where to start, until today.
Sadly, today, Anthony gave me an invitation, this lead, for my Syrian piece.
“I don’t think there’s any story worth dying for,” New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, said last month, “but I do think there are stories worth taking risks for.”
It wasn’t just that he took risks. For Anthony, an Arabic speaker, journalism was about sitting in coffee-shops sipping mint tea and unsweetened coffee, listening to the stories people had to say to him. For Anthony, journalism was as much about listening as it was about writing. He knew what story we needed to hear.
It wasn’t Anthony’s first time inside Syria without government permission. Last summer he entered illegally from Lebanon: —» that was probably one of the greatest risks I’ve ever taken as a journalist, but that story felt as if it wouldn’t be told if I didn’t go there.”
From the Citadel that rises in Aleppo’s center to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, from the well-worn paths used by smugglers crossing into the snow-capped anti-Lebanon mountains to the arid deserts that reach toward Iraq, the United States, Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and others are all maneuvering to take advantage of the unfolding civil war and conflict embroiling Syria.
Anthony Shadid chose to try to give voice to what is happening in Syria. It was he who tried to see beyond the interests of the competing powers and give voice to the Syrian people.
He was he who died.
There is no good news in Syria. The Ba’athist regime headed by Bashar Al-Assad, is brutally suppressing a popular revolt. Thousands have died. Isolated, allied only with Iran, protected from the Security Council by Russia and China, Syria is slowly suffocating; only the timing of its death is in question.
The revolt against Al-Assad does not embrace all Syrians. The opposition does not include middle-class Sunni businessmen who have thrived under Ba’athist privilege, minority Christians who fear an Islamist takeover, and the minority Alawites, a sect of Shi’a Islam, who control Syria and fear what will happen to them once they lose power.
The knowledge of what the Alawite-dominated Ba’athist regime is capable of colors everything. In 1982, to quell a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood, forces commanded by President Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father, massacred between 10,000 and 30,000 civilians in Hama. Most of those who died are buried, people believe, in a mass grave under the city center, which has since been rebuilt. Memories are long.
Anthony once wrote, “Time and again, I am struck by how seldom I hear the word, hurriya, ‘freedom,’ in conversations about politics in the Arab World, — much more common among Arabs is the word, adil, ‘justice.'”
Justice and freedom. How to attain it? Opposition to Al-Assad is fragmented and there is no united resistance. No one yet has a vision of post-Ba’athist Syria. The regime has lost all legitimacy. The longer it stays in power the more destabilized it will become, the more people will die, and the more unsure the eventual outcome.
What is happening in Syria is what happens when a regime becomes unjust. People suffocate. People reach a breaking point; when they are not afraid to die, revolution and chaos follows.
Today, the price of that chaos was Anthony Shadid.
I know Syria from my days living in the Arab World. Like Anthony, I had looked to discover the land that my family had left decades earlier. When immigrants were fleeing the Levant and coming to America there was no Lebanon. My grandparents, my father, their friends and relatives, all had documents that identified them as citizens of Syria. Merchants, traders, peddlers and factory workers, all came to America with the promise of opportunity and freedom. And I think, like myself, and like Anthony, many of their descendants now watch in despair as their ancestral lands are consumed in sectarian and political strife, darkening the skies over the Fertile Crescent.
Friday morning, during that brief interval where dawn breaks the night darkness and the muezzins’ call, “Prayer is greater than sleep,” raises the faithful, I, sleepily attentive to the news about Anthony’s death, immediately flashed back a couple of decades to Egypt, years before my daughter was born. In all my years as a journalist in the Middle East, even in occasional detention or in a jail cell, I never felt the fear that was once visited upon me, near Edfu in Upper Egypt, when I nearly died from an allergy attack brought on by the proximity of horses.
Suffocation comes quickly: Inhalers struggle to open air passages while allergies try to shut them down. Knowing that doctors and hospitals cannot be reached in time adds to the fear. Beyond the fear, between the tears, sweat and gasps for breath I remember my mind being filled with memories, things left unsaid, work left undone, children left unborn.
I cannot begin to imagine, in those last moments, what Anthony was thinking as he fought for air, what thoughts of love, of all he still had to say and do, what things unfinished or unrequited passed through his mind. I cannot imagine.
I know our sky is brighter because of the light he shared.
Anthony, thank you.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.