Night draws near - Syed Amir - 19th March, 2012

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UNLIKE military personnel and civilians on both sides of the Middle East conflict who suffer injuries and deaths, the high casualty rate for journalists and correspondents who cover these wars is much less recognised.
Last year, seven journalists died, five in Libya and two in Egypt, as they captured the unfolding events during what has become known as the Arab Spring. Last May, Saleem Shahzad, an intrepid reporter in Pakistan, lost his life, and his murderers have never been found. And, at least three journalists — an American woman correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, Marie Colvin, a French photographer, Remi Ochlik, and the celebrated Arab-American correspondent of the New York Times, Anthony Shadid, lost their lives this February as they covered the brutal suppression of the popular uprising by the Syrian government in the city of Homs.
The Syrian government, much like all autocratic regimes, tightly controls the flow of news and does not permit reporters to enter the country to observe the carnage. Foreign correspondents dread being discovered by Syrian security forces as they know that the penalty will be severe and unrelenting. Shadid, however, with promethean talents, managed to sneak into the country from Turkey. He had been providing powerful first-hand, eye-witness accounts of the ongoing insurrection for his newspaper.
Being caught in the midst of a firefight or picked up by the Syrian authorities are not the only hazard faced by wartime correspondents. Last year, a photographer and filmmaker covering Libyan uprising died of his wounds, because no one around knew how to stop the bleeding. Shadid on his last perilous mission suffered a fatal asthma attack at some remote, mountainous location near the Turkish border. Lacking access to any medical assistance, he died while his photographer attempted to revive him.
Following his death, Shadid, 42, Beirut bureau chief of the Times, has received much international acclaim for his exquisite reporting of the Iraqi war. He twice won the highly coveted journalism award, the Pulitzer Prize, and was considered one of the finest journalists of his generation. The Times had nominated him for a third Pulitzer Prize this year which will be announced in April. Should he win it, he will not be around to receive it.
Born of Christian Lebanese parents, Shadid’s grandparents emigrated to America early in the 20th century, and he was born in Oklahoma. Yet, he never forgot his Arab-Lebanese heritage and took pride in it. He studied in Cairo and learnt to speak fluent Arabic, like a native, an asset that became very useful in his career, while he reported from trouble spots, Iraq, Palestine, Libya and finally Syria.
His newspaper columns drew much praise and he became a star for the interest his columns generated. Unlike most other western reporters, he refused to be embedded with the American troops in Iraq and, instead, chose to freely roam among people to gauge their reactions.
Shadid’s intimate knowledge of Arab culture, history and traditions, combined with incisive analytical faculty made his accounts of the events both authentic and captivating. He had perfected a unique storytelling style, reminiscent of the mystic of the Arabian nights. Consequently, his columns were read, not only for their contents, uncommon insights, but also their gripping, lyrical and stylish prose. He was the author of three books related to the Middle East.
In his book, Night Draws Near, Shadid described life in Iraq as experienced by the ordinary Iraqis following the American invasion, the resentment of its people and the misery and devastation visited upon individual families. While others reported from the safety of the military enclave in Baghdad, focusing on the lives of American service men and women, Shadid trudged through the dusty, dangerous narrow lanes of the city of Najaf to interview influential Shia religious leaders. Almost prescient, he realised that they would wield enormous influence and power in the new post-Saddam Iraq. Perhaps, for the first time, his book helped Americans to understand how the Iraqi population really felt about the invasion of their country.
Shadid always seemed to have an abiding attachment to his ancestral home and a strong yearning to return to it. In 2007, stressed while covering the interminable conflict in Iraq for the Washington Post, he took a year-long leave to return to his ancestral village, Marjayoun, in Lebanon, near the Israeli border in search of peace and to restore his sagging spirits.
The area had been devastated earlier by repeated Israeli invasions, but his grandparents’ deserted house partially destroyed by an Israeli rocket still stood defiantly. He vowed to rebuild it and immersed himself in the restoration work — brick by brick, tile by tile — to the surprise and delight of his neighbours. He drew gratification from simple pleasures, such as watching the olive and pomegranate trees grow in the small garden outside his restored home.
His life was a far cry from his job of reporting bloodshed, mayhem, and unceasing violence. He started writing a book about the exhilaration the restoration project afforded him. He commented on his experiences in his book: “I gleefully, frenetically lost myself in the tiles as I once had with stories in Beirut, Baghdad and Cairo.”
The restoration project had in some surreal way reconnected him to his roots, severed three generations ago. He lived in anticipation of the days when his little daughter would arrive and he would show her great grandmother’s house in Marjayoun and teach Arabic. That day never came.
The book, The Stone House, was published a few weeks after his death in February. Shadid’s funeral was held in Beirut, Lebanon, the country he loved, with many dignitaries and citizens paying homage to the gifted writer and author.
The writer is a freelance contributor

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