BY MATT HUTCHINS
What is it that is destroyed when car bomb explodes in Baghdad? How is the world changed when an affable shopkeeper, caught in that blast, is consigned to the anonymity of death? When does life return to normal in a country which has become divided along sectarian lines? Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid has learned the deeply human answers to these imponderables while spending more than a decade in the Middle East reporting on the conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq as well as events and social changes throughout the region. During his career he has reported for the Associated Press, Boston Globe, and now the Washington Post, and he was recognized in 2004 for his outstanding coverage of the Iraq war. He spoke in Austin West on Tuesday night to share some stories of how his career has entangled his destiny with that of victims of conflict in Lebanon and Iraq and given him insight into the cost of ongoing chaos in the region on both an individual and national level.
As a young man growing up in Oklahoma, Anthony Shadid was overwhelmed by a desire to work in the Mideast as a journalist, and although he was not raised speaking Arabic, he studied the language in college and by the age of 25 had found his way to Cairo as an AP reporter. As he practiced his chosen profession he developed an ability to recognize the exceptional in the ordinary and turn the mundane details of a situation into a lens through which unfolding events are situated in both a historic and human context. Shadid remembered his arrival in Qana, Lebanon one morning in 2006 just hours after it had been bombed by the Israeli military. “There was a bulldozer, clawing methodically at the rubble . . . in [its] path were the artifacts of lost lives, each one its own.” In every artifact, and in each trace of wrecked humanity, Shadid sees the strands of a great tapestry which has been torn, with each strand a life, and each interrupted life extending the rift in the fabric of society.On Mutanabi Street in Baghdad, Shadid came to be friends with a man named Hayawi who operated his family’s business, the Renaissance Bookstore. Before and shortly after the beginning of Iraq’s occupation, life on Mutanabi Street followed a seductive rhythm of friendly greetings, a ritual pattern of regular business activity, and a relentless insistence on the triumph of the ordinary over difficult circumstances. As the nation was swept into sectarian violence, Hayawi’s shop remained a stronghold for the diverse spirit of the street’s history. He lived and worked there, but ultimately he would die there. “In March 2007, a car bomb detonated on Mutanabi Street, a few doors down from his store. At least 26 people were killed, another attack on another day, consigning yet more Iraqis to the anonymity that death brings there.”
The conflicts Shadid has witnessed have ingrained into his spirit an awareness of the loss that has been suffered due to ethnic and sectarian strife, and along with that sense of loss has come a nostalgia for the bygone cosmopolitanism of the oldest cities in the world. To Shadid, the Arab nationalism and secular ideologies that once united the region have fallen away under the pressure to balkanize into states – like Israel – that are defined largely by a religious identity. “Lost is the notion of collective action, of uniting around principles or ideals.” Cities like Beirut and Baghdad have been “wrecked by fire and revolution,” and the trust which was the underpinning of an open society has been replaced with nihilism and violence.
But the years he spent in the region have also made him into more than just an observer. In 2002 he was nearly paralyzed by an Israeli sniper’s bullet while in the West Bank. He recovered and went on to cover the wars in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, and of these conflicts the one in Lebanon brought him the most pain, for it was this war that would destroy the sophisticated, intellectual Hamra he had known in Beirut. In his own grandmother’s house in Lebanon he found the specter of a family history that had been pockmarked by war. The home had been damaged by combat and by squatters, but it still bore the legacy of his great-grandfather’s handiwork. He decided to renovate it, starting with the traditional tile floors, a mission which would bring him into dealings with the amoral merchants who dealt in building supplies, profiteers salvaging materials rubble, and show him how even in destruction there could be a path to renaissance.
He sees little hope, however, for the formation of a regional identity which could replace the lost sense of an amorphous, all-encompassing Levant. Though there may be momentary breaches of the chaos for peaceful regrouping, there seems to be constantly growing pressure toward violence and devolution into defensive tribal groups. Even in cities like Dubai that are booming economically, there is no corresponding social wealth, no sense of renewed regional identity. Globalization, it seems, cannot be equated to cosmopolitanism.