The Things That Anthony Shadid Taught Me

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Travels and conversations with the irreplaceable friend and writer, who died from an asthma attack while reporting in Syria.

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Shadid at home in Cambridge with his son Malik, right, and the author with daughter Athina, left / Thanassis Cambanis

Anthony Shadid never seemed to be in a hurry. If you needed him, or simply wanted his company, he would linger to chat and fix you with a gaze that defined undivided attention. He gave the impression that nothing was more important to him than whomever he happened to be speaking to, even if he had a dozen deadlines. His hospitable nature blended seamlessly with Levantine mores, but I think it originated in equal measure from his origins in Lebanon, in Oklahoma, and in his entirely exceptional soul.

Often, I was scared when I was with Anthony. He reassured in the most primal manner, by example. The day after Saddam Hussein fled Baghdad, hundreds of journalists, Iraqi fortune seekers, and U.S. Marines thronged the front lot of the Palestine Hotel. In a panic, I found Anthony in his room upstairs, surrounded by stacks of bottled water. "You have time for a coffee?" he inquired, as if I were the busy one, as if time were limitless. Around him, in a way, it was. The more he slowed things down in the minute, the more minutes he seemed to pack into a day. He connected with so many of us -- artists, political activists, militiamen, families, working people, fellow journalists, heads of state -- and each of us felt that we had shared something alone with Anthony. And we had. That bounty was one of his many gifts.

On Christmas eve in 2003, we drove into Baghdad together. His first marriage was failing, and he spent that long night in Iraq's western desert speaking of his daughter, Laila, and of the Iraq story, both of which he loved in different ways. He felt ineluctably that he could not leave that story at a crucial time. It was a commitment shouldered without arrogance but with a clear -- and in my opinion, correct -- assessment that if he didn't tell the stories he was telling, no one would.

That commitment awed and inspired us all. Readers saw it in his dispatches from Iraq over more than a decade. Colleagues saw it in Iraq, Lebanon, the West Bank, Libya, and countless other places. He was devoted to better coverage of the Arab world. He lived that devotion in his own writing, about which nothing need be said because it so authoritatively speaks for itself, but also in the countless invisible acts he did to make the work of others better. He shared contacts with novice reporters he just had met. He took hours to mentor strangers and friends alike, about brief dispatches or sprawling book projects. He was the least selfish reporter I ever met, and he was the one who had the most to share, which he did compulsively.

I am not alone when I say I wanted to be more like Anthony Shadid, in my approach to people, to stories, to the region that was his destiny and which became my own focus. The people he wrote about were never subjects. They each were a world, in which he became engrossed for the entirety of the length of his relationship to them, whether it lasted an hour or a year. In Iraq, he taught me history. In Lebanon, as we criss-crossed the front lines in the 2006 war, he showed me what courage looks like. I drove him around the border, where he translated the conversations we had with people. At one point, alone on an exposed ridge, we heard a steady patter of mortar shells, each one closer to us than the next. We realized we weren't approaching somebody else's front line; we alone were the targets. "What do you think?" he said, unhurriedly. "Should we go?" I answered by running back to the car. Anthony, as always, was full of grace.

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Shadid holding Athina Cambanis / Thanassis Cambanis

We all know how he brought that grace to the stories of people at war and in revolt across the Arab world. Soon, when the book he had labored over for half a decade is released next month, we might learn how he applied that delicacy to the tale of his ancestral home in Marjayoun. He lovingly rebuilt the manse on a hill overlooking the Hula Valley, and in the process fell in love anew with his wife Nada. With Marjayoun and Nada, Anthony opened a new chapter in happiness, which blossomed on his face when he was with them or with his daughter Laila.

With same mix of humility, inquisitiveness and contagious enthusiasm, he invited me to join him at one of his first olive harvests. We carted the fruit of his two trees to a next-door village, and peered like little boys into the turbines that crushed them into oil. He carried the blue plastic vats of oil over the threshold of his stone house grinning like a groom.

I can't begin to enumerate the lessons I learned from Anthony. Over whiskey after 18-hour days covering the war in south Lebanon, he taught me to dump my notebooks every day, no matter how tired I was. With his children, he taught me to appreciate the majesty and wonder of a small person growing up. He outlined before he wrote, and then poured out the words in one fluid swoop. He almost always seemed delighted by what he was doing. We teased him and honored him through affairs like the Anthony Shadid contest, in which friends tried to top one another with ever-more absurd Shadidian turns of phrase that piled history upon olfactory sensation upon narrative upon character. When we tried it, it was an uproarious joke. When Shadid did it, it was poetry.

In September, on his last birthday, we shared a sheesha at a garden in Cairo. He knew he shouldn't smoke because of his asthma, but he felt it was a forgivable peccadillo. He was frustrated to be away from Nada and his children, and he was struggling to untangle the web of commitments to which he felt utterly and indivisibly attached: his family, the Arab revolts, his writing, his desire to engage the American public through the pages of a daily newspaper, the platform he believed was the most relevant. He talked about finding some way to slow down, to fulfill all his missions at once. Perhaps, he dreamed, he could balance it all better as a foreign affairs columnist. Those of us who knew Anthony well knew that whatever he did, he would never slow down, whether he was restoring a stone house or covering a war.

He had fears too, but they were less prosaic. He was afraid of not being a good enough husband or father, and he was afraid of letting down the people about whom he wrote. He was afraid that he worked too much, but he also feared what might happen if he worked less. Like any experienced gambler, he knew how to stay calm at the blackjack table, or on deadline, or under fire, but he also carried a knot of anxiety. I had no other friend like him, and no other mentor. In his family, all the more, Anthony will leave an incomprehensible hole. I'm not sure what comfort it brings to remember that his death is a uniquely shared tragedy. It is said about many, but in the case of Anthony Shadid it is bitterly true, that the world is poorer for his passing. We will all be dumber without his stories. There is no one else who can do what he did. Many will continue to try, however, and we can consider that one of Anthony's last bequests.

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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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