World Views: Nada Bakri on Her Husband Anthony Shadid (Mar 19, 2012)
Oklahoma City lost a native son, and foreign journalism lost one of its most distinctive voices in February when New York Times Beirut Bureau Chief Anthony Shadid passed away while covering the uprisings in Syria. His wife and colleague at the Times Nada Bakri remembers her late husband, and talks about Shadid's memoir House of Stone, detailing Anthony's restoration of the Shadid family's ancestral home in Lebanon.
ZACH MESSITTE, HOST: Nada Bakri, thank you for joining us on World Views.
NADA BAKRI: Thanks for having me.
MESSITTE: I want to begin by talking about your late husband’s new book, House of Stone, and I was struck by how the reconstruction process of his family’s ancestral house could be read in some ways as a metaphor or a parable for a lost Middle East, or the Levant, as he refers. He writes, for instance, “Glances at the past where solace and tradition and myth prevailed, only brings more shame over what the present is. We’ve lost the splendors our ancestors created, and we go elsewhere. People are reminded of that every day here, where an older world, still visible on every corner, fails to hide its superior ways.” And I guess I’d like to ask what led you and your husband to become correspondents reporting from the Middle East? What drove you to want to do that?
BAKRI: I think it’s different for me, so I’m just going to talk about Anthony. When I met Anthony, it was 2006 and he was a radio correspondent, but I remember asking him this question, and he said that he had never remembered not wanting to be a journalist and not wanting to be a journalist covering the Middle East. For as long as he remembered this is what he wanted to do in his life: learn Arabic, learn the culture, move to the Middle East, and work there as a journalist and he just felt growing up in the United States and just reading and watching on the TV how the Middle East was covered he felt like the coverage was not right. So I think out of commitment, out of love, knowing that his ancestors came from that region, he felt commitment, and he felt that needed to go there.
MESSITTE: Let me ask you about, and you just said this, the reporting wasn’t right. Because one of the things that seems to have changed so dramatically - your husband spoke Arabic, he knew the history, he knew the language, he knew the culture, he knew the politics, and newspapers and television stations, particularly American ones, aren’t in the Middle East anymore with a very few exceptions. Except, and I really thought this was a passage in the book, your husband talks about they’re there for the drama, but they’re not there after the drama, they’re not there to see the woman who’s been dazed, or how the village rebuilds itself. What aren’t we seeing in reporting from the Middle East that perhaps your husband was able to transmit. but it’s really so few sources that can give us what’s really going on there?
BAKRI: You know, I think that this is a very important questions and you know, even Anthony would always say that “I cant do what I do in the Middle East in Japan or China, or in any other country because I don’t know the language, I don’t know the culture, I don’t know the background, the history.” So it was just so important, and to do this job right or for him to do it right you had to be an expert. You had to know the language, you had to know the people, you had to know the traditions, you had to know their habits, what they like, what they didn’t like, how they live their lives and I think we’re missing this, and I think we’re going to miss it more and more as journalism changes as less resources go into it. It’s really a shame.
JOSHUA LANDIS: When Anthony was brought to the New York Times, it signified a revolution in coverage in the Middle East to a certain degree. Correspondents like Thomas Freidman pop immediately to mind, the Pulitzer Prize-winner. In many ways Anthony Shadid is compared to him, but Thomas Friedmen had that connection to Israel, and he was constantly fighting to project it. He was a critical voice of Israel, but of the entire Middle East, but in a sense he epitomized what the New York Times coverage of the Middle East has been - Jewish boy from New York going to cover the Middle East. Here was Anthony Shadid, an Arab boy from Oklahoma City being sent to cover the Middle East for America. How big revolution was that? Or was it really not something that was that big?
BAKRI: You know, that’s an interesting question because for a lot of people Anthony Shadid is American who happen to have Lebanese relatives or ancestors who came from Lebanon, and he also happened to speak the language, but most people knew that he had learned it when he was in his twenties, so he didn’t grow up learning it. So maybe it wasn’t all that much of a…
LANDIS: A big change?
MONICA SHARP: I’m interested to know, Nada, Anthony obviously took with him, as we all do, his personal history and his upbringing, with him when he went out into the field to report and being from Oklahoma, from central Oklahoma, from a family of third generation of Lebanese-Americans whom those of us who have grown up in Oklahoma know to be pillars of the community - very active in their communities, and politically; but what sorts of assumptions did he encounter or have to overcome when he was reporting? When he told people where he was from, were people surprised? How did they respond?
BAKRI: Yes, a lot of people were surprised with this and a family from Marjayoun, and how did they end up in Oklahoma City of all places. But then when he would go into the details, you learn how much all these people came from Marjayoun tried to recreate a new Marjayoun of their own in Oklahoma City. And it would all just make a little bit of sense to them. I mean the food was still the same, the family gatherings, how close they all remained with each other, but it was always something that people talked about and a lot of them asked about and were fascinated - how did you end up in Oklahoma City? And he was just always so happy to talk about it. Coming here also was always so great for him because it was his second home after Marjayoun.
SHARP: So it sounds like his family did maintain a lot of those culture traditions that helped him form a bridge maybe between his home culture and the cultures that he was working with every day.
BAKRI: Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. Because they maintained almost everything, if not everything, so a lot of the things that he saw in the Middle East were familiar to him because he had experienced them and lived them here.
MESSITTE: I want to keep asking about this because I read an interview in which he said that he was always haunted by identity. So, how does a reporter who has this connection to a culture, how do they separate out this idea of my identity versus what I need to report back to the people who are my readers?
BAKRI: That’s a very interesting question. Anthony liked to call himself or think about himself as a citizen of the world. He never wanted to be Lebanese-American or Arab-American, or Lebanese, or American, or anything. He just wanted to be a citizen of the world, and he wanted his children Laila and Malik to feel the same way about themselves and I think that that helped him believing that he was actually a citizen of the world. It helped him a lot - to be close to his subjects, the people he was writing about, and at the same time to be as objective as he could be when writing about them. You know, I think it’s evident in his work that everybody mattered to him in the same way.
LANDIS: Where will Anthony be buried? Can I ask you? A few weeks ago I heard an interview with him, and he was asked “Where do you belong”?
BAKRI: Really? He was asked that?
LANDIS: He didn’t say where he was going to be buried, but the questioner asked, “Where to do you belong? Do you belong in the United States, or in Lebanon?”
BAKRI: What did he say?
LANDIS: He said Lebanon. Interestingly, he said, “My home now is here.”
BAKRI: And by here, he meant Lebanon?
LANDIS: He meant Lebanon. He had been fixing up the house and his book was finished and he really meant the Middle East as well as Lebanon. But this same identity question that came up and up. You know, one sense from him that he had moved away from Oklahoma and yes, his family was still here, but he had been preparing himself in a sense for that spiritual move. At any rate, let me ask you that question.
BAKRI: You know I think he probably just created an identity for himself that it was this house that he rebuilt that he created from imagination, so I think this is life. So as he was rebuilding the house, he would often tell me, we would be sitting in the garden or somewhere in the house and he would say “When I die, I want you to cremate my body and I want you to spread the ashes in this garden.” There was nothing that he loved more than the house and that garden. So, he is there in the garden. We have two big really old olive trees that his great grandfather had planted and they are still beautiful and healthy, and we put him there between the two olive trees.
MESSITTE: You’re listening to World Views on KGOU, and we’re talking to Nada Bakri, the wife of late foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a native of Oklahoma City. I want to talk about Syria a little bit, which of course our colleague Joshua Landis knows quite a bit about. And this was the place where Anthony Shadid was on his last reporting trip. His photographer, Tyler Hicks, wrote recently in the New York Times, that ,things were developing in a way in Syrian that were different than Libya and other parts of the Arab Spring where there was going to be a real fight, in some respect,s and that I was struck again when reading the book at the same time preparing for this interview, and there was a beautiful quote and I wanted to see whether this fit to the way perhaps he viewed the Arab Spring and what was going on in Syria and the quote was this, it said, “Cultures that seemed durable as stone can break like glass leaving all the things that held them together unattended.” What did he think about what was going on in the last year across the Arab World? Was this a revolution, or was this some sort of spasm of political violence?
BAKRI: I don’t think he thought it was eeither. I don’t think he ever called any of the uprisings revolutions, or violence, but he said it was a moment that was meant to happen and somehow we were all waiting for this moment to happen and he was so happy to be witnessing it, and reporting it, and covering it, and be part of it. You know, I regret, last year was such a hectic year and we hardly ever had time to sit together and talk and reflect on these big events, because we both were very busy and of course he was a lot busier than I was, with the book and covering the uprising and running from one place to another, so I regret not having talked to him more about this. But he was just fascinated, and felt so lucky to be witnessing what was happening and to be part of it.
LANDIS: Do you have any sense - he must have left quite a bit of notes coming out of Syria and I’m sure you have read over them - what sort of things was he thinking about in his time in Syria when he smuggled in himself into Syria?
BAKRI: I have four notebooks cover-to-cover from Syria. Unfortunately, I can’t read them; his handwriting is very…special (laughs), and I think he was the only one that could read it; but it’s going to take time. Eventually I will figure it out and be able read it. But I remember, he would check in with me twice a day - once in the morning and once in the evening - and every day he would tell me how much fun he was having. It was the best reporting trip of his career. He had three stories he couldn’t wait to get out and write them, and then maybe a fourth if he got everything he needed. Unfortunately, he couldn’t give me any details, or tell me more about the reporting he was doing, or what kind of material that he had gathered. He was advised not to talk the phone for more than just a couple of minutes each time, and he never did talk more than he was allowed; but I could tell how fascinated he was by what he was seeing.
LANDIS: One of the things I was struck by is the contrast between his reporting on Iraq, and his reporting on this last year of revolutions. Because his reporting was always so foreboding in Iraq. One sensed that he felt something quite damaging was going on in Iraq. Could you tell us a little bit about the differences you noticed in his reporting on Iraq, and his reporting this last year in places like Syria, Egypt, Libya?
BAKRI: You know, in Iraq there was an invasion, a big war, and a lot death and destruction. And he got there, and I think, in his mind, what he wanted to do in Iraq was just document the changes that people had to go through, and how their lives changed after the war, after the invasion, and the events that happened in 2006-2007 - the civil war, the sectarian events. He wanted to chronicle all of that. He wanted to be as close to people as he could, and just see really how this had affected their lives. I think with the Arab uprisings in Syria and Libya; I think to him, he was just fascinated with it, and day by day he would see something new, and witness something different. I can just tell in Iraq everything was a little bit clearer to him. The story was just out there, and people were out there, and their lives clearly had changed a lot by the invasion, whereas the effects of the Arab uprisings are still to be seen.
SHARP: I want to ask you a question about Anthony’s use of language. Clearly his legacy will remain with us for years to come through his writing. He was a very gifted writer, and you could tell that he was a writer who felt language very deeply and really had a poetic turn of mind. And I’m specifically interested in how he came to learn Arabic in his twenties; I know that that can be very difficult proposition and I would like to know how that affected his reporting and his ability, how he communicated with all of his subjects, everyone that he was speaking with, because he didn’t learn it at home with his grandparents and parents?
BAKRI: No, he didn’t. He was in his early twenties when he just decided that he was going to move to Cairo and study Arabic for a year. So he did the classes, but he was so committed and so ambitious and he knew that if he was going to become a good journalist he had to speak the language as fluently as he could. So I remember him telling me that he would just listen to tapes of politicians, watch TV, and just kind of hang out with people on the streets - strangers, taxi drivers. He loved just getting into a taxi and driving around and just listening to their stories. In fact, in Lebanon he would do the same things. When he moved to the village it was the same thing, just kind of kept to himself with people who didn’t speak anything but Arabic and forced himself to speak like them. When he came to Lebanon in 2005, he had lived in Egypt and lived in Iraq, so his accent was a mixture at that point, of Iraqi and Egyptian dialects, and then he got to Beirut, so after that it was a mixture of all three. But he also wanted to speak it as a Lebanese, and he did manage.
MESSITTE: And following up, to me it always seems like learning a language, and earn it well, you have to have a certain fearlessness. Right? You have to put yourself in these situations where you’re going to be uncomfortable. Because you can’t communicate or you have to force yourself to communicate. I loved in both the book and in some of the recent articles about this idea, that you could really picture him smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, right in the middle of groups of people in order to understand the story, but it also took him into harm’s way at various points in the career. Right? In Libya and then the West Bank. And I wonder if there’s not some sort of connection between the fearlessness of learning a language, and the fearlessness of reporting, that in order to bring out the good story, you really have to let go of yourself in some respect.
BAKRI: I think the he did let go of himself a lot. It’s not easy to speak a foreign language, or to learn a foreign language in your twenties. But he learned it and it didn’t matter to him if he was making mistakes or not, he just spoke it when he had to, and he kept speaking it, and learning it, and getting better at it without ever worrying that he was making mistakes or anything. But I don’t think it’s the same thing as his reporting. I think that he felt a commitment, rather than not being scared. I think he was scared. I think we’re all scared if we’re in a dangerous place, when there’s violence around us, he was scared but he was committed. He just loved this region so much, and it meant a lot to him, and he felt that there were stories that needed to be told and if he wasn’t there to tell them then they were not going to get told.
MESSITTE: Well, Nada Bakri, thank you for joining us on World Views.
Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.
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