Anthony Shadid: The Best of Our Breed

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Sue Ogrocki, File / AP

In this April 7, 2011, file photo, New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anthony Shadid discusses his capture by Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya during a talk at the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum in Oklahoma City

I know how chefs feel about Ferran Adrià, musicians about Bruce Springsteen, economists about Amartya Sen. I felt that way about Anthony Shadid: total and utter awe. In an era blessed with more than its fair share of brilliant foreign correspondents, he was the best of the breed. And his death, at just 43, leaves our profession bereft.

Considering how often we were in the same city at the same time, it’s odd that Tony and I met only three times: in Baghdad, Amman and New York. At our first encounter, over dinner at TIME’s Baghdad bureau, I embarrassed him by behaving as a fawning fan. I had followed his career, first at the Boston Globe and then at the Washington Post (he would later join the New York Times), and read both his books. I quoted chapter and verse from the second, Night Draws Near, an evocative account of the lives of ordinary Iraqis under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. He was plainly uncomfortable with my open admiration and shifted the conversation as best he could.

As other journalists joined us for dinner, I got busy playing host, and Tony drifted out of the living room. After the meal, he stopped by the kitchen to say goodbye and remarked how lucky I was to have such a diverse mix of Iraqis on TIME’s staff. It was an odd thing to say: how could he possibly know how diverse our staff was?

The next morning, I learned that while the rest of us were exchanging war stories, Tony had spent much of the evening chatting with our drivers and security guards, asking them about life in their neighborhoods, what their kids were studying in school and what they were hearing from relatives in other parts of the country. Our staff marveled at his keen interest in the minutiae of their lives. Raed, our security chief, said, “He was more interested in why my son is studying than I am.”

But that was Tony’s great gift: his insatiable curiosity about —  and deep empathy for — ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. His journalism was shot through with this quality, enriched by it. Yes, he interviewed heads of state and talking heads, but it was his familiarity with the lives of Iraqis, Lebanese, Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians that made him the best journalist operating in the Middle East.

I lost touch with Tony after he joined the Times but read every word he wrote last year about the Arab Spring. Here, again, his understanding of the anger and aspirations that brought millions of young Arabs into the streets allowed him to explain this most unexpected revolution to millions of readers. And not a few journalists.

What will we do without Tony? We will, I know, continue to be inspired by his example. Journalism students should scour the Internet to collate anthologies of his best journalism. His books are required reading for anybody who wants to make sense of the Middle East. And a memoir is due out in a matter of weeks. It is a tragedy that Tony won’t be there to unveil it.

The best of us is no more. R.I.P., Anthony Shadid.