M. Shahid Alam
An Arab-American of Lebanese descent, fluent in Arabic, Anthony Shadid was one of a handful of unembedded Western journalists reporting from Iraq during the US invasion in 2003. At the time, he was The Washington Post’s correspondent for Islamic Affairs in the Middle East.
His dispatches from Iraq were about Iraqis, about the destruction visited upon them by a war whose architects claimed that they were bringing democracy to that country. He reported the destruction and mayhem caused by this war by letting the Iraqis speak for themselves: and they spoke of their pain, their anguish, their perplexity and their anger.
For his honest reporting, for a job well done, Anthony Shadid received some of the highest accolades of his profession. In 2004 he received the Michael Kelly Award and the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Other honors followed, all well-deserved. He had won his spurs for reporting, not cheerleading, neither praising nor denouncing the United States. He was reporting for The Washington Post, a neoconservative newspaper.
On Jan 29, I noticed for the first time a report in The New York Times that carried Anthony Shadid’s byline. Was this a promotion? It was written from Halaichiya, a remote village in the southern tip of Iraq, untouched by the war. The village has never seen Americans before, neither troops nor diplomats.
Hlaichiya has no electricity. Among its rare signs of modernity, we are told, are a few cell phones, charged by a single generator that “villagers run for a few hours, or however long a liter bottle of gasoline lasts.” Gasoline too must be expensive in this village in oil-rich Iraq.
Anthony Shadid reports snippets of conversations with several people in Halaichiya, with an Iraqi army officer, the ‘sheik’ of the village, and with several villagers. Towards the end, however, he focuses on one villager in particular, Karim Hassan, but we are told nothing about him except for a missing finger lost to shrapnel during the war with Iran.
At this point, the article abruptly cuts away to Levant in the 11th century, when Crusader armies invaded the region. The Arab historians of the time, Shadid writes, “were struck by, in the words of one, their ‘fighting ardor.’ They were seen as fair-haired giants, sheathed in armor, laden with weapons and seemingly invincible.”
Once this bit of ‘history’ has been pasted into his report, Shadid returns to Karim Hassan, the villager in Halaichiya with one finger missing. The Arab historians’ ‘description’ of the Crusaders, Shadid writes, was “familiar to Karim Hassan.” He too, “envisioned the American soldiers as blond with red cheeks. ‘Taller and stronger,’ he added. ‘Their blood is good,’ he went on.”
We are not told how Karim Hassan came to acquire this ‘vision’ of American soldiers as blond giants with good blood. Was it based on hearsay? Who had furnished him with this description of an army that now included many blacks, Hispanics, Asians and women? Or was this villager in remote Halaichiya a history buff – as Anthony Shadid implies – who relied for his ‘vision’ on Arab historians of the Crusades?
What follows is more strange, passing strange.
Karim Hassan is deeply obsessed with his inferiority before the American giants. He stretches his ‘frail arms’ and asks, “Can you compare me to an American?” “If they saw me in America,” he says, “they’d throw me in the garbage and burn me. I think about them and I die of envy…”
Who is this Iraqi with his vision of blond American giants and of himself as an inferior dwarf, who, in the United States, would be burned as garbage? Does Karim Hassan see only himself as garbage, or does he think that all Iraqis and maybe all Arabs are ‘garbage’ fit only to be burned?
One thinks that other villagers would have witnessed Anthony Shadid’s conversation with Karim Hassan. What were their reactions to Hassan’s extreme self-denigration? Did they approve or did they disagree?
Anthony Shadid does not answer these questions for the reader. On the other hand, the manner in which he foregrounds this conversation – with his reference to Arab historians who saw the Crusaders as blond giants – makes his reticence on these questions more troubling.
The ‘sheik’ of the village, Obeid Hlayil, is given the last word in Anthony Shadid’s report. Oddly, the ‘sheik’ is a fatalist in a country whose people had defeated the American invaders and were taking back their country from them. Obeid Hlayil casts his fatalism in a proverb, “Whoever marries my mother, I call him father.” What this means, Anthony Shadid explains, is that you “are left to accept what fate has delivered.”
Why did Anthony Shadid choose to give the last word to a fatalist and defeatist Iraqi? Nearly all Orientalist accounts of the Arabs too describe them as fatalists, bound to the decrees of Allah, slaves to kismet.
Anthony Shadid belongs to the hall of fame of American journalism. In this report on Iraq, however, I was disappointed at his choices and omissions. It couldn’t be easy working for The New York Times, America’s national ‘paper of record.’
–M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is the author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.