A Foreign Correspondent Reflects On The Arab Spring
Veteran war correspondent Anthony Shadid spent much of the past decade in Baghdad covering the Iraq war, first for The Washington Post and then for The New York Times. Last December, Shadid left Baghdad for his home in Beirut, Lebanon, where he's been based for more than a decade.
"It was amazing to me how many conversations I was having with people about how dejected they were, how disappointed, how pessimistic they were about where the Arab world was," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "... And so remarkably, just a week or two later, the uprising began in Tunisia."
Shadid reported from Tunisia and then from the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain. He says 2011 has been one of the most unbelievable years he ever could have imagined experiencing in the Middle East region.
"I think back to this idea that a generation ago, the Iranian revolution was this event that changed the Middle East," he says. "And we're [talking about] six revolts or revolutions or uprisings all happening, in a lot of respects, at the very same time."
Shadid says the euphoria felt in places like Tunisia and Egypt throughout the spring has now passed.
"I think there's a lot of anxiety and uncertainty of where we're headed," he says. "I guess after being a pessimist in Baghdad for so long, I remain an optimist. I think that optimism comes from this idea that these societies — that have been moribund for so long — have been revived or rejuvenated. ... And that very dynamism of those societies leaves hope for the future."
On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Shadid talks extensively about his reporting in the region, including Syria, where many journalists have been denied entry visas. Shadid and photographer Moises Saman crossed the border on motorcycles along what he calls "a lawless strip of terrain" in order to get into the country.
"I've done things that maybe I wouldn't have done in hindsight, and this maybe would have been one of them," he says. "It was scarier than I thought it would be. I had had a bad experience in Libya earlier in the year, [but] I did feel that Syria was so important, and that story wouldn't be told otherwise, that it was worth taking risks for. But the repercussions of getting caught were pretty dire."
Shadid and Saman made their way from safe house to safe house in Homs, before arriving by car in Hama, the fourth-largest city in Syria and the site of a deadly government crackdown against Islamic activists in the early 1980s. Now, says Shadid, the streets were filled with anti-government demonstrators, after security forces withdrew from the city.
"The thing that struck both of us so quickly is that people were protesting just because they could protest," he says. "Every 30 minutes, hour, you'd have another protest gather in the streets. And it was just the fact that no one was going to stop them from doing it."
Shadid and Saman stayed in Hama for several days, before crossing back across the border.
"I don't think I'd ever seen something like what I saw in Syria," he says. "You're dealing with a government that's shown very little restraint in killing its own people to put down an uprising. ... And I got to spend a lot of time with [the activists] because I spent a lot of time in safe houses. And it reminded me of an old story in Islamic history, when the Muslim armies are crossing to Gibraltar. And the general who was leading them burned the ships after they crossed into Spain. And the idea was there was no turning back. And that story, I felt, resonated [with] almost every conversation I had."
Anthony Shadid is based in Beirut for The New York Times. He has also worked for The Washington Post and The Associated Press. Shadid has won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting twice, first in 2004 and again in 2010 for his coverage of the Iraq war.
On Iraq's influence on the Arab Spring
"My own sense on that is that the Iraq War — the invasion of 2003 and the aftermath — delayed the Arab Spring. I think you can make the argument that these revolts and uprisings that have swept the region may have even happened earlier had not this scar of that occupation not been left on the region. That said, I think Iraq is going to be incredibly relevant to what comes up in the future in the region. Because I think there is a very deep and protracted struggle about identity at some level. Are these new systems of politics that emerged in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain — any of those countries — are they going to revolve around this access of citizenship, or are these societies going to divide along more basic notions of sect or ethnicity?"
On reporting from Syria
"I think Syria is often covered by phone. You have to talk to activists. You have to try to read the tea leaves. You have to talk to government officials. It's remote-control reporting in a way. And I think that's deeply frustrating, after coming out of experiences in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, where it was on-the-ground reporting."
On shifting balances of power in the Middle East
"We're seeing new powers and new influences in the region, and that's most spectacularly probably Turkey on one hand, and the very small state of Qatar on the other. We're also seeing new potential and alliances emerging. And I think Turkey and Qatar are very aware of ... emerging new forces, much more so than Saudi Arabia, which in some ways, I think, fears what the [Muslim] Brotherhood represents."
On being captured and beaten by Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya last March
"When I think back to the day, I blame myself more than I blame others in not leaving sooner. And I've gone over in my mind why I didn't leave sooner. And I hope it was for the right reasons — that this wouldn't have been covered otherwise. And I figure it was for the wrong reasons — that there was ambition in play. And we stayed too long, and I think any one of us could have forced the issue and I should have, but I didn't. ... We took such incredible risks for a story that I don't think was worth taking those risks for, but it's something I didn't realize until much later. And by the time we left, it was too late."
On the gun battle that took place at the checkpoint where he and three other journalists were captured
"There was gunfire everywhere. We could see the impacts in the soft dirt. We all made a run for it. I think [photographer] Tyler [Hicks] was the first to go, and I followed him and then we just ran for our lives basically. There was so little decision-making at that point. It was just: How are we going to survive? And I think Tyler, we talked later, he was going to make a run for it, and there was no way he could have gotten away with it. In the end, we all just sought cover behind a very small concrete school that was set up by the checkpoint. And once we got there, the soldiers just set upon us. And they emptied our pockets, slapped us around, put us on our stomachs and then bound our hands and legs with wire. ... And I remember, it remains one of the scariest moments of my life ... you just have to make peace very quickly with the idea that it's over. And I remember looking up at that soldier and he says, 'Shoot them,' in Arabic, and you just lose every sensation at that point. And it was probably two minutes before another soldier said, 'You can't shoot them; they're Americans.' And I'm not sure I believed them when I heard that, but the ability to sense things came back after I heard those words and then I thought, 'Maybe this is going to play out and you try to get your wits about you.' "
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Anthony Shadid, Has been reporting from the front lines of the Arab uprisings. He's the New York Times Beirut bureau chief. He covered Tahrir Square and the overthrow of President Mubarak, as well as the uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.
He was captured in Libya with three other journalists by Gadhafi's soldiers, beaten and held for several days. He subsequently had to question in perhaps a deeper way than he'd ever done before what risks are worth taking for a story. Although it's hardly the first time he was at risk, he covered the war in Iraq and was shot while reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Shadid was born in Oklahoma, where his grandparents emigrated from Lebanon. Shortly after beginning his career in journalism, he moved to Cairo to study Arabic, which he's now fluent in. His many honors include two Pulitzer Prizes.
After covering uprisings for nearly a year, Anthony Shadid is on a brief vacation in the U.S. I spoke with him yesterday. Anthony Shadid, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thank you for the reporting you've been doing, and I think I speak on behalf of your readers that were so relieved that you survived your detainment and beating in Libya.
So you're on vacation now. I don't know how long your vacation is. How long is it?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it started I guess all of a day or so ago, and a couple of weeks at least before I head back to Beirut.
GROSS: So this is like your first real vacation in a year?
SHADID: It feels like it. I mean, there was some time off earlier in the year for...
GROSS: I mean an extraordinary year.
SHADID: You know, it's been one of the most unbelievable years I've ever even imagined experiencing. You know, I think back to this idea that, you know, a generation ago, the Iranian revolution was this one event that forever changed the Middle East. And we're dealing with, you know, six revolts or revolutions or uprisings, however you want to describe them, but all happening in a lot of respects at the very same time.
GROSS: So you're covering a part of the world that is remarkably different than it was a year ago. So stepping back for a moment, and you literally are stepping back because you've left the region for a brief vacation, are we heading, do you think, for more democracy in that region or more chaos and sectarian political fighting? Does it feel like freedom is winning, or chaos is winning?
SHADID: Well, you know, I hate to say this, Terry, because it's the easy way out, but, you know, to be honest, I'm really not sure. It's funny that you said, you know, how decisive this year feels. And I remember I had spent most of the past decade in Baghdad, in Iraq, and I left Baghdad in December, and I remember coming back to Beirut, coming to our home there.
And it was amazing to me how many conversations I was having with people about how dejected they were, how disappointed, how pessimistic they were about where the Arab world was. And it felt - to have to say that, you know, sentiments as kind of downbeat then as any other moment since I've been in the Middle East for the past 15 years. And so remarkably, just a week or two later, the uprising began in Tunisia.
You know, I think the euphoria of those moments in Tunisia and Egypt has passed. I think there's no question about that. I think there's a lot of anxiety and uncertainty of where we're headed.
I guess after being a pessimist in Baghdad for so long, I remain an optimist. And that's - I think that optimism just comes from this idea that these societies that have been moribund for so long are revived or rejuvenated, are dynamic right now. And that very dynamism, I think, of those societies, you know, still - at least to me, lends hope for the future.
GROSS: Since you've covered Iraq, and you've covered most of the countries that had uprisings during the Arab spring, I'm wondering what your impression is about how Iraq, if at all, influenced the Arab spring and whether Iraq is seen as, like, a model for overthrowing dictators and for democracy or as a model of, like, how not to do it.
SHADID: You know, my own sense on that, and I'm sure people disagree with me, and I wouldn't want to speak with certainty by any means, but, you know, my own sense is that the Iraq War, the invasion back in 2003 and the aftermath of what happened during the occupation, I think it actually delayed the Arab Spring.
I think you can make the argument that these revolts, these uprisings and revolutions that swept the region may have even happened earlier has not this, you know, this scar of that invasion-occupation been left on the region.
That said, I think Iraq is going to be incredibly relevant to what comes up in the future in the region because I think there is a very deep and protracted struggle about identity at some level. Are these new systems of politics that emerged in, say, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, you know, Bahrain, Yemen, any of those countries, are they going to revolve around this access of citizenship, or are these societies going to divide along, you know, I think more kind of basic notions of sect or ethnicity or other notions of identity that feel very exclusive?
And I think Iraq is an example of a country that did divide on those smaller identities, on sect and ethnicity, and it's very difficult in Iraq these days to have a political program or political party that's built around a universal notion of identity.
GROSS: You've been reporting on the crackdown in Syria against protestors, and Syria hasn't been allowing in journalists. So how did you get in?
SHADID: Well that, I have to say, that - you know, I hate to talk too much about it...
GROSS: Sure, I understand.
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GROSS: Here's how we break your laws, Syria.
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SHADID: Well, but also I hate to be too self-referential because, I mean, I think these - you know, these stories are - first and foremost, it's just, it's getting the story that matters and being able to report the story. But I was frustrated in not being able to meet these people that I had been reporting about for so long.
I think Syria is often covered by phone. You have to talk to activists. You have to try to, you know, read the tea leaves. You have to talk to government officials. And it is remote-control reporting in some ways. And that's - you know, I think that's deeply frustrating, especially coming out of experiences in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, where it was very much, you know, on-the-ground reporting.
You could embed your writing in the stories and the quotes and the anecdotes of the people you were talking to. That wasn't the case in Syria, and a photographer, a very good photographer and a friend of mine, Moises Saman, and I decided to actually try to get into Syria. They weren't giving visas.
And so we ended up finding activists who - it's kind of a lawless strip of territory between Lebanon and Syria where a lot of smuggling goes on, and these activists were working in that area. And they made it possible for us to get across the border.
And we ended up riding motorcycles on dirt paths from a town called Watihalid(ph) to what's become I think a center of the uprising in Syria, and that's the town of Homs. It was just a matter of - I wouldn't say it was much more than 10 miles or so, but it ended up taking us five or six hours to try to navigate that path.
And, you know, I've done things that I probably wouldn't have done in hindsight, and this might be one of them. It was - turned out to be much scarier than I thought it would be.
GROSS: What made it scarier?
SHADID: Well, I think the idea of getting caught, probably, first and foremost. I had had a bad experience in Libya earlier in the year. You know, I did feel that Syria was so important and that that story wouldn't be told otherwise that it was worth taking risks for, but the repercussions of getting caught were pretty dire.
And, you know, my family, my wife was very anxious, and I think Moises and I were, as well. I think we expected the trip to be a little bit better planned than it was. Once we actually got underway, we realized how we were playing a little bit loose. I think the activists that brought us in there were playing it by ear a bit.
GROSS: And so you were putting your life in the hands of people who haven't done a lot of planning to protect you.
SHADID: You know, who' I'd never met before, in fact. And they turned out to be incredibly charming, very sincere, very committed people that we went in with. But, you know, there's a phrase in Arabic in (unintelligible), where God willing, and every time you say it in Arabic, it's - you know, it's so common it doesn't - you don't even think about it.
But when you render it into English, it sounds a little bit unnerving, and it kept - you know, that was the phrase they uttered every time we asked about, you know, checkpoints or the prospect of getting caught or where we were going.
And we ended up going from safehouse to safehouse, I think three safehouses before we actually ended up in Homs and then from there to Hama. And when I look back on this year, and the reason I think that those risks - you know, again, I'm not sure if I would have done it again given how risky it turned out to be, but when I look back at this year, I think there were two moments that were so inspiring and so remarkable to me, especially again - I hate to keep saying this - but coming out of just the carnage and the disappointment and the record of Iraq.
I mean, Iraq is a society that in some ways has been torn apart or torn apart at least for a generation. But what I got to see in Tahrir Square, in Cairo in January and February, this idea of a new notion of community coming together, a community defining itself on its own terms, a youthful generation, you know, determined to create a place they would live in that was far better than the place their parents lived in.
And watching that being rendered on such a small stage, which Tahrir Square in a lot of respects. I mean, you might have fit a million people in there on some days, but often it was a much smaller stage where you got to see ambitions and hopes and frustrations as well play out there right before you.
I think the other moment that I'll never forget was what I saw in Hama. After Moises and I managed to get to Homs, and then we were able to take a car, a much easier drive from Homs to Hama, it ended up being I think 45 minutes. And once we got into Hama that night, I mean, I think the thing that struck both of us so quickly was how people were protesting just because they could protest.
Every 30 minutes, hour, you'd have another protest gather in the streets. And it was just the fact that no one was going to stop them from doing it. And what we saw play out in that city - and we have to remember, this is a city that, like other Syrian cities, lived under four decades of dictatorship, but I think most spectacularly in Hama, it was the scene of one of the greatest crimes in the modern Arab world.
It was where the government cracked down on an Islamist uprising in the late '70s and early '80s, and in 1982, it was decisively ended in Hama at the cost of, you know, perhaps tens of thousands of lives. This is a city that was very much scarred.
And with all that record, that record of dictatorship, the record of the events that happened in Hama itself, within just a span of weeks, after security forces had withdrawn from Hama - it proved to be temporary, but they had withdrawn from Hama - the community came together in what was a moment of self-determination.
The youth, doctors, engineers, lawyers, clerics had come together and begun running the city in the way they wanted to run it. It was - I mean, I keep using this phrase, and it sounds kind of hackneyed, but it really was a moment of self-determination that was so remarkable to me that it: One, could come together so quickly; and two, could come together after such a difficult past.
GROSS: Did the Syrian authorities move in and end that?
SHADID: I think they understood exactly what Hama represented, that here was - you know, the government's mantra throughout this uprising, when it - you know, that began in mid-March was that it's us or chaos. If we fall, this country is going to fall apart. There is going to be civil war, minorities are going to be persecuted. Without us, this country can't manage.
But Hama said that it could manage. Hama proved that people could come together, they could organize themselves, they could - you know, is it democratic or not, but it's representative of the constituencies inside that city. And I think that model was very threatening.
Now, did that figure into the conversations when they planned the crackdown? That's difficult to say. But within weeks, the beginning of August, the government very decisively, with force of arms, went back into Hama and ended that experiment.
GROSS: What else did you get by risking your life to actually go into Syria and report from Homs and Hama?
SHADID: You know, I think understood, even more so than Egypt and Tunisia - and you know, when you talk about courage, it's hard to - it's such a relative term, and I think people are making such unbelievable sacrifices in such disparate places.
You know, the young men that I met in Bahrain were remarkable in their just determination to keep fighting for what they wanted to fight. But I don't think I'd ever seen something like what I saw in Syria.
You're dealing with a government that has had no - that's shown very little restraint in killing its own people to put down an uprising, and these youths, you know, when I was talking to them - and I got to spend, you know, long hours talking with them because we spent a lot of our time in safehouses - and it reminded me of an old story that - in Islamic history, when the Muslim armies are crossing to Gibraltar.
And the general who was leading them burned the ships after they crossed into Spain. And the idea was there was no turning back. And that story, I felt, resonated almost every conversation I had with those youths in Syria. There was no turning back. They had gone too far.
And I think that very idea that there was nothing left to lose, I mean, to me that felt like almost the - at least one definition of courage, and it struck me how often I heard it in conversation after conversation, time and again.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Shadid, he's the New York Times Beirut bureau chief, and for the past year he's been covering the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and he was captured by Gadhafi's forces in Libya. We'll talk a lot more about all of this after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Shadid, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times. He's been covering the Arab uprisings and the aftermath of those uprisings, and he's on a vacation right now in the United States.
So we were talking about - we've been talking about reporting from Syria, the risks you took to get in there and the things that you witnessed there that you otherwise absolutely could not have reported on. Were you concerned that the government would start hunting for you knowing that you were there, or did you not file until you safely got out?
SHADID: Yeah, I waited until I got out of the country. And they have such bigger problems to deal with than a foreign journalist at this point.
GROSS: Oh no, they really seem to like arresting foreign journalists from this country.
SHADID: You know, and the Syrians are very - you know, they have a very - a somewhat sinister past when it comes to dealing with journalists, especially Arab journalists and especially in Lebanon. You know, they're horrific stories of what they've done to critics of the regime.
This is a government that plays by the rules of a much older school, and it - and it strikes me time and again how unable it is - and for lack of a better phrase, how unable it is to update itself in some respects. I don't think it understands to this day what it faces in terms of the uprising.
And it also - I also don't think it understands how deeply the world has changed since it took power.
GROSS: On December 6, you reported one of the worst episodes of sectarian carnage in Syria since the uprising began. You say there were dozens of corpses that were recovered from the streets of Homs, one of the cities that you were in. Some were dismembered, decapitated, bearing signs of torture, and you describe this as sectarian tit-for-tat killings.
Were you in Syria at the time you reported this?
SHADID: I was not. I was covering that from Beirut. I had been in Homes - of course, as we've been speaking about it, I was in Homs earlier this summer. And even when I was in Homs this summer talking to some of the young men there, they told me that they feared what was ahead. And you often heard - you would often hear them say that we can keep it under control in the city.
You know, a city like a Homes, a historic city, has, you know, connections between minorities - connections between communities, let's say, that stretch back generations, even centuries. So there was a sense when I was there that they could keep the sectarian conflict, they could keep a lid on it. They worried more about the countryside.
And I think even today, these sectarian tensions, these rivalries - often, let's be frank, manipulated by the government as a way to divide and rule - it's more pronounced in the countryside, but it is starting to rear its head in the cities, as well, in Homs in particular.
And I think this goes back to the point we were talking about earlier: Where is the Arab world going? And is it going to follow the path of Iraq in some ways, where identities break along much smaller notions of self, as Muslims or Christians, Alawites or Sunnis, as Shiites, as Druze - I mean, the list goes on - or are we going to be able to take the more hopeful manifestations of these uprisings, what we've seen in Tunisia, perhaps, and forge a new idea of citizenship?
And I think Homs is in some ways the kind of ground zero of that conflict, of that struggle, and I think it's still very undetermined at this point.
GROSS: So it seems like the whole balance of power now is shifting in the Arab world. Turkey seems to be becoming more powerful. Egypt is kind of in chaos, so maybe they're losing some of their influence, maybe not. I don't know. That's what I want you to explain, , like, if you just, like, really stand back and look at the relative power, the influence that the countries in the Arab world have now, how is the balance of power shifting?
SHADID: Well, I think you've got it right. I mean, that's a very important point to make. The traditional heavyweights in the Arab world, countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been - I mean, Egypt obviously is in the throes of revolution or, you know, I think an unfinished revolution at this point.
Saudi Arabia, you know, its leaders are in their 80s, and it has not played as assertive or aggressive role as it has in the past. So we're seeing new powers, new, I think, new influences in the region, and that's most spectacularly probably Turkey on one hand and then the very small state of Qatar on the other.
We're also, I think, seeing new potential alliances emerging. And I think Turkey - I think both Turkey and Qatar are very sensitive to this or very aware of this. I think there's a notion out there that the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the oldest Islamist organizations in the world, founded in 1928 in Egypt, has begun to emerge as a very decisive force I think in an arc of countries across North Africa, from Morocco to Tunisia to Libya to Egypt.
They don't all call themselves the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of them actually have very great differences with the brotherhood. But they share that same legacy of the organization's past. And we're starting to see them emerge as potentially decisive players in each of these countries, and Turkey and Qatar have seemed to be very aware of that - of those emerging new forces, much more so than Saudi Arabia, which in some ways, I think, fears what the brotherhood represents.
I mean, if the brotherhood in Egypt, if the (unintelligible) party in Tunisia, if these other parties in Morocco or Libya manage to carry out a transition that works, we're going to have for the first time a notion of a nominally Islamist state that's democratic. And that's unprecedented in the Arab world.
I think a lot of people out there still very much fear it. I think secular forces fear it. I think the left fears it. I think there's an idea out there that they could - these places could become very intolerant, that they're not really willing to engage the secular forces and leftist forces, that they're not equipped to handle the challenges of the economy, especially in Egypt.
But a promise of what's going on right now in those countries is, like I said, I keep using this word, but it is unprecedented. And we have for the first time Islamist parties that have been in the political wilderness for generations entering into the fray of politics, mainstream politics, in a legitimate way.
This could take years to play out, but it's something really worth watching because I think it could become a turning point in the Middle East.
GROSS: So in Egypt, a parliamentary vote was held, and the Islamist parties did surprisingly well. They'll hold a majority of seats. So there's the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, and the Salafists are more extreme. And I've been reading a lot of conflicting opinions about what the brotherhood stands for, but I think like the larger question is if you democratically elect a government that stands for not giving other religious groups or women equal rights, do you call that a democracy?
SHADID: You know, my own sense is that the brotherhood and Islamist parties in Tunisia, Morocco, it's still early in Libya to say anything, you know, conclusive, but I think these parties have given us no reason not to believe they are going to support the emergence of democratic societies.
I think what we've had in the past is authoritarian leaders that have betrayed their promises. There's a lot of fear out there. There's a lot of anxiety out there, and there's no question about it. You know, I think the brotherhood has proven more moderate, more mainstream than a lot of people give them credit for being, but there is a conservative faction within those movements in any of those countries.
There is a worry that they're going to be pulled to the right, they're going to become more conservative as this rivalry deepens with the Salafists. There's a worry that they're not telling the truth. But again, I think there's a promise of much healthier societies in some ways, where Islamist currents that have a huge amount of influence in these countries are a part of political systems that work, think the danger is like what you're pointing out, societies that don't feel democratic, that feel so conservative, that don't have a sense of equal rights, a sense of citizenship that's shared by everyone in the country.
And I think this is a struggle that's going to last for a long time.
GROSS: Anthony Shadid will be back in the second half of the show. He's the Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Anthony Shadid, The New York Times Beirut bureau chief. He's covered the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia, and he's taken extraordinary risks to do it. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the war in Iraq. After covering uprisings for nearly a year, Shadid is on a brief vacation in the U.S.
You covered the uprising in Libya, and to do that you went into Libya, you risked your life. You, I think it's fair to say, nearly lost it because you were captured by Gadhafi's soldiers. What was the discussion like that you had with the three journalists that you entered Libya with about whether it was worth going in or not?
SHADID: You know, we all, I think, went in - I'm trying to think. I think we all went in separately and we ended up meeting up in Benghazi. Tyler, Tyler Hicks, a photographer, and Lyndsey Addario, another photographer, and I had been covering the fighting on the front lines for quite a while, and Steve Farrell, a videographer and also a reporter, joined us later. You know, I think if I take a step back and look at what was going on there, the events that are taking place are so overwhelming and they feel so historic and so important that you feel a real challenge to get it right. You feel a real challenge to do justice, I think to what's happening around you.
You know, we are, you know, I think there's a cliche out there that, you know, we write the first draft of history and so on, and I guess it is that at some level. But also it's hard not to feel with so many people making so many sacrifices around you, of countries in such tumult and so much dynamism going around you, that you really more than ever before have to get this right. You have to do justice to what you're seeing. And I think that sometimes does figure into your thinking, that you end up taking risks that you might not have otherwise, and you know, Libya might have fit into that category.
Again, here's a country ruled by - 40 years by Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. It was one of those places I had no sense of. I had been there once before. It was a surreal experience. It happened back in 1995. It was a country that felt to me beyond traumatized. I mean it's very - civil society had been wiped out. Almost every institution that would have knit the country together had been destroyed by Colonel Gadhafi.
So you come into this country and you're seeing it, you know that in some ways Libya could prove to be the most fundamental of any of the revolutions that happened in the Arab world because what was overthrown was so complete. What was left behind was so minimal. And what might emerge is going to start from scratch. You know, very powerfully. So you know, I'm sure like all this stuff is kind of playing on the back of our minds.
And then, you know, I hate to say this, and I hope it's not the case, but I'm sure ambition was as well, that you want to be there. You want to see what's happening. You want to do your job as a journalist, and I think in the end we all got taken by surprise by how quickly things unfolded and where we ended up.
GROSS: So you and three other journalists entered Ajdabiya together, and you describe this as having being the front line of the desperate rebel stand against the advancing Gadhafi forces. You weren't sure if it was wise to go in but you went in. Did you discuss the wisdom of it before going in?
SHADID: Well, here - see this is a great example, Terry. I mean this - you know, when I left Hama and what I saw, and I know I took risks to go into Syria and those risks felt warranted to me. I think Ajdabiya I got wrong. And I don't think Ajdabiya was as important as I thought it was at the time and it came at great cost. Not just to us. I mean we lived. I mean our driver was lost in Ajdabiya.
GROSS: By lost you mean you think he died.
SHADID: He - that's right.
GROSS: Are you certain about (unintelligible) in the article you saw a corpse. You thought it was probably him. You weren't sure.
SHADID: Yeah. At this point I think we're pretty certain...
SHADID: ...that he was killed, and that - when we were captured. You know, we weren't, I think, as - when I think back to the day, you know, I blame myself more than I blame others in not leaving sooner. And I've gone over in my mind why I didn't leave sooner. And again, I hope it was for the right reasons, that this wouldn't have been covered otherwise. And you know, I figure it was for the wrong reasons, that there was ambition at play and we stayed too long. And I think any one of us could have forced the issue but, you know, I think I should have and I didn't, and by the time we did leave the city, Ajdabiya - for a battle that didn't prove to be decisive.
Again, this is what, I think, I find so haunting in some ways, is that we took such incredible risks for a story that I don't think was worth taking those risks for, but it's something that I didn't realize until much later. And by the time we left, it was too late. You know, we came, we were leaving the town trying to go back to Benghazi and, you know, I'd say within a few minutes of leaving Ajdabiya we hit that checkpoint - that from a distance we thought was a rebel checkpoint but, you know, when it was too late we realized that this was in fact an army checkpoint that had just been set up by Gadhafi's soldiers, probably, you know, not more than a half-hour before.
GROSS: So what are some of the decisions you have to make on the spot when you realize these are Gadhafi's soldiers at the checkpoint? They will likely capture you if they see you. Do you try to like escape? Do you - I mean what do you do and then what do you do when they take their guns out and ask you to get out of the car?
SHADID: You know, Terry, I don't - the only thing I remember feeling when we hit that checkpoint was fear - almost a paralyzing fear, and we hit it so quickly. Yeah, I think three of us were in the backseat and one of us was in the front, and we stopped at the checkpoint and the driver, Mohammed, said journalists, and I'm not sure, you know, why he said journalists. I think he was as scared as we all were. But the minute that word was said, you could just see the kind of - that sheen across the soldiers' eyes at that checkpoint, you know, just - not even just anger, it was fury. And they began taking us out of the car.
At the very minute that they began taking us out of the car, rebels attacked the checkpoint, and that's where we believe the driver was killed, when the rebels attacked that checkpoint. There was gunfire everywhere. I mean we could see it, you know, the impacts in the soft dirt, and we all made a run for it. I think Tyler was the first to go and I followed him, and we stumbled across a sand berm and then just ran for our lives, basically. I mean there was so little decision-making at that point. It was just how are we going to survive.
And I think Tyler - we talk later about it - Tyler was going to try to make a run for it but I mean there was almost no way he could have gotten away, and in the end we all just sought cover behind a very small concrete school that was set up near the checkpoint. And once we got there, the soldiers set upon us and, you know, they empty their pockets, you know, slapped us around, put us on our stomachs, and then bound our hands and legs with wire, or whatever they had, actually. I think all of us had something different that we were bound with.
And I remember, it remains, you know, it remains one of the scariest moments of my life. I've, you know, I've had to face death twice in my career as a journalist - once when I was shot in the West Bank, almost nine years ago now, and then this time, and it was the same exact feeling, is that you just - you have to make peace very quickly with the idea that it's over.
And I remember looking up at that soldier and he says shoot them in Arabic. And you just lose almost every sensation at that point. It probably felt like two minutes before another soldier said something; that feeling seemed to last so long, but then the other soldier that was standing next to him said you can't shoot them, they're Americans. And I'm not sure if I believed him when I heard that, but you know, I think almost a kind of a, you know, the ability to sense things came back after you heard those words. And then you thought, well, maybe this is going to play out and you try to get your wits back about you.
But it's, it's tough, and that's feeling, it's, you know, the beatings heal, the bruises heal, you can get over that kind of stuff over time, but I think that fear - how visceral that fear actually was - that's the hardest thing to get over in terms of what happened to us. I mean I think absolutely, we're all going to be haunted - you know, haunted by it from here until we die, is what happened to our driver.
GROSS: Now, you said, you know, that wounds heal, bruises heal. Did your hands heal? You had a - your hands were bound so tightly. You described in your article about this ordeal that they went numb and you started shouting for help and I think they loosened the cuffs a little bit. But did you have permanent nerve damage from that?
SHADID: I didn't. I didn't. But that had - I think that was, you know, next to what happened at that first moment we were captured, I think that was the scariest thing, 'cause you lose, you just lose reason, you know, and I was sitting on that plane, my hands had gone numb; all I could imagine - I'm a writer and all I could imagine was that my hands would be amputated. And it was crazy fear and I think I shouting for help at that time. And again, you know, even in the worst moments that you experience in some of these places in Iraq – say, in Syria and Libya, you know, they're still, this is a deeply humane culture that you're dealing with.
And I remember somebody coming up to me as I was, I was almost frantic, I think, at that point, and he came up to me and I could feel that, you know, his breath in my ear and I remember turning my head thinking he was going to hit me again. And he got very close to my ear and he whispered, you know, I'm sorry, and it was in English. And it was one of those moments where you just, you know, it almost, you know, I remember - I think I shuddered when I heard that, when he said that to me, because even as bad as it was getting and as scared as I was and as unreasonable as I was being, you just realize that there's still, you know, there's still something here and what's going on around you, that you don't completely lose hope.
GROSS: After saying I'm sorry, did he loosen the cuffs?
SHADID: He did. He did. They tied them up again after we landed, but for that 30 or 45 minutes, you know, I got the feeling back in my hands and all I could - I mean maybe it's like the Stockholm Syndrome thing, but all I could feel was thankful.
GROSS: So after you were released, you were with three other journalists, did you all have the same reaction about returning to reporting in war zones?
SHADID: You know, I think Tyler and Lindsay understood what they do, the two photographers. The understood what they do and that this is part of what they do and the risk they take. You know, I guess I had, I think I went through - you know, I think I had questions of whether I should put myself in these places again, and I think I had to think about what, you know, the work of what I do as a journalist. And again, that's where I come, you know, what I said earlier, that I think it is important what we do and, you know, maybe I'm just justifying it to myself. I don't know.
Maybe I'll have a clear sense of it 10 years from now. But, you know, at this point I think when I first got out I just didn't, these risks weren't worth taking, especially after what had happened to our driver - that, you know, that's on us and it's going to be on us for the rest of our lives. And then as the weeks pass, I think as you try to heal, you know, both, you know, mentally and physically, you try to make sense of what, you know, what you do as a reporter and as a journalist. And, you know, I hope it is the right call. I hope I don't put too much on my family. I think I've put an - an unfair amount on them already. But I do come back to that point that I think what we do is worthwhile and what we do is important. And there's so many, there's so fewer people who do it these days than when I started 15 years ago as a foreign correspondent, that I think it takes on even more importance, especially given the events that are happening around us.
GROSS: My guest is Anthony Shadid. He's a two-time Pulitzer prize-winner. He's the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. And he's been going from country to country covering the Arab uprisings since last spring. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anthony Shadid, The New York Times Beirut bureau chief. He's been covering the Arab uprisings and he's reported from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain. He was arrested in Libya and he's now on a brief vacation in the United States.
So after you were arrested and finally released from Libya, you did eventually return to Libya to continue reporting. I guess you were OK with that.
SHADID: Well, actually, I thought I was before went. And again, you know, this comes back to, you know, these unbelievably important moments that are happening and, you know, Colonel Gadhafi had fallen. I mean after four decades of dictatorship, one of the most bizarre dictatorships the Arab world has ever witnessed, his government had come to an end and the country is now - who knows what's going to happen in Libya. I think Libya is one of the places that makes people a lot, you know, very anxious. But it also has the chance to be, like I said earlier, I think one of the most fundamental of all the revolutions that have taken place.
You know, after I got there, though, I have to say I realized that I probably shouldn't have been there. And I remember driving into Tripoli down the street that we had taken when we were released and, you know, I had a bad feeling about it and I ended up leaving the place sooner than I would have otherwise. I just didn't feel like I was contributing anything and that I just, you know, was maybe kind of deluding myself that I had gotten over it to the degree where I could really, you know, go about doing my job.
GROSS: So he left the country or you just let Tripoli?
SHADID: I left the country, actually, I think probably a week after I got there.
GROSS: One of the things you wrote about was a cell phone video that went viral of Gadhafi in his last moments begging for mercy in a frenzied crowd with fighters grabbing his hair, blood pouring down his head, as the crowd shouted God is great. I assume you saw that video.
SHADID: I did.
GROSS: What did it say to you that we're living in an age now where people can watch basically the public execution of a hated dictator on their cell phone?
SHADID: Right. You know, it is - that struck me so many times, Terry, especially in covering Syria, is that nothing happens in the region anymore without some form of bearing witness to it. And that is so, I mean we're not talking about generations ago. We're talking about 1982, when the Syrian government horribly repressed the uprising in Hama, like I said earlier, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. You know, no one from the outside saw it and it took days before – days, maybe perhaps even weeks before any journalists were able to get there and try to chronicle what happened.
Hama couldn't happen again. I'm not saying that a government couldn't try to do it again, but there will be witnesses and there will be - there will be testimony to what happened, the crimes that were committed, and I think that's - that's a very powerful sense. I mean I think it affects what we do as journalists, it affects how we live our lives in terms of crisis and these incredibly decisive moments that are going on.
The video of Colonel Gaddafi, I have to say, was, you know, I found it very disturbing, I'm sure as a lot of people did. And I was sitting in my office in Beirut with a Syrian activist and I remember we were both watching Al Jazeera as the footage started being broadcast. And I forget exactly his words but it was something along the lines of we're better than this.
And what he meant by that was that these revolts and these uprisings and these revolutions, if we can call them that, had the promise of creating something different in the Arab world, of societies that were democratic, of notions of freedom, of social justice, of liberation, you know, rendered sometimes in the smallest of ways.
And what he saw there in those bloody pictures of Colonel Gaddafi was not that. And I think he was deeply disappointed that, you know, it's still obviously very early but we can't betray these revolutions, and this is how business was done in the past.
I think a lot of people in Libya would have had a very different reaction to that. I think there was maybe a sense of justice out there. But you know, I'd have to say that, you know, and I think I'm just echoing what that Syrian activist was telling me, is that, you know, I wish it could've been done differently.
GROSS: I wonder what your reaction is to seeing the Occupy movement in the United States take hold, inspired in part by the Arab uprisings.
SHADID: I tell you, this - again, this is something I haven't reported so I'm probably not going to sound - I'm probably not going to offer anything all that insightful, but you know, it does strike me - I think when you look across the Arab world, absolutely, but even elsewhere, this idea of old kind of paradigms coming to an end and that people are searching for something that can represent them better, that's more meaningful to their lives, that somehow maybe transcends these older institutions that have held sway over so many places for so long - interestingly, I mean just as a kind of footnote here, or even, you know, a side note here, is that you often hear this from Islamists. When I was talking to Rashid al-Ghannushi, a very prominent Tunisian Islamist leader, he made the very same point to me, that what he was seeing going on with Occupy Wall Street, with the Arab Spring, was that, you know, people were looking for ideologies that were different.
Of course he was volunteering his ideology as a replacement, but I think that sense of things coming to an end is very powerfully felt in a lot of places right now. And I think that adds to this, you know, the anticipation and anxiety, you know, of what's so often pronounced and what you hear so often in so many places.
GROSS: So I'm wondering where you feel most at home in the world now. You grew up in the United States. You studied Arabic in Cairo. Your family is from Beirut and you've been rebuilding your ancestral home there, literally the house, and you just completed that. You have a book about that coming out in March. So while you've been covering all the Arab uprisings, you've been rebuilding the ancestral home.
Right now I'm just wondering, like, where do you feel most at home in the world, if any place?
SHADID: Yeah. I guess home is probably where you want to be. And you know, it has to be the family's ancestral home in southern Lebanon. It's a very remote corner of the country. It's not all that easy to get to. But you know, I think - and my wife and I, I think, feel the same the way, that once we're there, you know, you know, we feel tethered – you know, we feel tethered to it.
I'm not sure how else to describe it, but you know, there's a certain peacefulness, I think, that I feel at least when I get back to that home in Mazra 'at Jamjin.
GROSS: Okay. Well, I hope it's a wonderful vacation for you.
SHADID: Thank you.
GROSS: Happy Holidays and I wish you a healthy and safe New Year.
SHADID: I appreciate that. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Anthony Shadid is the New York Times Beirut bureau chief. We recorded our conversation yesterday. On our website you'll find links to several of his articles from the past year, including the one about his capture in Libya and the stories he talked about from Syria. You can also see the photos taken by the photojournalist he traveled with in Syria, Moises Saman. That's freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.