The Los Angeles Times' Beirut correspondent Patrick J. McDonnell shares his recollections about Anthony Shadid, a New York Times foreign correspondent who died of an apparent asthma attack Thursday in Syria.
There was always a double edge about seeing Anthony out on a story. He was inevitably generous of spirit, collegial and full of subtle insight, which he was happy to share. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to grasp the essence of what was happening, while others (myself, at any rate) floundered about trying to comprehend, or got too caught up in the moment.
But one inevitably had the sense that Anthony had come away with something more profound than anyone else. We all faced a bruising reality: It was going to be damn hard to write a story as good and nuanced as what Anthony was going to file.
Anthony and I both happened to be in Karbala, Iraq, in March 2004 during the celebration of Ashura, when some pious Shiite Muslims engage in self-flagellation to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, killed on these dusty plains more than a millennium earlier.
Thousands of exhilarated young men, many of them from Iran, were striking their backs with knife-and-razor-tipped chains, emulating Hussein’s death and creating a grisly spectacle in the space between the great mosques of Hussein and Abbas.
It was all quite overpowering and became more so when nine or 10 hidden killers who had slipped in amid the worshipers detonated their suicide vests, creating literal explosions of body parts and a panicked stampede of humanity. It was carnage on a scale that I hope never to witness again.
In the gruesome aftermath, I bumped into Anthony on a street where a grizzled old man was collecting strips of scorched flesh and placing them into a bag to be buried in proper Muslim fashion. The enormity of what we had just witnessed had overwhelmed both of us.
I felt extremely fortunate to have survived and hadn’t even begun to process what I had just seen. I could barely speak and had reverted to a kind of preliterate stage. But Anthony was already processing it all and observed: “It was that combination: The mixing of the ritual blood and the blood from the bombs.” Afterward, that remark seemed to encapsulate the whole ghastly spectacle.
As journalists we are tasked with trying to explain events that sometimes defy explanation, to convey some sense of authenticity. No one was better at it than Anthony Shadid. RIP Anthony.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut
Photo: Journalist Anthony Shadid, center, interviews residents of Cairo's impoverished Imbaba neighborhood during the Egyptian revolution in a photo dated Feb. 2, 2011. Credit: Ed Ou for the New York Times / Agence France-Presse