- The Long War Loss and Nostalgia in the Middle East
This is a version of a talk delivered by Anthony Shadid, the Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post, at the Spring Green Literary Festival in Spring Green, Wisconsin, on September 8, 2008. The material was drawn from his book, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, his reporting for the Post in Lebanon, and material for an upcoming book on his family’s ancestral village in southern Lebanon.
As I sat down to write this talk, I was struck by the mistakes we sometimes make as journalists. There are plenty of them, of course. But if I’ve learned something in nearly 13 years as a foreign correspondent—first as a 25-year-old reporter with the Associated Press in Cairo, then the Boston Globe, and now with the Washington Post in Baghdad, Beirut, and elsewhere—it’s that the journalism that we can be least proud of is the journalism that [End Page 19] comes from either claiming to know too much or, no less dangerously, acting like someone we’re not. It’s been almost a year since I was in Baghdad, and much has changed in the country. In some ways, it’s no longer the country I used to know.
In my time there, starting in 1998, then again in 2002, and finally from 2003 to 2005, I often told friends that the longer I was there, the less I understood. At first, I probably meant it as a joke. It was the kind of world-weary quip that reporters like to make, trying to draw laughs from their colleagues. But on reflection, I realized that there was a lot of truth in it. I did understand Iraq a lot less in 2005 than I did 1998. And now I’m in the somewhat awkward position of knowing even less having been absent from it for so many months. If I knew little then, what can I claim to know now? Which, in the end, begs the question—why should you listen to me talk about Iraq today?
When I was writing Night Draws Near, I remember going through the articles I had written during the American invasion in March 2003. It was an interesting process. The articles that I felt held up over time were the ones that gave voice to the people I met there over those weeks—that described their sentiments, their fears, their hopes, and their ambitions. The ones that felt dated and clichéd were the ones where I, however tentatively, put forth my own views, when I said with too much certainty what I thought was going on in a country that was not my own. With that in mind, and as a way to address that nagging question of my own authority, I’d like to return to those voices as I speak to you today, to those perspectives that I do think hold up over time, that are often as meaningful now as they were when I heard them a year, two years, even five years ago. And through them, I’d like talk to you today about a single, somewhat sad idea, understood broadly. That idea is loss—to me, the overwhelming narrative of our experience in Iraq and, for that matter, of my experience in the Middle East since 2001. Time and again, that’s what I’ve encountered as a reporter and, no less importantly, as a resident of the region. Loss. I’ve seen it in Iraq, defined in so many different, so many painful ways. I’ve seen it in Lebanon, often poignantly in that ambiguous interregnum between war and peace in which the country now lingers. I see it, quietly, in the small, lonely village near the Israeli border where I’m working now. [End Page 20]
And I think I learned to best appreciate this idea in conversations I used to have with a man I in time called a friend. His name was Mohammed Hayawi, and he was a bookseller in Baghdad. Looking back, there was one conversation in particular...