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A Foreign Correspondent Reflects On The Arab Spring

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
December 21, 2011

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.

Interview Highlights

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.’ ” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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