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‘A little bit unreal’



As a fellow reporter, Said al-Ghazali, struggled to help him, Shadid
wrote later in the Columbia Journalism Review that his thoughts flew to
his wife and daughter, and of how useless words are when facing what
could be one’s final moment.

“In the anarchy of emotions and impulses that ensued, I could only come up with clichés for Said to pass on to them,” Shadid wrote. “Then I felt sorry for myself. Why, I wondered, was I the only journalist to be shot in a town full of them?”

He survived the shooting with a shattered vertebrae, an entry wound in his left shoulder and a gaping exit wound in his right shoulder.

Cut to April 2003: Shadid is lying in his bed in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, waiting for the American troops to arrive, giving an interview to National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. He is wearing his flack jacket and Kevlar helmet. He is now the Baghdad correspondent for the Washington Post.

“Are you afraid?” asks show host Terry Gross.

“I am. You know, I’ve been hurt before,” said Shadid. “I have no desire to be hurt again. I have a daughter and a wife at home in Washington. While I think this story is worth some risk, it’s not worth losing your life over.”
Shadid survived the invasion and wrote stories about the people in the streets, everyday folks weathering the invasion, the fighting, the civil disorder and the lost hopes as a new insurgency arose from the demise of the Hussein regime. Shadid was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his coverage. The committee cited “his extraordinary ability to capture, at personal peril, the voices and emotions of Iraqis as their country was invaded, their leader toppled and their way of life upended.” One casualty to the war hit home — he lost his marriage.

Cut to now: Shadid is on a multi-state speaking tour for his book, “Night Draws Near,” an account of the people he grew to know in Baghdad, their lives, hopes, trials and outcomes against the backdrop of the American invasion of Iraq. Shadid recently visited family in Oklahoma City and spoke at Full Circle Bookstore.

Shadid can’t help but wonder, once in a while, at where he has ended up.

“It’s funny. It does all feel a little bit unreal. You never really get a chance to take a step back. It’s always the next story, the next interview,” Shadid told Oklahoma Gazette.

Shadid said he wrote the book after being prompted by an editor from Henry Holt and Company. Although the editor wanted a book to be a compilation of his articles, Shadid wanted more.

“To be honest, I was reluctant. I’d just joined the Post about month before. I didn’t want to leave Iraq. I wasn’t sure what that book would say about the invasion,” Shadid said. “Then I started thinking, there was a broader story to write. If I didn’t start writing the book until a year from now, I could follow those people, those families I’d met during the invasion, through the occupation, and through the aftermath.”

There was the Shiite psychiatrist who sat in his darkened home with Shadid, telling him he couldn’t wait until the Americans arrived. Then, when they arrived, how the man’s hopes fled as the city descended into barbarism.
“He was so interesting to me. He was smiling. Artillery was booming in the distance. He was saying, ‘OK, can’t wait. I wish the Americans would hurry up,’” Shadid said. “By the end of the year he is disillusioned, paranoid about the Americans. ‘How could they give us so little?’”   

Shadid said he kept a regular diary and made a point that the stories would not just be a series of articles run together.

There was Shadid’s Hussein-government “minder,” the man ordered to keep an eye on him and accompany him throughout his time in the country. The man eventually became one of his best friends.

The people and families Shadid grew to know became the context against which the greater events played out. There was the widow, struggling with eight children, whose daughter loaned Shadid her diary.

And there were the people in the streets, who even as the Saddam statue fell, told Shadid “Let’s see what the Americans’ real intentions are.”

“Iraqis, Baghdadis in particular, were watching their city,” Shadid said. “It was wrecked before their eyes as the Americans guarded the Oil Ministry.”

In light of his ground-up perspective of the occupation, Shadid’s book possibly gives some insight into America’s future in Iraq, which he said may be even more wrenching than it is now.

“I think this is another preamble,” Shadid said. “I wouldn’t guess what’s it’s going to be, but it’s going to be a far grander drama than so far. There are parts of Iraq that are not under American control. There is entropy in Iraq, and the forces causing that entropy are beyond our control.”

For the privilege of witnessing history and writing about it, this Heritage Hall graduate paid dearly; a painful war wound, a lost marriage and an inability to look at the world without what he has already seen crowding his vision. For Shadid, the “Night Draws Near” is more than a title.

“Your eyes get callused. The best reporting and writing is when you don’t have those calluses,” Shadid said. “It’s been a lot in the past two years. It’s been more bloodshed than I wanted to see, more violence than I wanted to be a part of. But the work is still to be done and I’m still in the moment.”

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