“You should listen to Shadid,” a one-armed fortuneteller instructed Nasir Mehdawi in 2003. “You should do whatever he says.” The fortuneteller, Hazem, had a mouthful of blackened teeth and a wardrobe singed with holes from the cheap cigarettes he chain-smoked. Turned into a piece of human wreckage while fighting in Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran, Hazem, trained as an engineer, underwent a fierce religious conversion and, from the doorway of a two-room concrete house in the Iraqi capital, became a renowned soothsayer. Among those he regularly counseled was his old friend Mehdawi, who, in lieu of dinars, brought him food—sugar, tea, rice and the occasional chicken.
Mehdawi, who was in his mid-30s, first encountered Anthony Shadid in March 2003. Shadid had arrived in Baghdad to chronicle the imminent US invasion for the Washington Post. Mehdawi was his official government escort, but he wasn’t very assiduous in his duties, routinely allowing his quarry to slip away on brief reporting excursions. Nor was he an admirer of the dictator. When Saddam was deposed, Mehdawi was hired by Shadid as his fixer, and an intense friendship bloomed. For a year the two men worked together seven days a week. In Night Draws Near (2005), his masterpiece, Shadid acknowledged that his weightiest scoops in Iraq, including an interview with the fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, would have been inconceivable without Mehdawi’s contacts, legwork and conscientiousness.
In the wretched months that followed the US invasion, Mehdawi would sometimes threaten to resign, but Hazem advised patience: “Wait for Shadid…. He’s a good friend, and he will serve you.” The chaos of the occupation left Mehdawi with a deep sense of foreboding, and Hazem’s counsel took on a darker cast. In the fall of 2003 the soothsayer warned Mehdawi that his dogged reporting alongside Shadid had brought them both to the precipice, which prompted Mehdawi to inquire if he would be slaughtered in the burgeoning violence. “No,” Hazem replied, “but the situation will be messy. It will be scary…. You should be very, very careful.” Shadid was fascinated by Hazem: “I was always struck by his prognostications, which Nasir would relay to me. They were uncanny, oddly insightful, although it also seemed to me that they could be interpreted in any way that might be appropriate to the situation.”
While driving around Baghdad in a white Chevrolet, with frequent excursions to chaotic and unstable outlying regions, Shadid and Mehdawi consoled themselves with “fatalistic humor.” “I’ll be in prison tomorrow” went Mehdawi’s refrain. They hypothesized about the various ways death might come calling—car bomb, rocket-propelled grenade, machine-gun fire. No, Mehdawi would insist, “these fates were conventional,” Shadid wrote in Night Draws Near. “Daggers—they would be our end. And then we would laugh, even after having made and heard the prognostication many times before.”
“You should listen to Shadid.” For a long time, many of us could do nothing but that, interpreting the labyrinthine politics of the Middle East through his voluminous reporting. Shadid, who died on February 16 at the age of 43, was an exceedingly rare creature in the thinning ranks of American journalism: fluent in Arabic; intellectually and morally serious; utterly enamored, in a historically minded way, of the Middle East and its multifarious people; and a graceful, erudite writer. His idealism was lightly worn but deeply rooted. With his linguistic and reportorial prowess he could easily have been Professor Anthony Shadid, or a house intellectual with a gilded sinecure at an establishment think tank. He chose instead to work in a hazardous corner of the world for wire services and newspapers, under whose auspices he took substantial risks—a bullet believed to have been fired by an Israeli sniper nearly destroyed his spinal cord in Ramallah in 2002—so that a fickle American public might have access to nuanced reporting about ground-level realities in faraway lands. In the end, it wasn’t a car bomb or daggers that felled Shadid when he was on assignment for the New York Times but what appeared to be an asthma attack, triggered by an allergic reaction to a horse, during a clandestine and audacious reporting trip to a Syria shaken by repression and revolt.