Shadid, Anthony - Interview: Night Draws Near: Iraqs People in the Shadow of America’s War

Nick Yousif

Posted Oct 7, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

Night Draws Near: Iraqs People in the Shadow of America’s War

An interview with Arab American journalist Anthony Shadid

By Nick Yousif

Arab American journalist Anthony Shadid is receiving richly deserved praise for his recently released narrative, Night Draws Near: Iraqs People in the Shadow of AmericaҒs War.  The book, already a bestseller, draws on Shadids reporting for The Washington Post which earned him the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.  The New York Times calls it ғincisive and eloquent and The Washington Post hails ShadidԒs ability to offer American readers insight into how Iraqis view their countrys history and questionable future, crediting his Arab background, language skills, and ғaffection for the region and its people.  Shadid sat down with AAIԒs Nick Yousif to talk about Night Draws Near.

You knew at a young age that you wanted to be a journalist.  What advice would you offer to Arab Americans interested in pursuing a career in journalism?

Arab Americans will want to draw on their own backgroundlanguage, cultural sophistication, a sense of the region, understanding of its history and present.  Arab Americans interested in journalism should place a strong emphasis on detail, the power of narrative, descriptive writing, incisive reportingחall of the qualities that go toward creating a powerful account.  These skills go toward making our reporting more powerful, which ultimately makes the reporting remembered.

You have won acclaim for your ability to humanize Iraqis and make their lives relatable to your readers.  How did you develop this style of reporting?

There is a style; it was kind of by accident.  Its the kind of reporting IҒve always employed which is talking to people and giving voice to their sentimentsallowing them to voice their frustrations and ambitions, their hopes and disappointments.  In the beginning of the invasion I included that reporting at the bottom of the stories.  My editors saw that reporting and saw how interesting it was becoming in the sense that people were saying things that we didnגt expect them to say.  It began to gather its own momentum.  My editors were supportive and I was interested in it.  It emerged into an approach to the story to try to gather a greater individual perspective.

In order for this style to be effective, you had to gain the trust of the people you interviewed.  How were you able to do this?

I think that trust is the most central element to good reporting.  Trust is a little of everything.  Language obviously helps, a certain cultural memory, a sense of understanding, empathy, and compassion.  The most central thing to gaining trust is respect. It doesnt come from one specific trait, rather itҒs learning when to hear rather than trying to persuade.  You know respect is often very small things.  Its important to give peopleҒs words their proper due.

What response have you received from audiences across the US to Night Draws Near?

I expected people to be fatigued.  I thought they might have been tired of the conflict in Iraq.  The carnage has been so unrelenting and its been going on for so long. IҒve noticed readers are not as interested in the spot stories, in the news of the day coming out of Iraq.  I think I expected the same kind of reaction when I addressed audiences across the United States.  What I found was the opposite and I was very surprised by that.  I found people to be very engaged.  People wanted to know what was going on, why it had turned out the way it had, and what was next. Ive been surprised by the degree to which people have found this painful. There were very emotional moments during the tour.  I guess I wasnҒt expecting the emotional depth from the people who were there.  But, obviously, this is a very emotional topic. The book does celebrate the resilience of Iraq, but there are some very tense moments that have dominated recent history. I hadnt expected people to relate to it at the level that they did. 

In Night Draws Near, you explore the complexities of Iraqi society such as the dynamic between ShiҒa leaders Muqtada Sadr and Ayatollah Ali Sistani.  What aspects of Iraqi society or the ongoing conflict have you found most difficult to relate to your readers?

I guess it would be the ambiguity, and I use the word ambiguity a lot. There has always been a tendency to look at Iraq in terms of black and white.  For instance, before the war we often thought of the country solely as Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.  That has always mattered to Iraq, but its not the only thing҅in a way our preconceptions have become the reality of the country.  The way we saw the country before the invasion developed under the emphasis of formerly exiled parties, through the efforts of some politicians.  It hasntҒ been defined by its communities.  The hardening of lines between the communities is something that I try to relate to readers and sometimes it has been difficult.  I think the other forces that are shaping the country such as the religious revival and the growing militancy and ranks of the insurgency tend to get overlooked because it is a process rather than a reality.  A process is very hard to describe in journalism. 

You have written that while American officials often speak about freedom and democracy, the concept of justice has more resonance with Iraqis.  Do you think it is possible to create common ground between these ideas? 

I think it is a different approach to the issues of the day.  I think justice matters more to the people who have been deprived of it.  Justice is a powerful word within a lot of Arab societies, as well as in Iraq. I think it is possible to intersect those ideals, but only if both sides acknowledge the other. I can count the number of times that I have heard US officials acknowledge the impact of injustice.  Most people think with their own vocabulary and their own set of ideals.  Iraqis and Americans might share those at some level but theyre not necessarily the priorities that Iraqis bring to the table. 

There are many who criticize the so-called ғLebanonization, or increasing sectarian divide in Iraqi society, claiming that the American occupation has exacerbated this dynamic.  How have you seen this dynamic evolve?  Do you feel that there is a sense of common history among Iraqis that will overcome these divides?

I think this will be the greatest legacy of the occupationԗthe hardening of lines between sects and ethnicity. This has always been a facet of Iraqi political life, no question about it.  Theyve had a huge role in defining Iraqi politics, but until now it was never a sole axiom around which Iraqi politics evolved. It has become that way due to the efforts of U.S. officials, former exiled parties, tides in the country҅Our preconception of it looking like Lebanon is becoming a reality.  I dont think the country has necessarily demonstrated a depth in its institutions that would allow it to weather some of the natural conflicts that division creates.  Can it pass through those challenges? I donҒt know the answer to that, but it worries me that these hardening of lines is one of the main forces reshaping the country at this point. 

The question of a new governments legitimacy has been central to post-Saddam Iraq.  You wrote, ғThe Americans never understood the question; Iraqis never agree on the answer.  Is there a source of legitimacy that could unite Iraqis?

I think that is one of the key questions right now when we talk about Iraq. IԒve always said legitimacy is a concept that is easier to deny than to bestow.  Legitimacy has remained very elusive in post-Saddam Iraqi politics and I think there is an increasing understanding on all sides on the importance of legitimacy.  I think we saw it in the election and in the constitution to a certain degree, but I dont think there has been a consensus on what legitimacy would mean for future development.  I donҒt think they know how to bring that legitimacy about. 

What aspects of the current situation do you think were inevitable in post-Saddam Iraq?

Ive asked myself that question a lot. Would the way it is today have been inevitable? I donҒt know the answer to be honest. Part of me thinks that aspects were inevitable with the reality of occupation.  Occupation creates certain forces, certain results that would have occurred whatever the United States had done in Iraq.  But I also wonder if things had been done dramatically differentlyif there hadnגt been the looting after the fall of Saddam, if the military had not been disbanded, if the United Nations had played a greater role, if the Coalition Provisional Authority had not tried to remake the country in a radically different image.  Everything is different in hindsight; the path might have been somewhat pre-determined, but post-Saddam Iraq could have taken a different course.

Youve reported not just from Iraq, but from throughout the region including Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.  What have you observed about the perception of the situation in Iraq from other Arab countries? 

ThatҒs a good question and I think it has changed somewhat from 2003.  I think, as we all know, you cant overstate the resentment of U.S. policy in the Arab world.  I think that in 2003, when the insurgency first erupted, there was a celebration in the Arab world of resistance to occupation.  I think thatҒs changed.  When I was traveling in the region this summer, there was a lot of confusion over the many insurgencies and the toll violence has exacted from Iraqis.  The loss of innocent life and carnage in Baghdad has created revulsion in places like Syria and Egypt and confusion over why innocents are dying in the name of fighting an occupation.  In some places you see the distinction made between the resistance, which is fighting the U.S. military, and terrorism.  I think in other quarters you see across-the-board confusion of whats taking place right now.  ThereҒs a growing anxiety over whats going to follow.  In other words, that this is the beginning of something that will have an impact on the rest of the region. 

There is a tension between IraqiҒs unhappiness with foreign occupation and fear of heightened anarchy if the US were to pull out completely.  Do you see a solution to this contradiction? 

Yeah, I really think that is the pressing question right now. Theres a sense that if the US military quickly withdraws, there will be more instability and more anarchy.  I think there is a counter-argument that is voiced less often that maybe not a complete U.S. withdrawal, but a partial withdrawal or even a timetable setting forth a withdrawal, would add a new dynamic to the political process.  It might encourage Sunni Arabs to participate.  I donҒt think theres any dynamic in place right now that would create serious Sunni Arab participation.  The question becomes how to bring that about.  You do hear voices that say that a timetable for withdrawal is a way to bring that about.  I donҒt know if thats the case or not, but it is out there.  To be honest, I donҒt know the answer.  I think the people that know Iraq the best at this point arent offering a lot of answers either.

How has U.S. involvement altered the political process?

Well, I think thereҒs a real danger in an overt U.S. role in the political process.  I was struck during the election in January how little a public role the U.S. embassy had played.  In conversations with U.S. diplomats, they were very conscious of trying not to play a role because they wanted to preserve the legitimacy of the elections.  I was struck at how different it was during the drafting of the constitution.  There was a very public U.S. role in the negotiations for writing the constitution.  You expected a certain backlash to that, and there was. I think this goes back to the question of legitimacy and can you shape the legitimacy when a project seems to be at a certain level an American project.

In Night Draws Near, an embedded colleague reports on an American patrol through Baghdad while you interview Iraqis in their wake.  One of the troops describes the Iraqi reaction as ninety-five percent friendly.Ӕ  The Iraqis you interview, however, describe the US presence as despicable,Ӕ even saying They are walking over my heart.Ӕ  How prevalent is this disconnect between American troops and Iraqi civilians? 

In regards to the episode you mentioned, the soldier said ninety-five percent, but my sense in talking with people at that point was fifty-fifty.  Half of the people were outraged and half were stuck between acquiescence and happy to see them [US troops]. Its very common. What IҒve always been struck by in Iraq is that there are two languages being spoken.  Of course theres Arabic and English, but as a reporter what IҒve noticed is its more symbolic than the two languages. ItҒs kind of what I talked about earlier: that subject of vocabulary and the concept of ideasthe concept of an understanding of whatŒs happened and whats going to happen in the future. I donҒt see a lot of intersection between the two.  The gap has grown rather dramatically beginning with the fall of Saddam until now. At times I wonder if there is ever going to be a bridge at this point.

Are there stories that in hindsight you wish you had covered differently?

I think its important for us as journalists to look back at our reporting and criticize the way we covered a story to try to understand how we can do it better. The book gave me a second chance to go back over some stories to try to get them right. As reporters, weҒre dealing with sometimes formidable pressures: there are space limitations on the one hand and time limitations on the other.  You have to turn stories around quickly. 

I look back at Iraq and I think I didnt listen very well to the complaints I had heard about Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003.  People mentioned these stories and I did not pursue them and I wish I had.  The story did not come out until the spring of 2004. I think that was one of our failings as journalists in covering Iraq. There are also specific stories that I wish I had reported a little differently: April 9 [when US Marines entered Baghdad] for instance.  I was able to treat what happened there with the fall of [SaddamҒs] statue in a much broader, I felt more incisive, way in the book.  In the daily reporting I think I captured a lot of the ambivalence going on in the streets that day, how unsettled people were even as this was going on, but I felt that I should have been more explicit about the size of the crowd or some of the uncertainty that was in the air that day.

With respect to Abu Ghraib, what inhibited you from addressing the matter at an appropriate time?

Ive made my biggest mistakes as a reporter by writing something that I hadnҒt heard and not writing what I did hear.  I think Abu Ghraib is an example of the latter.  You could be working on another story, reaching a deadline, or you could be unsure about the words that youre hearing.  You may feel like you donҒt have time to follow them up.  Sometimes its very logistical questions that stop you from pursuing [a story].  Given the importance and significance of what was going on it was a mistake not to have been more aggressive about it.

When you are reporting, how are you able to test the validity of a story and the credibility of a source?

ThatҒs the question that every reporter has in the back of their minds. Ive been struck at how often I was right in trusting what I had been told.  IҒll give you an example.  In 2003, when I was writing about the insurgency, I was very worried about being duped. People telling me that they were insurgents when in fact they werent. My answer to that was that I only did stories about people who had been killed҅I would go back to their villages and reconstruct their lives through conversations with relatives, neighbors, and clerics to try to understand what their motivations were and why they did what they did.  That was my answer to it.  I didnt trust that somebody was going to be boldfaced enough with me if they were still living and calling themselves a guerilla, or a fighter or an insurgent.

In your opinion, what can Arab Americans do to encourage common ground between the US and the Arab world?

You know I think our understanding is the most important thing.  Embracing ambiguity is the most important challenge.  I think Arab Americans often appreciate the complexity of the issues, the lack of black and white.  TheyҒre steeped in the grayness of the conflicts that are shaping the Arab world and the United States. In a way, Arab Americans have a foot in both worlds and have a connection to a degree that others dont.  At this point, weҒre still awash in misunderstanding and misperceptiongaining a better understanding is probably more important than at any time before. 

Finally, what is you favorite Arabic dish?

My favorite dish? ThatŒs a good question. Let me thinkitŒs got to be wara ainab (grape leaves).

On behalf of the Arab-American Institute, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us and to answer some pressing questions.

Nick Yousif is a researcher in the Government Relations Department at the Arab American Institute.