As part of Anthony Shadid week on granta.com we publish below the reflections of Michael Robinson-Chavez, a photographer who worked on several assignments in the Middle East with Shadid.
The chanting of the pilgrims, continuous and hypnotic, had been going on for hours now. I was exhausted, splayed out on a very uncomfortable bed after a sixteen-hour day of making photographs. Outside the energy and sounds of Ashura, a Shiite religious holiday banned for decades by Saddam Hussein, were pouring through our hotel window. Anthony sat at a rickety desk illuminated by his laptop screen and the lights of Karbala. It must have been three o’clock in the morning.
‘Michael, I love this,’ he said. ‘I really love this.’
He smiled. He went back to writing. I went back to sleeping. It was Anthony Shadid at his best, consumed by the stories of Iraq in the wake of the US led invasion and writing the most beautiful and intimate account of what followed. Together we covered the rise of the Shiites in Iraq, so long the victims of Hussein’s retribution and secret police. Anthony knew this was their time. I knew it was Anthony’s time.
But now, his voice is silenced. For those that read his copy it is catastrophic to know that he will not continue chronicling this rare and incredible time of transition in the Arab world. We had covered many stories together for The Washington Post and shared many great experiences: losing our money at the casinos in Cairo, eating Armenian mezze in Beirut, driving at crazed speeds to avoid Israeli aircraft in southern Lebanon during their war with Hezbollah in 2006 – but it was in Iraq that his infectious passion and enthusiasm for the Arab world really made a particularly strong impression.
Anthony is widely lauded for writing poetic dispatches, and indeed the words that dropped on the page from that amazing brain of his were truly beautiful. But more importantly Anthony was a damn good reporter. His notebooks were filled with that chicken scratch that made a doctor’s note seem an example of splendid penmanship. They were quotes from the religious hierarchy and political hopefuls and more importantly the thoughts of the everyman. Those most profoundly affected by the war.
He was often eager to share thoughts and ideas . . . and wake me up at ridiculous hours of the night to see if his translation of an ancient Arabic poem would work for a story he was writing. ‘Yes habibi, I think translating this song about the Battle of Karbala will work great in the story . . . good night!’ I know his editors back in Washington would be wringing their hands waiting for the copy, but once it arrived it would be straight to the front page.
When I think of being out on assignment with Anthony I have strong memories of exploring the alleys and byways of the Iraqi city of Najaf, considered the third holiest city of the Shiite world and the base of Shia political power in Iraq. We would alternate between tea with Muqtada Sadr, then a fiery cleric with a last name that made him destined to lead the Shiites, and covering burials at the city’s massive cemetery.
Ordinarily I can’t think of anything more frustrating than sitting through another long interview with a reporter and the subject of the story. I am a photographer and need to be out on the streets making pictures. But with Anthony I was getting a history lesson and incredible insight into the future of Iraq. And before anybody else. The US State Department would read his stories to find out what the hell was happening over there. And there was something to be said for having tea with Moqtada Sadr.
We met many high profile Iraqis like Sadr and not so high profile like the Iman at a small mosque in the Shiite dominated Sadr City (formerly Saddam City) who carried two pistols on his belt like Jesse James. But it was Anthony’s touch with the common citizenry of Iraq that was so special. They trusted him, as much as I did, and he never lost sight of what mattered to them. How were their lives going to change? What was to become of Iraq now? It was empathy, it was curiosity, it was professional and responsible.
In the days leading up to the war we were in Baghdad together and paranoia and suspicion were at a fever pitch amongst journalists and the general population. In an autocratic state like Hussein’s Iraq where a relative could turn out to be a member of the secret police, people were very reluctant to say much of anything. After one excellent interview at the Shiite shrine of Kadimiya, Anthony told me that in the next life he would like to be a Shiite. He then read me the flowing and visual quotes that only the Arabic language can deliver.
We were fortunate. We had Anthony’s great touch and ability to speak Arabic and an Iraqi minder who turned out to be not so loyal to the regime. Naser Mehdawi became invaluable to Anthony in gaining access to the most impenetrable spheres of Iraq before and during the war. Tall, brash and foul-mouthed, the chain-smoking Naser joined us on our many road trips across Iraq and throughout Baghdad. He would assure people in the days before the fall that it was OK to talk to Anthony, to speak their minds. He saw the writing on the wall.
There were three things that were always forbidden to photograph in Iraq during Saddam’s reign: garbage in the streets, donkeys and shoeshine boys. On one occasion Anthony, Naser and I were in the ‘Little Khartoum’ area of Baghdad. I was looking through my lens and all three forbidden subjects joined together in a perfect composition: a shoeshine boy riding a donkey down a street filled with rubbish. I looked at Anthony, he had a look of uncertainty, I really didn’t want to get thrown out of Iraq for making this photograph! I looked at Naser, he sighed and said ‘Just make sure you visit me in prison after you publish this picture.’ I made the picture and we all laughed.
Those months before, during and after the initial invasion were a horrible and magical time for us as journalists. The death and devastation was overwhelming. Anthony and I saw this first-hand on many occasions but for me it was the woman burying thirteen members of her family in the Najaf cemetery that will always be etched in my mind. They had been killed when a Tomohawk missle destroyed their home in southern Iraq. But as journalists, access is everything and in the late spring of 2003 it was wide open. That would all change by the end of the year when it became perhaps the most dangerous country in the world to be a working journalist.
After four months of coverage it was time for Anthony and I to head out and go home. Our other lives back home awaited. We celebrated – heavily – that night. Anthony’s fondness for single malt Scotch was satisfied that evening at the Hamra hotel in Baghdad. Through foggy eyes, the next morning, we loaded up the car I had rented two months prior in Kuwait. The one I promised the Kuwaiti car rental agency I would not take into Iraq.
We drove back to Kuwait, or more accurately I drove. About fifty yards from the Hamra Hotel Anthony fell promptly asleep, even with ‘Exile on Main Street’ blasting on the car’s stereo. He woke up a couple of times, Nasariya, Kut and the Kuwaiti border. After nine hours we rolled into Kuwait City. He apologized for sleeping nearly the entire way. Passenger seat blues he explained. I told him not to worry. He deserved every second of it.
Photograph by Terissa Schor