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Anthony Shadid: Writer hailed as one of the finest foreign correspondents of his generation


Anthony Shadid, a distinguished Middle Eastern correspondent who has died suddenly, was taken ill while returning from Syria after spending a week there without the knowledge of the authorities. He died of an asthma attack as he was being guided back to Turkey by smugglers after a New York Times undercover assignment.

His eventful career in the US media saw him covering almost two decades of Middle East conflict in many countries. It included being shot in Ramallah in the West Bank and being held for a week by the Libyan regime during last year's uprising. Tributes flowed in following his death. His one time-colleague Steve Fainaru, like Shadid a Pulitzer prize-winner, said of him: "He wrote poetry on deadline. He was just completely unflappable. He was the best reporter, his attention to detail was amazing. He was one of the kindest, most compassionate, most empathetic people I ever met."

A brush with death came in 2002 in Ramallah, in what was then described as "the most dangerous assignment in the world right now". He was hit while sheltering in a shop doorway by a bullet which just missed his flak jacket, struck him in the shoulder and exited, leaving two wounds. He recovered, although a dozen pieces of shrapnel remained in his body. He said later: "I will go back. It's not like a cowboy thing, I don't get high on an adrenaline rush. This is an important story, one that I have been involved with for a long time."

Anthony Shadid was born in Oklahoma City into a family which had moved there from Lebanon. He had a great childhood, he said, in a Lebanese community which he described as closed, tight-knit and sharing.

"There was a sense of coming from someplace else and having to make it in the place they ended up, and there was a lot of pride in that," he recalled. "The one thing that shaped my life was that I wanted to be a journalist in the Middle East, and to go back to the Arab world and try to understand what it meant to be Lebanese."

He worked for the Associated Press first in the US and then in Cairo, where his knowledge of Arabic was an asset. He moved on to work in the Middle East for the Boston Globe, Washington Post and most recently New York Times. Along the way he twice won the Pulitzer Prize as well as a string of other awards and honours. One of his Pulitzer citations praised "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."

Last March he was one of four western journalists detained for six days by the Gaddafi regime after entering rebel-held territory without visas. They were released to the Turkish embassy in Tripoli. He later related a conversation with his father, Buddy, the night before he was detained, saying: "Maybe a little bit arrogantly, perhaps with a little bit of conceit, I said, 'It's OK, Dad, I know what I'm doing. I've been in this situation before.'"

Describing the present turmoil in Syria, he wrote last month: "A government, as defiant as its opposition is in disarray, has left Syria descending into a protracted, chaotic and perhaps unnegotiable conflict."

The photographer Tyler Hicks, who had been detained with Shadid in Libya, said he had an asthma attack on the way into Syria then a second fatal attack on the way back to Turkey. "I stood next to him and asked if he was OK, and then he collapsed," he said.

Shadid's father said his son had asthma all his life and had medication with him. "He was walking to the border because it was too dangerous to ride in the car," he added. "He was walking behind some horses – he's more allergic to those than anything else – and he had an asthma attack. They were in an isolated place. There was no doctor around. It took a couple of hours to get him to a hospital in Turkey."

Shadid was the author of two books, while a third, House of Stone, is due to be published next month. It describes his family's past in Lebanon, where his great-grandfather built up an extensive estate, and its journey to the US. The Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati said he had known and admired Shadid personally, while the former US presidential candidate Ralph Nader called him "a great, great reporter who elevated his profession's standards".

The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger said: "Anthony was one of our generation's finest reporters. He brought to his readers an up-close look at the globe's many war-torn regions, often at great personal risk."

Shadid is survived by his wife Nada Bakri, also a journalist, and a son and daughter.

Anthony Shadid, journalist: born Oklahoma City 26 September 1968; married Nada Bakri (one son, one daughter); died Syria 16 February 2012.