April 13, 2010
New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid spoke this week at Brown about war and nostalgia in the Middle East, on the very day he won his second Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.
His nostalgia for the Levant – traditionally a part of Western Asia stretching from the Mediterranean into Iraq – takes on endless meanings, he said. One in particular is a nostalgia for the secular space that used to exist in places like Al Hamra Street of Beirut and Al Mutanabbi Street of Baghdad. Although Shadid is still attempting to unravel why this secularism has been lost, he said that lingering wars are at the heart of the matter.
Its place has been taken by religious sectarianism and conflict. Palestine used to be an anchor around which the Middle East united in its struggle for nationalism but now religion predominates. The Middle East lost its non-sectarianism and any universality provided by secular ideology, Shadid said.
Shadid reflected on his reporting in the region throughout a decade and a half. “Misery is the charge of witness in the Middle East,” he said.
In 2006, Shadid was in a Lebanese village where a bulldozer was cleaning the remains of an Israeli air strike. The body of a one-year-old was among the numerous bodies scattered in the dirt. An old man was weeping at the side of a house wishing that God would have left him a child.
In that village, Shadid realized he lost something, he said, perhaps himself. Or maybe it was the Middle East or his notion of it. Maybe it was the Levant, the ideal place where cosmopolitanism and intellectualism had once thrived.
Cosmopolitanism should not be conflated with globalization, said Shadid. And although it seemed that the Levant was far less globalized, it was nonetheless cosmopolitan, a place marked by diversity and tolerance.
This cosmopolitanism is now merely a memory. Today the Middle East has become hyper-politized, with groups facing existential threats as a result of their uniqueness, according to Shadid.
And although nostalgia reveals an appreciation for the past, even nostalgia is being lost, he said.
The youth of the Middle East do not share such collective memory. Shadid calls them “the lost generation,” saying that many simply wish to leave or have already migrated to the US.
In the Middle East at large and in Iraq more specifically, the future does not carry hope. New laws have been laid down in an “imperial fashion.” Everything remains precarious." This means danger still looms large as the political scenery in Iraqi is “very combustible,” he said. Although Washington previews the chain of events as linear, starting with combating violence then holding legitimate elections and ending with the troops’ withdrawal, the de facto situation is far more complex.
“It’s really not that tidy. When you are there as a reporter you see how fragile the situation remains. … there may be rules but don’t expect them to play by the rules,” Shadid said.
When asked about the role that American newspapers played in the war in Iraq, Shadid expressed his anguish about what he views as the “complicity” of both the Washington Post and the New York Times in setting the stage for the war.
The lecture, "Stones Without People: Loss and Nostalgia in Lebanon, Iraq and the Middle East,” was part of the Peter Green Lecture Series on the Modern Middle East. It was funded by a gift from Peter B. Green AM '80 P '99 '01, a former trustee of the University. Green is chairman of Greenaap Consultants Ltd., the Dublin-based investment vehicle that manages the assets of Green and his family.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Samura Atallah ‘11