JEFFREY BROWN: From the dangers of a war zone to the differences of culture, covering Iraq has been an especially difficult assignment for American journalists. One of the most successful has been Anthony Shadid, Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post who earned a Pulitzer Prize last year for his reports.
The 37-year-old Shadid is an Arab-American who grew up in Oklahoma and speaks Arabic fluently. With a decade of experience throughout the Middle East, his specialty has been getting beyond the guns and battles and into the homes and minds of Iraqis themselves. In his new book, "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War," he's woven together many of their stories. We spoke recently at his mother's home outside Washington, where Shadid took time off from his reporting to write the book.
You write in the prologue that the only way to respond to what you are experiencing in Iraq was to "surrender to the ambiguities and simply tell stories." Tell me what you mean by that.
ANTHONY SHADID: The longer I was in Iraq, the less I understood it. And I think that was, you know, part of the process of being a reporter there. Getting to know the place better, I appreciated how complex it actually was.
JEFFREY BROWN: The less you understood it?
ANTHONY SHADID: The less I understood it, the more I realized I had to learn to get a sense of Iraq, get a sense of the story in some ways. And you know I think as a reporter I realized that just telling many stories rather than one story was the way to maybe appreciate it, that there wasn't a lot of black and white in Iraq; there was a lot of gray. There were conflicting sentiments.
JEFFREY BROWN: We heard a lot about journalists being embedded during this war with the military. It's almost as though you embedded yourself with the Iraqi people.
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it was early on in the war I think, and I had made a decision before the invasion began to stay in Baghdad to try to get a sense of how a city was going to react to an invasion, a city under siege. And it was pretty early on in the war that people started talking a little bit more honestly than they might have before the invasion.
And it was actually something my editor saw as well, that there was a story to tell perhaps in what people were saying, just popular sentiments, and that popular sentiments might be more revealing than we thought they would be.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in telling the stories of these individuals, you write of Iraq as a -- what you call -- a brutalized society.
ANTHONY SHADID: The biggest surprise that I encountered was how brutalized Iraq actually was, that the country the Americans inherited wasn't a Tabula Rasa. It was a country that had gone through a brutal eight-year war with Iran, a million dead and wounded on both sides, had gone through a decade of sanctions, one of the century's worst dictatorships. This is all before the invasion, you know, and an occupation and an insurgency.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the running stories that you tell in the book involves a girl named Amal who showed you her diary. Tell us about her.
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, I met her during the war. It was in the early days of the invasion, and I was trying to do a story about a family who had sent their son to fight with the Iraqi army and what it was like to send their son off. And so I met her mother and did the story. And I was always struck -- here was -- she was a widow with eight children, and I was really struck by just her story.
I soon learned that she, the young girl, she was 14 during the invasion, was keeping this diary and it was too early I think in the relationship to ask for it. And in fact I didn't ask for the diary until a year later after getting to know the family pretty well. I mean, it was her own diary, it was in her own words, and there were passages in the diary that I still -- I think no journalist could ever hope to capture in an interview because it is so -- it's so from the heart, it's so visceral in a way, and it's so shorn, you know, of any pretenses.
JEFFREY BROWN: Such as? I mean, give a -- give an example of something that struck you.
ANTHONY SHADID: Yeah, I remember she was trying to make sense of democracy. This is a 14-year-old girl, and she's --
JEFFREY BROWN: Trying to understand the idea of democracy?
ANTHONY SHADID: Trying to understand the idea of democracy. And she realizes that, you know, democracy to her is that people -- people who have money can afford satellites; people who don't, can't. And then she goes, "I guess this is a democratic choice, that you can get a satellite if you have money."
Just her watching what's going on in her apartment building, basically, that it's TVs and satellites and generators and, you know, very much the impact on day-to-day life on material conditions. And they were on the, you know, the wrong end of that often.
JEFFREY BROWN: And her views changed during the course of the time you got to read the diary.
ANTHONY SHADID: You saw her evolve. You saw her mind becoming more critical. You saw her understanding what Saddam's legacy was, her trying to understand democracy, her trying to make sense of the violence that was going on around her. And she was mad at everyone. She was mad at the insurgents for the violence. She was mad at the American military for not protecting her. She was made at her own government for being ineffective. And she asked this question over and over, you know: Why do so many people have to die?
JEFFREY BROWN: Another interesting character that you wrote about is named Dr. Fuad, a psychiatrist.
ANTHONY SHADID: He was a remarkable guy. You know, Dr. Fuad, I think was the kind of Iraqi that Americans had hoped to meet. I mean, here was a person who thought this was a liberation, who thought the Americans were going to bring a new country, a new future. And I stayed with him as the years -- that year passed, and then -- and even today. And it was, you know, it was remarkable to see how his sentiments changed, how he became frustrated and increasingly gloomy that, you know, that this new future never did arrive.
JEFFREY BROWN: So how hard was it to work over there as a journalist? You have stories about writing by candlelight sometimes.
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, the logistical challenges during the invasion were probably the toughest. There was a point where electricity went out and we were -- you know, we had to charge our computers with a car battery that we were able to hook up. We had one light that we were able to wire, and then we could either leave that on or brew coffee, and we often chose the dark.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tough choice.
ANTHONY SHADID: Yeah. (Laughs) We chose the dark and had coffee.
JEFFREY BROWN: Obviously, there are dangers involved?
ANTHONY SHADID: It's more and more difficult for us to get to cities that we used to cover. I was in Basra a few weeks ago, and it was the most scared I've ever been as a reporter. I mean, there's a situation there --
JEFFREY BROWN: Really? The most scared only a few weeks ago?
ANTHONY SHADID: Yeah. This was I guess in August and, you know, what's going on in Basra is that you have militias taking over the security forces. So, as you drive around the city, whenever you look at a police officer, you're wondering if he's there to protect you or to assassinate you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now you had the advantage of speaking the language. How important was that?
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, it was important during the invasion because I could get off -- get out on my own, and that was critical. I mean, during the invasion, you had to worry about your government escort, your minder, the person the government required you to always be with. My minder was cooperative and he would let me go off on my own, but only with language could you go off on your own and hope to do work.
You know, in the aftermath, I found language most helpful in trying to, I guess, create a fuller portrait of what was going on. In a way, I think language added the background noise sometimes. It was the, you know, the choice of words, the sayings, how they fit into the bigger conversation.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know there is a continuing effort to win what we call the hearts and minds in the Arab world. As someone who's looked at the culture and written about it and told these kinds of stories, what do you think?
ANTHONY SHADID: They do see a deep, deep resentment for U.S. policy. And I think it's a resentment that's gone on for ten, 20, 30 years and it's not going to go away anytime soon. You know, I do worry that -- that attitudes are hardening, though, over the past few years. You know, I think that, you know, I've always been struck by how Arabs make a distinction between US policy and between Americans. And I'm never treated badly as an American, you know, because of the policies that my government might represent.
You know, I see that distinction less and less, though, as the years pass, and I do, I guess, I have a certain -- certain worry that that distinction may be being blurred the longer this kind of conflict, the longer this tension remains.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Anthony Shadid, thanks for letting us come talk to you.
ANTHONY SHADID: My pleasure.