Analysis & Comment

Opinion | What the Arab Spring Cost Me

It was a cold and damp evening in February 2012 when my son Malik and I landed in Adana in southern Turkey. Our journey from Beirut had been long and we still had a two-hour drive to reach Antakya, a picturesque city near the border with Syria, where we were to meet my husband and Malik’s father, Anthony Shadid.

Until that day, I had been working in the Middle East as a journalist for almost a decade. They were some of the happiest and most rewarding years of my life. The Arab Spring that Anthony and I had been reporting on hadn’t yet achieved any of the changes I, along with millions of Arabs, had longed for, but many of us still believed that it would.

That night in Antakya, I lost all hope. I became a widow. And almost instantly I decided to quit journalism.

I had first met Anthony in September 2006 at a rally held by Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which we were separately attending as reporters. I had been following Anthony’s coverage of the Middle East, beginning with the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, with great admiration. He was born in the United States to Lebanese parents. I grew up in Lebanon, during its civil war, in a politically savvy family and had decided to become a journalist largely because I wanted to be a part of the national conversation.

By the time of the rally, I had witnessed my country’s destruction, rehabilitation and descent back into instability and uncertainty. The Lebanese war officially ended in 1990, but the nation remained deeply divided and extremely precarious. The new turmoil had been set off by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February of 2005 by a car bomb in Beirut. On the day it happened, I was working as a reporter for a Lebanon-based English-language newspaper called the Daily Star, covering mostly environmental news, and I instinctively rushed to the scene. It was a harrowing sight, one all too reminiscent of the images I had seen on my television screen during the 10 years of war I lived through.

Mr. Hariri’s death, widely blamed on Syria and its allies in Lebanon, split the country into two camps, one backed by Syria and Iran and one by the West and Hariri supporters. The results were a 17-month political stalemate and a string of political assassinations.

In July 2006, a 33-day war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel, and the Hezbollah rally where I met Anthony was held to mark the group’s “divine victory.” Because they had held their own, the conflict was considered a victory by many Hezbollah supporters, despite the fact that about 1,200 Lebanese had been killed, entire villages in southern Lebanon had been destroyed by aerial strikes, and many key bridges and highway leading to Beirut were bombed.

As my relationship with Anthony progressed, Lebanon teetered on the brink of another civil war. Any hope that the country would overcome its troubles was quickly fading. I was now also a stringer for The New York Times and was starting to feel that going forward, my work would be mired by conflict and turmoil.

As much as I loved my job, there were many times between 2005 and 2008 when I wished to be someone else or somewhere else. During those years, I encountered many deaths. The conflict was starting to take its toll on me. Then, in May 2008, I had a very close call of my own.

In scenes reminiscent of the street fighting during the civil war, Hezbollah men with machine guns battled government supporters on the streets of Beirut, snipers took positions, and neighborhoods were littered with burned cars and debris. The four days of fighting left at least 29 people dead and 19 injured.

On May 10, I went with my colleague Raed Rafei, who was working for The Los Angeles Times, to cover the funeral of a young Sunni man who had been killed by a sniper two days before. The Sunni mourners believed that he had died at the hands of someone from their rival religious faction, the Shiites. But the procession soon turned violent when mourners clashed with a Shiite man who refused to close his store that was located on the way to the cemetery. And when mourners smashed his windows with rocks and chairs, he responded by opening fire.

I immediately got down and crawled to take cover behind a garbage container. Raed also hid. When everything had gone quiet, I emerged from my hiding place and saw the two men who had been standing right next to me moments earlier lying on the ground in a pool of blood. Raed was standing over a body with a point-and- shoot camera. We had both survived and the two men had not. Their names were Ali Masri and Moussa Zouki. I still can’t shake off the memory of that day or how senseless their deaths were.

By the end of May 2008, I had had enough of Beirut. Like the toxic fumes of burning tires that constricted my lungs, the conflict had become psychologically suffocating. I decided to take a break and enrolled at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City. When it was time for me to leave for graduate school, Anthony asked me to marry him and I said yes.

After graduating in June 2009, I moved to Baghdad to work as a reporter for The Washington Post. I was anxious about my new job, and about working with Anthony, who was widely considered the most successful foreign correspondent covering the Middle East. I fretted about the stories I would write and those I would miss and whether anyone would read anything I wrote at all. Anthony, now my husband, was the bureau chief. We had been married for a year but hadn’t lived in the same city yet. He was a great partner, in marriage and at work. Together, we brainstormed ideas, planned reporting trips, and sounded out the best translations of quotes from Arabic to English. On quiet evenings, we watched American television shows while eating pints of vanilla ice cream.

It was easy to sometimes forget that we were living in yet another country deep in turmoil.

In January 2010, three bombs exploded within minutes of one another in three separate neighborhoods in the city. The targets were hotels frequented by foreign correspondents and businessmen. The third blast was close enough to our house to shatter many of our windows.

It had struck the Hamra Hotel, which was across the street from the Washington Post building and home to many of our friends and colleagues. Anthony and I had left The Post in December and joined the New York Times bureau in Baghdad. I was seven months pregnant that day, and for the first time in many years, I did not want to go to the bombing site. At that moment, I felt a bigger commitment to motherhood than to any news story.

By the end of 2010, Anthony and I, along with our newborn son, Malik, were living in Beirut, where Anthony had been appointed the bureau chief for The Times and I was a reporter. The situation there and in the Arab world in general — save for Iraq — was stable.

But on Dec. 17, 2010, a young fruit vendor set himself on fire in a Tunisian village following a dispute with the local police. A rebellion soon broke out, and protests then spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. I covered many of these events and whenever I had to leave Beirut, I worried that I might not return to see Malik.

On Feb. 4, 2011, I drove to Damascus to cover a planned “Day of Rage” protest for The Times and headed to the Parliament building, where it was scheduled to be held. But no one showed up. “Syria is the last country where regime change will occur,” a Syrian political activist and dissident told me later that day. I didn’t want to believe him.

Seven days later, Anthony called me from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where he was on assignment for The Times, so that I could listen with him to the jubilation that had erupted among protesters when President Hosni Mubarak’s regime was felled. I was in Beirut and he wanted to share with me this epic moment in the history of the Arab world.

I sometimes think of Anthony’s death as an unintended consequence of the Arab revolts.

In February 2012, he sneaked into Syria for the second time to interview armed rebels and opposition activists for The Times. The smugglers who agreed to take him arranged to hike and travel by horseback across the mountainous border between the two countries. Anthony had asthma and was allergic to horses, but he had his inhalers and had never needed more than that.

The last time I spoke to him was on Feb. 14, 2012. He was in northern Syria and called me from his satellite phone to wish me a happy Valentine’s Day. He said he was to leave Syria in a day or two, again traveling by hiking and horseback, and that the trip had been the best one of his entire career. Malik and I traveled to Antakya on the night of Feb. 16 to meet him.

Shortly before midnight, I was awakened when my cellphone rang. It was Jill Abramson, who was the executive editor of The Times. “Anthony had a fatal asthma attack,” she said. I repeated the sentence in my head, but it took some time to understand what she was trying to tell me.

I curled up on the bathroom floor and cried. I wanted to scream but Malik was asleep, and I didn’t want to startle him.

In her book about the death of her husband, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion writes that “people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible.” Invisibility is a comforting feeling when your heart is so heavy. After Anthony died, I preferred places where I knew no one and where no one knew me.

This was more than seven years ago. And yet on some days, it still feels as raw as it did that night in Turkey. I quit journalism, left my home in Beirut, and moved thousands of miles away from everyone I knew and everything familiar. Motherhood has saved me from making the wrong choices and forced me to get out of bed when I had no energy, will or desire to do so. Along the way, I became someone I don’t recognize. I lost my balance and the discipline I once had. Being a journalist and being in the Middle East are both constant reminders of my loss. I needed the distance from both to be able to grieve and feel alive again.

I often remember the phone conversations I had with Anthony from Idlib before he died. He listed all the reasons the Syrian revolution would not succeed. Following his death, it became clear that he was right about Syria and that the Arab Spring had failed to realize the dreams of Arabs to live in free and democratic countries. Instead, it left great losses, all senseless, including my own.

When major events take place, we tend to think of them in sweeping terms, as movements involving masses of people. When they pass, we move on too. Only those who have lost a dear life will carry the scarring from those times and become defined by it.

Nada Bakri is a former reporter for The New York Times. This article is adapted from an essay that appears in the book, “Our Women On the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World.”

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