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To understand my dad, I needed to learn about the day he was shot

My father, Anthony Shadid, was shot while reporting on the second Intifada. I went on a journey to meet the man who saved his life.

“Shoulders!” I begged. “Shoulders! Shoulders!”

As a child, I loved to ride on my father’s shoulders. Sitting up there, I rubbed the bald spot on his head. “From seeing too much,” he explained of the hair loss.

Then, I poked at the small crater the size of my thumb just above his right shoulder.

“Daddy, tell me the story again,” I asked, “of how you were shot.”

Later, I would retell the story to every elementary school friend – and stranger – who would listen.

The story was set in March 2002 on a street in Ramallah that I couldn’t quite picture. My father was there reporting for The Boston Globe on the beginning of the Israeli army’s monthlong siege on then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s compound. I was 10 months old and safe at home with my mother in the United States, oblivious to the danger my father faced.

It was the height of the second Intifada (2000-05), the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation that had erupted after then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, following the collapse of the Oslo Accords and, with it, promises of a Palestinian state.

This period of violence saw 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis killed. It was, my father had written in The Globe, a “far dirtier war” than the first Intifada (1987-93). And he would soon bear the scars of it.

The street, my father recounted, was empty but for him, the Palestinian journalist who walked alongside him and the Israeli snipers who hid on the roofs above. It was one of their bullets that struck my father, entering his left shoulder under his flak jacket, bouncing off his vertebrae and then exiting through his right shoulder.

He pinched his thumb and pointer finger until they nearly touched; the space between them the distance of the bullet from his spine – the proximity to paralysis.

“Tell me more,” I gasped.

His hand bopped to the cadence of his narration, just as it did whenever he told a story.

“When I fell to the ground,” he said as he lifted me off his shoulders, “I didn’t know where I was shot.”

Laila Shadid and her father Anthony Shadid
My father refurbished his old MacBook so that we could call each other over Skype when he was away. When he was home, we would sit together and write, as we did on this Thanksgiving Day in 2010 [Courtesy of Laila Shadid]

The questions I didn’t know to ask

I hoped to learn more about this story when I was older and had found the right questions to ask. But I never got that chance.

In 2012, while on assignment for The New York Times in Syria, my father, Anthony Shadid, died of an asthma attack. He was 43 years old.

I was 10 and at home in the US with my mother, who was by now amicably divorced from my father. He’d been due back from his weeklong assignment that day, and I’d been due to speak to him on Skype. But I hadn’t been able to reach him. When my mother walked in that evening, her face told me my worst fear had come true.

“Did Daddy die?” I asked her.

The men smuggling my father and New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks across the border to Turkey used horses to carry their luggage. Severely allergic to horses, my father trekked across the mountainous terrain with a keffiyeh wrapped around his face like a mask.

I knew his asthma well – and the way that horses triggered the worst of it. I knew his army green inhaler from my childhood horse riding lessons when he would watch from a distance, taking quick puffs as he cheered me on. By the time I was nine, my asthma had forced me to quit riding.

The keffiyeh made no difference. The closer they got to the border the shorter my father’s breaths became.

Now that he was gone, I had questions I feared would remain unanswered. Many of them centred around that day in March 2002, when my father found himself lying beneath a cemetery grey sky on a near-empty Ramallah street.

Laila Shadid in a cafe in the West Bank with a picture of Shireen Abu Akleh
I spent many hours in the summer of 2022 reading on the porch of this guest house in al-Eizariya, a town in the occupied West Bank, next to a shrine dedicated to Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh who was killed by Israeli forces in May that year [Courtesy of Laila Shadid]

A visit to Jerusalem

Last year, 11 years after his death, I went in search of the answers; and the man who had accompanied my father that day, the man who had saved his life.

In August, I moved to Bethlehem to teach English. There, in Palestine, the place where I believed my father had had his first brush with death, I felt closer to him. I searched The Boston Globe archives for the full name of the man who was with him when he was shot – Said al-Ghazali. I hoped Said would be able to answer some of the questions I had about that day and wondered if he’d answer one I was scared to ask: had my father chosen his work over his life and, by extension, over me?

Said was easy to find on Facebook. We had mutual connections through friends of my father’s. I sent a message and waited nervously for his response. It came just a few hours later, as an invitation to his home in Jerusalem.

A week later, as I took a bus from Checkpoint 300 to the Old City and another from there to the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Wadi Quddum, I wondered if Said would add colour to the scene my father had outlined for me all those years ago.

Now 69 and retired, Said greeted me warmly at the bus stop before leading me down the street, past bike-riding children and smoking teenagers, to his home on the fourth floor of an apartment complex where each generation of his family occupies a different level. Inside, his wife, Sanaa, served us a meal of grainless bread and roasted turkey.

“So, you want to know about your dad,” Said said, as he leaned back in his chair.

Said al-Ghazali holds the helmet he wore on assignment with Anthony Shadid when he was shot in Ramallah during the Second Intifada. September, 2023.
Said al-Ghazali holds the helmet he wore on assignment with my father when he was shot in Ramallah during the second Intifada [Courtesy of Laila Shadid]

‘Closest call’

Said retired from a 38-year career in journalism in 2021. He’d worked as a stringer and journalist for international outlets and helped foreign journalists with everything from Arabic translation to transport and joint reporting.

He’d faced many dangerous situations during his career, but the trip he took with my father during the second Intifada was his “closest call”, he told me.

They had planned to travel from Jerusalem to Ramallah to report on the siege of Arafat’s compound.

“It was dangerous,” Said said of Ramallah. Israeli forces imposed curfews, trapping Palestinians in their homes, and roamed the city with tanks — details my father had left out of his story. “No one was safe, not even journalists.”

Said made it clear to my father that he wanted to take every precaution before departing for Ramallah. He arranged for him to pick up a spare flak jacket from The Globe’s Jerusalem office.

“Your father was in a hurry to get to Ramallah,” Said explained.

“Most journalists write stories about what is happening in the West Bank from Jerusalem,” Said told me, “but your father wanted to be in the middle of the action. He wanted to see colour, to see the scene with his own eyes.”

For years, I thought every journalist took the risks my father did. But now, sitting opposite Said, I saw an alternative approach to journalism – one that balanced personal safety with professional commitment.

“Tell me about the day my father was shot,” I asked him.

“I told your father not to leave the hotel,” Said answered matter-of-factly. “I warned him that it was too dangerous out there. No one was allowed in the streets.”

Israeli forces were shooting indiscriminately. The previous day, my father had written in The Globe about the aftermath of a massacre – five Palestinian policemen shot dead by Israeli soldiers after a fierce gun battle. “They were snapshots of war,” he wrote, “bodies disfigured by the geometry of death, the unreal look of a lifeless face.”

“If you won’t go with me,” Said repeated what my father had said to him, “I’ll go by myself.”

In 2004, my father bought me my first pet, a turtle we named Fireworks.
In 2004, my father bought me my first pet, a turtle we named Fireworks [Courtesy of Laila Shadid]

‘Your father was careless with his life’

As Said had grown older and survived two heart attacks, he had decided to take better care of his health – exercising and watching what he eats.

“For my family,” he explained as he took a bite of his turkey, “to watch my grandchildren grow, to support my son and three daughters, and to be a good husband.”

I thought of my father and wondered whether had he lived long enough, he would have come to the same realisation – and made healthy choices for the sake of his family.

As if reading my mind, Said told me bluntly: “Your father was careless with his life.”

The words threatened to topple the pedestal I had so lovingly placed my father on. I thought back to the excited little girl waiting for her father’s rental car to pull up at her mother’s front door. I remembered how he’d step out of it and squat down, arms outstretched, before whisking me away to the condo he’d bought nearby. Those were the happiest moments of my life. For two weeks, we’d create some semblance of a routine I wished would never end. But it always did. I’d return home, broken-hearted, and he would drive on to the airport. My mother would gently piece me back together again as I cried. A couple of months later, we’d do it all over again.

Although she never spoke negatively to me of my father, I suspected my mother had told others the same words Said spoke to me now. My father’s family had whispered to them, too. But I did not want to believe he had been so careless with something I had cared so deeply for.

I winced as Said repeated them. “Your father was careless with his life,” he said again.

In an email informing the Times staff of his death, former executive editor Jill Abramson wrote: “Anthony died as he lived — determined to bear witness to the transformation sweeping the Middle East and to testify to the suffering of people caught between government oppression and opposition forces.”

It was easier for all of us to laud his willingness to put his life on the line to tell stories that wouldn’t otherwise be told than to question it. But two things could be true at once — he could be a trailblazing, prolific journalist, and a loving but often absent father.

Is it time to go?

About a year before his death, my father and three other Times journalists were held captive for almost a week by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya.

My father admitted in a 2011 interview with Democracy Now that he and Tyler, the same photographer who was with him when he died, had pushed to stay longer in Libya as government forces were closing in.

“I think they were ready to leave earlier,” he said of his colleagues Lynsey Addario and Steve Farrell. “In replaying these events over in my head, I wish I had left earlier. You never know when to stop reporting. You never know when you have enough or feel that you have enough … I clearly made a mistake that day in staying too long. And by the time we got to the checkpoint, it was too late.”

By the time the group attempted to depart Ajdabiya for Benghazi, government forces had encircled the town, setting up a checkpoint on the road out. As soldiers pulled them out of their car, rebels attacked the checkpoint. They ran for their lives during the gun battle. My father, forced to lie on the ground, heard one soldier order another to shoot him. “You can’t,” the soldier responded, “they’re Americans.”

During a talk in Oklahoma soon after he returned, I heard my father speak of a sort of “resignation, acceptance” of death that he felt at that moment.

I sat in the front row, feeling the weight of his words – which I would replay on YouTube when he was no longer around to repeat them for me – and contemplating what our relatives had said to me and to each other: “Next time, he might not be so lucky.”

At the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, Anthony spoke about his recent release from captivity in Libya with three other New York Times journalists. April 2011. At the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, my father spoke about his recent release from captivity in Libya with three other New York Times journalists. I followed him the entire night as he recounted the story and greeted familiar faces in his hometown. April 2011.
At the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum in April 2011, my father spoke about his release from captivity in Libya with three other New York Times journalists. I followed him the entire night as he recounted the story and greeted familiar faces in his hometown [Courtesy of Laila Shadid]

‘Said, I think I was shot’

“It was morning in Ramallah, around 8am,” Said said, setting his fork down on his now empty plate. “We were the only two journalists left at the hotel.”

“Which hotel?” I asked.

“A small hotel, nothing too fancy.”

In my dad’s testimony of the shooting, I found the name — the Royal Court Hotel Ramallah, three stars.

“Where did the other journalists go?” I interrupted again.

“Somewhere outside of Ramallah. Outside of the West Bank,” he responded, eager to get back to the details of his story.

Despite his trepidation, Said wouldn’t let my father go out alone. He tried calling the taxi drivers he knew in the area, but they refused to drive during the curfew. So they walked to the hospital instead.

Said remembers the body of a Palestinian man lying at the entrance, covered in a thin sheet. Inside, the once-white floors had turned red. They found Israeli forces raiding patient rooms in search of “activists”.

It was early afternoon when they walked to Arafat’s compound to take notes on a news conference being held by Palestinian politicians at its entrance. It was getting late, around four or five o’clock, and they needed to return to the hotel.

“Your father had everything he needed to write the story,” Said said. “We were the last two journalists on the street.”

They took side streets from the compound to avoid Israeli forces, but when they reached al-Irsal Street, a tank turned its turret towards them. So they raised their hands and turned back.

They both wore flak jackets, my dad wrote, with the letters “TV” written in red tape on their backs – an internationally recognised symbol for the press.

Then, Said told me, “Your father stopped walking and said, ‘Said, I think I was shot’.”

“He fell to the ground and I searched for blood.” Soon, it poured from my father’s shoulder onto Said.

“It stained my shirt,” he said, looking down at the one he was wearing now.

“I put my arm around his waist and I yelled in Arabic, English, and Hebrew: ‘We are journalists, we are journalists, we are journalists!’”

Said got the attention of an Israeli medic who loaded my father onto a stretcher and took him to a nearby Palestinian hospital. Said recalls my father speaking to Globe colleagues on a satellite phone as Israeli forces raided the hospital. He was going to be evacuated to a hospital in Jerusalem and wanted to make sure Said would not be left behind.

“He was a good man,” Said reflected.

He recalled how the soldiers had asked my father at his bedside to sign a paper stating that he was shot by a “Palestinian terrorist”.

“But he refused,” Said told me.

“Later in the evening,” my father wrote in The Globe, “I talked with the Israeli officer in charge. I told him I believed an Israeli soldier had shot me. He answered calmly, even warmly.

‘If we shot you, I apologise on behalf of the army,’ he said. ‘But’ — he shrugged his shoulders — ‘you know we are in a war zone.’”

Said recalled how, earlier that day in Ramallah, my father had watched Arafat’s speech on Al Jazeera Arabic.

“This is great stuff,” he’d said while scribbling in his orange reporter’s notebook. He wrote about it in The Globe: “‘They want me either a prisoner, in exile, or dead, but I tell them I want to be a martyr,’ the 72-year-old Palestinian leader said … he repeated the word. ‘A martyr, a martyr, a martyr.’”

I wondered if the idea of dying for a cause greater than oneself had resonated with my father.

“Do you think my dad saw himself as a martyr?” I asked Said.

“No,” he replied with certainty. “I think he devoted himself to journalism. I think he wanted to write great stories. I think he believed that the media was not covering them well and he wanted to tell the truth.”

My father had written about being shot for The Globe. “I wanted to say something to Said to pass on to my wife and my nine-month-old daughter,” he wrote, “but I could only think of tired clichés.”

While Said said my father hadn’t mentioned his wife or child, I found relief in knowing he had been thinking of us.

The day before my tenth birthday, my father, baby brother Malik and I picked plums from the garden of our ancestral home in Marjayoun, Lebanon. My father had spent the past several years rebuilding it, etching his heart and soul into every detail of that home, the subject of his memoir, House of Stone. He was buried next to this tree less than a year later.
The day before my 10th birthday, my father, baby brother Malik and I picked plums from the garden of our ancestral home in Marjayoun, Lebanon. My father had spent the past several years rebuilding it and it was the subject of his memoir, House of Stone (2012). He was buried next to this tree less than a year after this photo was taken [Courtesy of Laila Shadid]

The story-seeker

My father sought out stories, paying attention to details – an interviewee’s chosen brand of cigarettes, the rasp in an older man’s voice that carried generations of stories and the moments between dialogues that said more than the words themselves. It was the search for these sorts of details that led him to al-Irsal Street, to Ajdabiya, to Syria and away from us.

My mom blames his story-seeking impulse for the downfall of their marriage. My father had promised to stay based on the East Coast, but after 9/11, his career as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East took off. He left the burden of parenting to my mother, who was already working 100-hour weeks in her OBGYN residency at Johns Hopkins. When he was home, my mother said he was always looking for the next flight out, the next story to tell.

So in 2003, as my father wrote in his memoir, “On what had, at the outset, seemed a promising summer day, I had returned to our house to find that my wife and daughter had vacated. The lawn was mowed, the flowers were planted, the tomatoes starting to ripen, but inside, precisely half of everything was missing. It was a clean surgical division, worthy of the woman I had married four years before, a doctor.”

With a smile and a shake of her head, my mother often says of my desire to live and work in the Middle East: “You are just like him.”

A narrative unravelled

About a month after I met Said, I felt the ground shake beneath me. I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge when a missile fell nearby on October 7.

I texted my mom, “Please don’t read the news. I’m safe. Everything is okay.”

Then the world began unravelling. Texts from concerned friends and relatives across the ocean flooded in as the death toll climbed — first from the Hamas attack on Israel and then from Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

My mother begged me to come home, asking how this could be happening to her again.

I was confronted with the dilemma my father had faced many times before. Having lived with the consequences of the choices he’d made, I wondered why I was so reluctant to make the decision my mother pleaded with me to make now.

I sat down in front of my computer and wrote the story of a school day cut short by war. I wrote about the teacher I shared an office with, who had taken care of me like a mother and a friend, who was now watching her children experience their first war and who would, as the war continued, lose family members in Gaza.

I tried to imagine how my father would have reported on this war. I knew he would have stayed, a decision that would have taken him further from home.

But here I was, far from home and feeling closer to my father than I had since he’d died. He was there in every conversation, every connection, every contemplation. I didn’t want to leave him again. I didn’t want to leave at all. In those moments, as I looked at my two large suitcases splayed open on the floor, I understood the impulse that so often guided my father.

I knew I had to leave – for the sake of my mother and the promise I made to be different from my father.

I could only bring myself to pack one suitcase. I left the other behind along with half of my clothes in the closet of my Bethlehem apartment, carefully hung and neatly folded.

It was at this moment I found the best answer I could to my question: had my father chosen work over life? In understanding why he had chosen to stay, my narrative unravelled. The truth was that these risks were a part of his job, and no different from the risks any journalist took to report from a conflict zone. I had to trust that the decisions he made had rhyme and reason, and that his years of experience made him an expert. I realised that my attachment to this narrative of risk-taking was a coping mechanism for my grief. Anger was easier than remembering the way my father loved me, and the way it broke his heart to leave me, too. Our time together was not consistent, but when he was home, he was as skilled of a father as he was a journalist. In those moments, I never competed with his work.

It was in that grace that I learned to draw my own boundary – somewhere between my mother’s caution and my father’s fearlessness.

Source: Al Jazeera

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