On December 9, 2012, Nada Bakri gave a reading at Al-Bustan’s event in Philadelphia in remembrance of her husband, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Anthony Shadid.
When I asked Nada Bakri if she thought that journalism could affect change in the world, she responded wryly, “sure, if you’re Anthony Shadid.” As someone who has grown to revere journalism for its ability to convey untold stories and poses unasked questions, I was unnerved by her answer. When I say “change” I don’t mean anything as grand as world peace, yet making a difference on an individual basis still seems like a worthy and fulfilling pursuit.
Indeed a central principle of Al-Bustan’s mission is that sharing the arts and culture of the Arab world can foster respect and understanding between people of diverse backgrounds. Shadid has made extraordinary contributions to American understanding of contemporary life in the Arab world. But was his ability to touch and challenge readers with in-depth articles about ordinary life in a world so different from their own unique?
Many reporters have likewise immersed themselves in a seemingly different world and skillfully engaged readers with their stories about ordinary people who have been marginalized not only by society but also by the media. Last year Katherine Boo revealed hope and resourcefulness amongst the harsh circumstances of Mumbai’s Annawadi slum in her book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers. Drawing on 3 years of research she has written a work of nonfiction from a fly on the wall perspective that reads like a novel driven by elegant writing and compelling characters who exhibit endless creativity.
One of his private vanities was that all the garbage sorting had endowed his hands with killing strength—that he could chop a brick in half like Bruce Lee. “So let’s get a brick,” replied a girl with whom he had once, injudiciously, shared this conviction. Abdul had bumbled away. The brick belief was something he wanted to harbor, not to test.
His brother Mirchi, two years younger, was braver by a stretch, and wouldn’t have hidden in the storeroom. Mirchi liked the Bollywood movies in which bare-chested outlaws jumped out of high windows and ran across the roofs of moving trains, while the policemen in pursuit fired and failed to hit their marks.
Abdul took all the dangers, in all films, overseriously. He was still living down the night he’d accompanied another boy to a shed a mile away, where pirated videos played. The movie had been about a mansion with a monster in its basement—an orange-furred creature that fed on human flesh. When it ended, he’d had to pay the proprietor twenty rupees to let him sleep on the floor, because his legs were too stiff with fear to walk home.
As ashamed as he felt when other boys witnessed his fearfulness, Abdul thought it irrational to be anything else. While sorting newspapers or cans, tasks that were a matter more of touch than of sight, he studied his neighbors instead. The habit killed time and gave him theories, one of which came to prevail over the others. It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people, did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes, they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, malaria you hadn’t caught. And while he regretted not being smarter, he believed he had a quality nearly as valuable for the circumstances in which he lived. He was, chaukanna, alert.
She manages to convey the depth of her knowledge about Annawadi and its residents without producing a dry string of facts and anecdotes or a one-dimensional presentation of poverty. So familiar is she with the residents that in her hands they become fully formed characters, individuals that the readers can identify with rather than representatives of poverty.
Shadid similarly drew audiences into the lives of Iraqis when he emphasized the “street sentiment” during and after the Iraq war. With his knowledge of the region and Arabic language skills, he set scenes with complex characters who we got to know through detailed conversations and beautifully captured moments.
In the houses along the street, neighbors and relatives spoke of injustice — a resonant theme in the lives of Shiites Muslims, whose saints and centuries of theology are infused with examples of suffering and martyrdom.
“We’re poor. We can’t go anywhere else. What is the fault of the families here? Where’s the humanity?” asked Abu Ahmed, a 53-year-old neighbor sitting in a home with three pictures of Ali and a painting of his son, Hussein. “I swear to God, we’re scared.”
Their talk was angry, and they were baffled.
If the Americans are intent on liberation, why are innocent people dying? If they want to attack the government, why do bombs fall on civilians? How can they have such formidable technology and make such tragic mistakes?
In Hussein’s Iraq, with a 30-year-political culture built on brutality, some were convinced the Americans were intent on vengeance for the setbacks they believed their forces were delivered in Basra and other southern Iraqi cities. Others, in moments of striking candor, pleaded for the United States and Britain to wage war against their government, but spare the people.
Without being social activists these journalists write pieces that manage to be catalysts for change by challenging peoples’ assumptions and enriching their understanding of issues facing people around the world. Just as Boo is careful to write about the complexities and incongruities of life in Annawadi, Shadid presents the multiplicity of opinions and concerns occupying the thoughts of residents of a neighborhood in Baghdad. They seamlessly tuck history and statistics into poignant narratives. Building on their prose-like writing, deep understanding of the situation, and respect for their subjects, these journalists have powerfully illustrated current conundrums and in doing so, engrossed and educated their readers. Their accounts are meaningful because they give voice to marginalized people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to share their story.
Of course, there are historic examples of journalists whose writing has had direct political ramifications. In 1890 journalist Jacob Riis immersed himself in the poverty of lower Manhattan and incorporated humor, graphic detail, intimate descriptions, and anecdotes to captivate his readers and raise their consciousness about the issue of urban poverty (with a heavy dose of the era’s xenophobia, it must be said). In 1890 Jacob Riis pushed tenement reform to the top of New York’s policy agenda with his seminal work How the Other Half Lives.
While it’s too early to credit Shadid and Boo’s writing with specific social changes, all of these journalists have successfully engaged their readers, forging a connection between people who they might not otherwise meet. Ultimately their compelling and empathetic storytelling encourages us to recognize the humanity in those who may seem different from us. A change indeed.