BOSTON – The news that Marie Colvin was killed while reporting in Syria hit like a gut punch this morning.
I had to pull over on my commute to take it in, and take in the extraordinary tragedy of losing two of the best Middle East correspondents of our generation in the space of one week.
The terrible news came to me in the pleasant tones of the BBC World Service in the early morning broadcast where I so often heard Marie, giving us accounts of what was happening on the ground in the Middle East in her vivid, breathless and irreverent way.
Most recently I saw Marie in Egypt where she was positively giddy with excitement over the still-unfolding revolution, and the extraordinary moment we were witnessing in history. She wanted to be hopeful for the Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and Syrians who had risen up against tyrants. But she also knew somewhere down deep that, in the end, this would not go well.
And it sure as hell hasn’t this week as the Syrian regime shows the world just how ugly it is willing to get to put down this brave and persistent rebellion.
All of us who care to try to understand the Middle East have lost something incalculable in the deaths of Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London and Anthony Shadid of the New York Times within the span of a week.
Both died in Syria doing their job and doing what they truly believed mattered. For them, it was worth the risk. And both often said so. (Here is a link to a powerful speech from Marie Colvin last year where she articulates why war reporting is “worth the risk.”)
Read more: Nearly 20 journalists killed in Arab spring.
More than just talented and courageous colleagues, they brought a depth of experience and an ear for truth on the Arab street that was simply unparalleled.
Marie was my good friend, as was Anthony. And she and Anthony couldn’t have been more different.
He was a listener. She was a talker.
He was Lebanese-American and she was Irish-American through and through. He was the consummate bureau chief, becoming grounded in the countries he covered and particularly in Lebanon where he had recently restored his family’s homestead.
She was the classic parachute artist, sweeping into the big story from her home in London and taking her place at the bar after deadline wherever correspondents were staying to cover the big story. She always had a great story to tell that usually ended in a laugh that rattled the glasses on the bar.
Every time I saw her mischievous smile complementing that eye-patch she picked up covering the conflict in Sri Lanka, I knew I was in the right place to get the story.
For the last 20 years, we crossed paths everywhere the story of the Middle East was breaking from the first Gulf War to the Israeli-Palestinian intifadas I and II to Iraq and Afghanistan and, of course, Egypt and the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ (though she didn’t like to call it that.)
One of my fondest memories was when Marie and I were walking around in Ramallah commiserating on how many times we had requested an interview with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat only to be turned down again and again. We calculated we had both spent a good five years trying to get him to talk about the collapsing ‘peace process’ and the descent into violence.
This was in the spring of 2002 in the aftermath of September 11th as the intifada was raging once again and it seemed the world was hardly watching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We had both just been in Afghanistan, if I remember correctly, and we were trying to take a day off covering the plodding and predictable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Our despair was interrupted by one of Arafat’s most trusted aides who said, “Okay, how about now? Come with me right now and we will see Abu Ammar (the nom de guerre for Arafat.)”
We shrugged our shoulders and walked from coffee at our friend Nasser Atta’s home in Ramallah straight into a three-hour lunch with Arafat where he loaned us his own stationary to take notes on since neither of us had a notebook.
“That’s how it happens! You just gotta be there,” Marie said as we rushed from the interview to write up the ‘exclusive’ for our newspapers.
And she was always willing to ‘be there.’ As was Anthony. And that is the essence of ground truth. That is what it is all about. The only way you can hear the sound of truth is there on the ground.
They couldn’t have been more different, but together these two journalists were like Bose engineering that brings together the high and low sound waves, bass and treble, in high fidelity to allow us all to hear the music of the Arab world.
They both let us tune in to the sounds of the people who sway to the Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum’s triumphal music of Arab nationalism. And the dark, brooding voice of the Lebanese singer Fairuz who captures the tragedy of the Middle East. And now from Syria, they have brought us the sad stereo effect of two deaths — a long, mournful ballad like the ‘prayer for the dead’ pouring out of the minaret of a mosque.