Bringing the Life of Anthony Shadid to the Stage

Photo: George Azar

Yale Schwarzman Center, along with the Yale Council of Middle East Studies, is proud to present an artist conversation about A Thousand Strange Places. This new play, directed and co-developed by Kirsten Sanderson, coincides with the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It follows the career of renowned Lebanese-American journalist Anthony Shadid and is based on the Shadid archive housed at American University of Beirut’s Jafet Library.

YSC spoke with playwright, author and scholar Robert Myers, author of A Thousand Strange Places, about the life of the extraordinary Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the playwright’s artistic process and the ways in which he explores themes of interconnectivity and crossing boundaries in this new play.

What inspired you to create a play based on the life of Anthony Shadid?

I’ve taught for the last 18 years at the American University in Beirut. I’m a playwright and a literature professor, but I’m also the Director of the Alwaleed Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR), which was founded in 2004 with a mission of understanding the fraught relationship between east and west. I had the privilege to collaborate with the renowned journalist Rami Khouri, and he proposed that we use Anthony Shadid’s archive for pedagogical purposes. Shadid was an absolutely fascinating writer, reporter, and journalist. Since I have written 15 or 16 plays, a dozen of which are historical and documentary, when I looked at the material in the archive, I thought, “This is a play.” And so that is how A Thousand Strange Places came into being.

What was it about Anthony Shadid that impacted you or made hima compelling figure?

I couldn’t have found a more synergistic figure than Anthony Shadid—this kid who grew up in Oklahoma, learned Arabic as an adult and immersed himself in Arabic culture. It allowed him access to a world that was not available to other Western reporters, places like Anbar province. If you read the stories of people he talked to, you would get a counter narrative to the one being put out by the Pentagon. For example, he would have lunch with a Shia family—and these were the people who were ostensibly going to be rescued by the Americans. They were not happy about the American invasion and had vastly different point of view. So I loved researching and writing his story, because it allowed me to go back and re-experience my own time in the Middle East through Shadid’s experience.

As a storyteller, what parts of Shadid’s life did you pick to feature in the play and why?

I focus on the period from 2000 until his death in 2012. During that decade, he was a reporter, first in Afghanistan, and long before other Western reporters, he was insisting on going out to villages that had been bombed to see for himself. Even though Arabic isn’t the language that was spoken there, he understood that’s where the story was and was able to connect sufficiently with people to their story in a way that was authentic and engaging. Given the recent American withdrawal from Afghanistan, this story is timely and relevant today. I see this period that Shadid spent in Afghanistan as antecedent action for the American engagement with the Arab world, which is the focus of the play I wrote.

As a playwright, the story I’m telling is sort of the tip of the iceberg, but I’ve embedded within it a kind of complexity that performers and designers can draw upon—subtext and antecedent action.

Shadid was the kind of artist that had the ability to change or transform the world, even if just a little bit.

As the U.S. is just starting to reckon with its role in the destabilization of the Middle East, how does A Thousand Strange Places use Shadid’s life to celebrate the Arab culture and, at the same time, the truth of that region?

I’m very much a believer, as Mandela said, “Racism is a blight on human consciousness.” Racism makes everyone sick. Apartheid makes everybody sick, and everybody must get well. The theater is a place to do that.

Over the years. I’ve come to conclude that if you can dramatize the complexity of situations, the audience can engage in interpretation. Take Shadid, who was a high school wrestler in Oklahoma City, sitting down with a Shia family in Iraq, beginning to put those two sides together. You dig deeper and you find, “Oh, Shadid was very connected to the Greek Orthodox Church in Oklahoma. He’s an Arab and a Christian—and not just a Christian, but an Orthodox, which is a transnational Christian."

If you begin to look at the Middle East region in that way, you realize that this preposterous “us versus them” narrative that emerged in the post 9/11 period is part of what poisoned the United States in its view, conflating Arabs with Muslims, right? Well, they’re Muslims but there are also Indonesian Muslims in India, Pakistan, and China. You know, it’s such an utterly simplistic, reductive view.

In Shadid you have a figure who is multifaceted, who had the ability, the wherewithal and the understanding to let people tell their own stories. He would find the most humble people, people who are shoemakers or somebody selling stuff on the street, but then he would also talk to very sophisticated people, like a psychiatrist in Iraq. He was able to connect with so many kinds of people. There is a scene that I use in the play in which someone says to him: “You’re like us. You speak Arabic. But the difference is, you can leave, and we can’t.” In other words, he’s this figure who can cross these borders, as it were, and in so doing, he has provided us with information to reinforce the complexity of the situation and the region.

It’s this constant complexity which puts the onus on the audience—and that’s what attracts me. I want to create a dynamic on stage so that the audience must think and interpret without my preaching to them or telling them what to think. I’m just insisting that it is infinitely more complicated than the simplistic narratives that people have been spoon-fed. Everyone needs to tell their whole story.

What is something you admire about Shadid?

He was a really great listener, a great journalist. Other reporters talk about his technique—he would sit there and have lunch with you. Then after two hours, he would say, “I’m a reporter, do you mind if I take my notebook out and start taking notes?” So, after he’s taken the time to truly get to know his subject, he’d take the next two hours to write things down. He constantly sought a kind of understanding by looking directly at them and by trying to tell their whole story. This is what is truly beautiful about having his archives at the Jafet Library because you can see the layers of the story, almost as if it were a film script. I do think that the people who read his stories were changed.

Shadid wrote about these very deep, complex aspects of identity that many people don’t have access to. I’m really interested in the extent to which you can cross borders. Language can only get you so far, but it was this deep immersion into culture that Shadid was so adept at. Americans have this idea that they’re spreading freedom, but if you go to any of these places and spend time with the people, you’ll hear them say quite the contrary, that Americans are really imperialists. I can’t think of a better prism to provide a different perspective than the life and work of Shadid. He valued the Arab culture and worked harder to be part of it. Through his work, you’ll have a better understanding of what happened with this engagement between the U. S. and the Arab world.

It sounds like Shadid was an extraordinary man whose stories showed us that we may be different, and yet, we’re all the same. How are you exploring these themes of interconnectivity and breaking of boundaries in A Thousand Strange Places?

You’ve got to be able to cross borders—and if theater and literature and art cannot do it, if writing cannot do it, if music cannot do it, then we’re in a terrible state. I find Shadid so appealing because he’s done it internationally. If you want to understand people in Cambodia or anywhere else, you have to study, work and make an effort to do so. Well, here’s somebody who made an enormous effort to be part of something to which he was deeply drawn. Even though these were his roots he was going back to, Shadid was the kind of artist that had the ability to change or transform the world, even if just a little bit.

As a prelude to A Thousand Strange Places, YSC and the CASAR Working Group on Anthony Shadid will host a panel organized by prominent journalist and American University of Beirut Professor Rami Khouri, and consisting of celebrated foreign correspondents and journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Columbia School of Journalism who knew and worked with Anthony Shadid. Subscribe to our newsletter for updates.