Thanassis Cambanis ’96
How many people do you know who have sat down and talked with Hezbollah fighters, on the record, and even joshed with them (albeit gently)? Probably no more than one, and that’s if you know Thanassis Cambanis ’96.
Thanassis wanted to be a war correspondent, and he wanted to write serious books that could have an impact on U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world. The conventional path would have been to hire on with a newspaper like The St. Petersburg Times, known for launching talented journalists, then work your way up through the hierarchy of newspapers and milk those connections to land a book deal. Thanassis didn’t have that much patience. He turned down the offer by the St. Pete Times in 1996 and took his Phi Beta Kappa honors and new UNC degree — double major in history and creative writing — to Greece, then Indonesia, as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press.
A decade later, he had contracts as a freelancer for The New York Times, a correspondent with The Atlantic and a columnist for The Boston Globe. He published a book on Hezbollah’s war against Israel, A Privilege to Die, that was a topic of conversation among serious policymakers, and he is finishing a book about Egypt’s revolution after the presidency of Hosni Mubarak called A Kilo of Kebab on the Moon. He now lives in Beirut with his wife, Anne Barnard, who is the Beirut bureau chief for The Times, and their two young children.
“He followed his heart,” said Peter Wallsten ’94, who had been Thanassis’ editor at The Daily Tar Heel. “He wanted to go overseas immediately and give it a shot. He was successful at it. He charted his own course then and continues to do that now.”
Thanassis shaped his approach to journalism at The DTH, which he joined as a freshman and where Peter, then editor-in-chief, immediately made him the University editor, a prestigious title that left more experienced reporters grumbling. Peter had known Thanassis since the two of them were students at Chapel Hill High, and knew him to be creative, curious, intense and smart to the point that, as Peter says, “He will sap all your physical and intellectual energy because he constantly wants to talk about everything.”
Thanassis poured himself into the mission of The DTH and won respect among the staff.
When he covered the arrests of students who had occupied South Building to demand a center for black history and culture, he was moved to tears, indicative of his deep engagement with the people he covers that has stayed with him as he writes about conflicts in the Arab world.
National Public Radio correspondent Quil Lawrence met Thanassis when the two of them covered upheaval in Baghdad and uprisings in the Arab world together for years. Even as Hezbollah occupied the center of Beirut, Thanassis would lead a group of journalists to the surrounding hills to little places he had found that served local delicacies.
“Thanassis has covered wars and uprisings and has never let them darken him,” Quil said. “He is one of the most vivacious and endearing people I’ve ever met, even in some of the bleakest situations on earth. He is life-affirming, even in the darkest moments. He has kept a perspective of what’s important in life — family and friends.”
A few years ago, Thanassis returned to the U.S. and taught “Writing About War” at Princeton University, where he earned a master’s degree in public affairs and international relations in 2000. Then he taught as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the New School’s graduate program in international affairs. Quil has met some of Thanassis’ former students in the field in Afghanistan, and they describe him as an engaging and inspiring teacher, confirming a point Peter Wallsten made: “You can learn a lot just talking to him.”
And the most unlikely people talk to Thanassis, perhaps because of his reputation for being trustworthy, transparent and unafraid to challenge his own assumptions. He honed those traits at Carolina, where the scrutiny and consequences of his articles were immediate and visceral, he said. Though he doesn’t bump into his readers and subjects every day as he did on campus, he carries with him the need to be engaged and responsible in his reporting.
Thanassis has been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize and twice has received The Boston Globe’s Publisher’s Excellence Award for his coverage of the invasion of Iraq and the war in Lebanon. His writing stands out because he stays connected with the human side of world events even as he presents an unvarnished look at deep and abiding conflicts in a volatile part of the world.
The emphasis on accepting students from North Carolina and the strong bonds of its alumni network can make Carolina feel as if its impact is mostly local. But the career trajectory of people like Thanassis shows the connection UNC has to a much bigger world.
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