Review: A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring

Two years after covering the Arab Spring, CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed's memoir has been released in paperback with a new epilogue chronicling the civil war in Syria and her return to Tahrir Square. A Thousand Farewells offers a valuable perspective for journalists.

Two years after covering the Arab Spring, CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed's memoir has been released in paperback with a new epilogue chronicling the civil war in Syria and her return to Tahrir Square. A Thousand Farewells offers a valuable perspective for journalists.

Penguin Canada | Paperback | $18.00 | Release: May 21, 2013 | ISBN: 9780143170464

By Susan Newhook

When we were talking books recently, a friend reminded me of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s comment that “some countries have too much history.”  It seems impossible sometimes to keep track of events and what they mean in a regional mix of alliances, rivalries, debts and grudges between and among people, families and factions sprawling across generations. An outsider needs a program, or better yet a guide who knows the place and its stories first hand.

Nahlah Ayed has a rare mix of qualifications to be that guide to the Middle East, a region of the world that may be the most burdened by too much history. A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring is valuable if not always easy reading for those of us who sometimes give up on Middle East stories when our lack of background knowledge makes them all run together.  

Ayed has covered the region—first as a Canadian Press reporter and then a CBC correspondent – since the start of the war in Afghanistan (she landed well before Canadian troops did). But the other, and unique, perspective she brings to this book comes from being the Winnipeg-born child of Palestinian parents who moved their family “home” to a refugee camp in Jordan when Ayed was six. They lived in the refugee camp for seven years before returning to Canada.  Whether or not she wants it to be, her unusual personal history is at the heart of a book that works to maintain a reporter's detachment. It's at its most compelling when we see the events she has covered through the lens of her own experiences. 

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A degree of tension between those two perspectives runs through the book.  Ayed treads carefully, not just to avoid taking political sides but also to draw a line between her personal views and professional standards. For the most part, it works. Some journalism memoirs are part soapbox for their authors’ views on contemporary journalism, friends and enemies. They treat reader as pals or fans getting the inside scoop on a reporter’s life on the road.  Ayed makes no such pretense: the former print reporter writes with a journalist’s voice and a photographer’s eye.  For this reason alone, her book is worth close study from anyone who wants to write narrative nonfiction or other types of long-form journalism.

Now a senior correspondent, Ayed was drafted into the CBC by fellow reporter Neil Macdonald after she went to Afghanistan for CP.  She started out with the Corp in 2002, handycam in hand, as a freelancer based in Amman, Jordan. For the next ten years she moved through Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, London, Cairo and countless points in between. She reported extensively on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the tumult after the assassination of the popular Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri, the rise of Hezbollah, and dozens of other events culminating in the Arab Spring and the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

The book is roughly chronological but Ayed and her travels are the main thread. We follow her on stories, and she adds history and political backstory where necessary. Some things need a lot of background, but I had no trouble sticking with her through the slow parts – I was committed to the journey. Ayed  takes no sides and offers no clear or easy answers to the problems of the Middle East, where many stories revolve around the themes of corruption, violence, displacement and factionalism and the havoc they wreak on people’s lives, over and over. The first, hardcover edition of this book ended on a hopeful note as the Arab Spring seemed to be taking hold in Egypt and elsewhere. Two years later, a new epilogue for the paperback chronicles the civil war in Syria and revisits Tahrir Square, with liberals and democratic reformers protest against new civil rights abuses, by a different government.

Her just-the-facts approach to narrative is judicious and humane: it includes moments and anecdotes that put us on the ground with her, turning what could be dry dispatches from the front into human stories. You may have seen this in her TV reportage, but here she goes further and deeper.  She tells stories a video camera could never capture, and includes facts most editors would strike out of a news script, even if their reporters were aware of them. For example, we can tell Ayed wasn’t happy when a conservative Muslim cleric told her she wasn’t dressed “properly” for an interview, but she doesn’t make it personal in the telling. The cleric has a “welcoming smile” and insists she keep the more acceptable garments she is given, garments through which her face “emerged, taut, like a fingertip poking out of a torn glove.”

More generally, most North American journalists can’t speak Arabic, let alone differentiate among national accents, or recognize one religious chant from another. These things don’t make the storyline of a nightly news report, but in a book like this, they show readers the minutiae of everyday life in ways that remind us we are talking about real people and communities, living for years in circumstances most North Americans couldn’t imagine.  

Ayed has a sharp eye for the small but telling moment in a larger event, such as the sight of children’s faces as they watch the aftermath of a deadly explosion: “I wondered who would debrief them.” These human connections sustain the reader through the sections that are slower going: not all important information can be passed along through personal narrative.

Ayed also writes thoughtfully, if guardedly, about the life of a journalist working in extreme circumstances. No one could read about her experiences without wondering how she dealt with danger and stress most people would find overwhelming. She refers to post-traumatic stress, but never mentions it by name, even in the fallout from a relatively innocuous assignment in a Baghdad suburb that ended with her and her cameraman being beaten, their lives saved by strangers.  That night, they “filed a story – though, despite tremendous pressure from Toronto, I refused to talk on air about what had happened to us that night.”  She doesn’t discuss why, presumably seeing the reason as self-evident: she didn’t want to become the story.

There are other passing comments on the prickly bits of life as an international correspondent: being parachuted into complicated stories, the shrinking number of international bureaus, the insanely long hours that preclude what vernacular shorthand calls “having a life.”

For the most part, you have to read almost forensically to get a sense of how her job affected her personal life – she says she didn’t have one – and how she made the adjustment from print on Parliament Hill to the more “tribal medium” of television in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and their neighbours.  

We also learn about how she worked to learn the language of pictures, after being handed a camera and sent off to report as a VJ; about her early frustrations with television reporting and the often unwieldy, sometimes dangerous process of collecting video to tell stories, but again, she doesn’t talk much about the details. That’s okay, though – as you get to know her narrative voice, you don’t expect it. For the most part, it’s the voice of a person who acknowledges that covering funerals, war, poverty and “the casual killing sprees of terrorists” can be wrenching, and then just gets on with the job of telling us about it. Still, the small insights will be interesting to journalism students and students of journalism. Coming from print, Ayed was at first “gobsmacked” by television’s lack of room for background and detail. A senior colleague told her early on not to talk on-air “about Sunni and Shia Muslims – that’s too complicated. Try to simplify.” The prospect of writing a book must have been a treat for someone so steeped in history she couldn’t share on TV.

Ayed talks about “home” with qualifications or quotation marks a number of times, as if the concept is a tricky one. It starts with the child moving “home” to a non-country she had never seen. It rises again after 9/11 when CSIS comes to visit her father in Winnipeg, just because of his Palestinian heritage, and every time someone in Canada or Lebanon or Jordan says, “…but where are you really from?” It extends to the many people she met who have lost and found so many homes in the decades of tumult in the Middle East, and lives full of farewells.

This may help to explain why, like many journalists, she almost always seems to be watching from just outside the action even when she is in the midst of it, whether the topic is her relationship with her family, her navigation of conservative Islamic culture as a female reporter of Palestinian heritage, or learning to live with the memories of what she has seen. A Thousand Farewells is both reliable reference and valuable perspective, and Ayed is a guide worth travelling with.

Susan Newhook teaches video journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.