There is no dependable formula for crafting a compelling account of one’s experiences reporting from war zones. Focusing on one’s personal tumult in the midst of larger sagas of violence and tragedy could come off as self-absorbed, while simply revisiting past conflicts and their victims might appear to be an opportunistic attempt to cobble together a book out of old news. A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring, by CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed, avoids the pitfalls of either tack, and despite a certain unevenness, remains buoyed by its poignant opening chapters and its stirring final section.
Surprisingly, those first few chapters make up an autobiographical account of the author’s childhood, years before she makes a name for herself as a war correspondent, first with the Canadian Press then with the CBC.
In 1976, when Ayed was 6, her parents took her and her siblings from Winnipeg, where she was born, to Jordan, where her father’s family languished in Amman’s Al-Wihdat refugee camp (both Ayed’s parents are Palestinian refugees). The Ayeds figured they would ground their children in a culture and language they would otherwise lose in Canada.
But Ayed felt little affinity for her new surroundings, what with the camp’s squalour and its inhabitants’ understandable yet nonetheless disagreeable moroseness. She movingly laments: “Humour had slithered away among the goats’ intestines, open sewers, and endless grievances of Al-Wihdat.”
When Ayed was 13, her father, who had since moved back to Winnipeg, sent for his family. With sensitivity and precious insight, Ayed continued to explore questions of identity and belonging. She considers Canada her home and waxes lyrical when describing Winnipeg, but the book’s most profoundly unsettling moment concerns Ayed’s epiphany that none of this may matter. During the first Gulf War, the Ayed household was paid a visit by members of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, who asked the parents about their views of the war. “It occurred to me for the first time,” Ayed recalls, “that it might not be up to us to define ‘home,’ that others would ultimately judge whether we were as loyal to it as we claimed.”
The touching and thought- provoking recreation of a Palestinian-Canadian girl’s successful struggle to forge a coherent personal identity out of geographic dislocation and cultural confusion is followed by a competent yet largely undistinguished account of Ayed’s career as a war correspondent. She weaves together introspection and journalistic commentary, but her approach remains constricted by her focus on conflict.
To be sure, she brings to life the agony of refugees and displaced people, subjects in which she is well versed. And she provides solid reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Lebanon’s partly successful Cedar Revolution (2005), the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006 and the beginning of Iran’s ultimately abortive Green Revolution (2009). However, the personal experiences that Ayed chooses to write about, such as her and her colleagues’ harrowing escape from an enraged mob following the bombing of a Shia shrine in Iraq, generally relate to these politico-military cataclysms.
War, political instability and civil strife admittedly roil the Middle East. Yet with the exception of Arabic music, which Ayed discusses evocatively, other important socio-cultural subjects receive short shrift. They include debates over Islam’s place in politics, the role of women in society, personal freedoms and sexual mores.
Granted, delving into such subjects falls beyond Ayed’s purview as a war correspondent, but the omission remains ironic in light of her desire to give more exposure to the “mundane, daily struggle of simply living in today’s Middle East,” as well as her own perceptive observations in the book’s opening section about everything from being pressured to wear the hijab to sanitary conditions in a Palestinian refugee camp.
Middle East journalism rarely lends itself to storytelling that heartens and inspires; even a bittersweet denouement to age-old and ubiquitous suffering usually proves elusive. But the Arab Spring reinvigorates both Ayed and her book, the final section of which tackles the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
The overthrow of ossified and often violent dictatorships rewards countless people’s sacrifices, and provides Ayed with an unexpected and cathartic sense of personal fulfilment: “[I]t was the kind of payoff every one of us in this business craves. The euphoria gave some meaning to my years of witnessing uncontainable anger, unspeakable violence, and mind-numbing anguish. The physical and emotional dangers, the sleepless nights, the loneliness – it had all been worth it.”
Rayyan al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.