“I will never live there again,” she declares. Next, a pause. “I won’t say ‘never,’ ” she adds after a brief reflection, correcting her own record. She straightens a little in her seat, her face a mask of calm. “I’m not planning on living there ever again,” she says in take two in her unwavering, this-is-my-statement voice.
Nahlah Ayed is a study in media manners, one minute revealing the person behind the title of her new book, A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring, the next veiling any emotional honesty with the dispassionate commentary of a seasoned on-air journalist. Factor in that, in writing a memoir, an intense act of remembering, she is also trying to forget. Her seven-year experience, reporting from (and living in) the Middle East, involved trauma that took her to a personal extreme.
“I’m not sure if I could call it a breakdown,” counters the 42-year-old journalist. “It was a blackout, a couple of blackouts,” she says with a shy giggle that suggests her discomfort with talking about herself. “And I was never diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, just FYI,” she adds casually over a cup of chamomile tea. “I know that’s what people find interesting,” she says, levelling her dark eyes at me across the table. “But to me, I put myself there. And that’s why I’m having a hard time with the sympathy. I chose to be there … I was asking for it.”
In 2004, a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, she was heading to the Khathem shrine in Baghdad to witness once-forbidden public displays of Shia worship. A bomb exploded, killing worshippers inside. An angry mob turned on her and her colleagues. Kicked and beaten, Ms. Ayed narrowly escaped being shot, with the help of a stranger. Two years later, while covering the Lebanon War in 2005, she returned to her Beirut apartment to find it shattered from a bomb. If she had been there a day earlier, as scheduled, she might not have survived. By 2008, dizzy spells “had become pretty much routine,” she writes. For almost six years, she had been immersed in violence. The next year, she left. “What I’d like to do now, if I can, is continue going to troubled places but to come back to a safe place.” Currently, she lives in Toronto.
The foreign correspondent, nominated three times for a Gemini award, pauses often before she responds to questions, rolling them over in her mind, seemingly to assess how best to address them. It’s as if she must manage all her understanding and experience, all her pain and joy, of the Middle East like a woman wrestling with a troubled lover. The region is under her skin. Ms. Ayed couldn’t let it go. It almost killed her. She will still go back – as she did in January to cover the anniversary of Egypt’s uprising – but on her own terms. It’s an intense relationship that began in her youth.
Born in Winnipeg of Palestinian descent, she was uprooted at 6 when her parents, who had immigrated to Canada in 1966, decided that she and her three siblings needed to understand their heritage. Initially, they lived in a crowded Palestinian refugee camp in Amman. It was a jarring relocation. “As a child, I was angry,” she says. “Later, I understood it and I knew it wasn’t to punish us.”
When she was 13, the family returned to Winnipeg, but the disruption in lifestyle shaped her personality. “One is an interest and obsession with the elderly. It’s such a big part of Arab culture. Another is being able to sleep anywhere and eat anything. And also just appreciating what you have.”
As a student, Ms. Ayed thought she was finished with the Middle East. She studied genetics at the University of Manitoba and later completed a masters in journalism at Carleton University. But after she worked for a few years at the Canadian Press in Ottawa, the events of 9/11 compelled her to go back to the region, working as a freelancer for various news outlets. “My parents were aghast. They were saying, ‘We did everything we could to spare you that life,’ even though they took us back. To them, that was a necessity.”
Raised in what she calls “The Church of Academic Superiority” – an achievement-is-everything ethos common to first-generation immigrants, she acknowledges – she admits to being “a complete workaholic.” (The night of her life-threatening attack in Baghdad, she did her on-air report, refusing to speak about her own ordeal. “That wasn’t adrenalin. That was me being my mom, being my dad. Get your job done; there’s no excuse.”) More than anything, she felt drawn to understand the complexity of the Arab personality (“the prevailing mood of gloom and hopelessness”) and the toleration of brutal dictatorships. “That’s the nub of the book,” she says. “We underestimate them and the brutality with which they were kept down. People are only now discovering how horrible Syria has been … [Another] problem is that people were so obsessed with making a living that dissident activity was a luxury.”
The Arab Spring didn’t come as a surprise to her. “I didn’t know what was coming, but I knew something was coming,” she says, mentioning the significance of the Internet and Al Jazeera and the access to information such sources allowed. “A genie had come out of the bottle.” News from Syria and other countries may not be positive, but “I like to look at the basics,” she explains in her clinical manner. “No longer will any regime be able to lie to the people, and even when people know they’re being lied to, they know how to speak out about it … That’s a massive change in how people perceive themselves.”
Does she feel changed in her need for a better life/work balance? There’s a longer pause than usual. “No one wants to be a lone wolf for the rest of their life,” Ms. Ayed says carefully. “But it’s not more important or less important than my job. It’s sort of equal,” she explains, shifting slightly in her chair. “But I’ve already slowed things down,” she says after another pause. “I am enjoying being with my friends,” she adds with a concession of a friendly smile.