I’ve never been anywhere exciting.
An old geography professor of mine once described exciting places as regions plagued with war, political unrest, and poor quality of life for the people living there. Based on this definition, Canada is decidedly boring.
I started thinking about this privilege after reading A Thousand Farewells, by Winnipeg-born CBC journalist Nahlah Ayed. The book is an account of Ayed’s time spent reporting on conflicts in the Middle East.
For seven years, she followed stories of war, politics, and exodus as they unfolded in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. While the book organized country by country, Ayed’s larger story is about the experiences of people living in the region.
In fact, Ayed includes so many people that it becomes quite the task to try and keep everyone straight. While all of the stories provide important perspective, it would be a smoother read if some of the names were left unsaid, especially when they aren’t followed up on immediately.
As well, It would have been nice to have a map of the region in the back of the book to reference when she begins moving through many borders.
Yet, a striking feature of the book is Ayed’s uncluttered vivid descriptions of her surroundings.
“At the have-not side of the border, men in brown shawls squatted silently just inches shy of the barbed wire. They watched the recognized refugees with envy, barely moving for what seemed like hours in an impressive feat of stillness.”
She effectively calls attention to the small details that reveal what is left unsaid by her interviewees.
Ayed also does a good job of explaining the historical issues that divide people along lines of faith. I admit to not knowing enough about the struggles of the Middle East, and Ayed’s account quashed some misconceptions I had.
Ayed also talks candidly about her anxieties and recognizes the toll constant conflict took on her mental health. Being a student journalist, these comments really resonated with me. Now I’m not comparing my deadlines to a war zone, but it was comforting for a seemingly collected professional journalist to admit the stress of the job.
I also appreciated the way she talked about interviewing and the importance of engaging with your subjects. This is something I leaned very quickly after my first interview. If you go into the situation wanting to hear someone’s story you will often learn more than you expected.
While reading A Thousand Farewells, I was reminded of a documentary I watched years ago called I Know I’m Not Alone, by musician and activist Michael Franti. In the 2005 documentary, Franti travels to the Middle East to investigate the effects of war on the people living in the area — similar to Ayed’s approach.
If you’re planning to, or have already, read A Thousand Farewells I suggest you check out the documentary. It helped me visualize Ayed’s surroundings in the book.