In A Thousand Farewells, author and journalist Nahlah Ayed describes what it was like to leave Winnipeg, Manitoba and return to a refugee camp plagued by conflict and violence in Amman, Jordan.
She was thirteen years old when her and her family returned to Canada, but the things she saw when her family initially moved back to the camp inspired her to cover what the book describes as one of the world’s “most volatile regions” as a journalist.
Ayed’s knack for describing things comprehensively worked beautifully in the book. This is likely the result of her observant nature (a trait common among journalists who produce thorough work) and strong memory. For example, at the beginning of chapter two, Refugees by Design, Ayed states that she “clearly” remembers what it was like to enter the camp, even though it was the middle of the night and Ayed was a young girl at the time. The small details, like her parents “taking turns sighing” or that the metal door her father knocked on was “dotted with rusted bullet holes” paints a vivid and frightening image in the reader’s mind.
Her talent for selecting detail that will evoke particular emotions and tell a specific story runs through the entire book, and makes the read memorable, while creating obvious contrast with the stories concerning the Middle East that one sees on the 6 o’clock news. In chapter seven, Ghosts, Ayed describes the role Arabic poetry played in her own life growing up, and the role it continued to play for the Arabs at large. “Arab poetry was owned by all the people,” Ayed writes on page 135. One would not think such a detail would appear in a book that seems, prior to reading it, to be about Middle Eastern conflict, refugee camps, and the Arab Spring. It gently humanizes a region that is often characterized by violence, while details like the fact that a group of surgeons performed free cosmetic surgery for people disfigured by Saddam’s torture supported those gentle details by suggesting in an urgent way that the goings-on in the Middle East leaves humans, like you and me, disfigured and despaired every single day.
The one critique I have when it comes to what did not work in the book is that, at times, Ayed was writing for an audience who is at least somewhat familiar with Muslim culture. I felt mildly frustrated when I had to look up certain words or references in order to thoroughly understand the book. The first time this happened was as early as page 10, when Ayed states that “Eid was a memorable occasion, but so were Christmas and Easter.” I expected Eid was some kind of Muslim holiday, but I checked it out on the internet just to be sure (for the record, Eid comes at the end of Ramadan, which is a month of fasting for Muslims). Therefore, maybe some explanations are missing here and there in A Thousand Farewells, but then again the book is not supposed to be a guide to Arab culture.
The thing I, as a journalist, learned most from this book is to remember to observe: to speak less and listen more. Ayed would never have gotten the stories she has in this insightful book had she not constantly been in tune with her surroundings.
If I compare the book to another non-fiction book I studied in journalism class last year, Journey for Justice: How Project Angel Cracked the Candace Derksen Case by Mike McIntyre, the one obvious difference is that Ayed ascends simply being a reporter and becomes a storyteller, while McIntyre got caught up in stating the facts. A Thousand Farewells moves fluidly as a story, and the reader remains interested. Journey for Justice became repetitive and laden with reports from killer Mark Grant’s psychiatrist, and at times became boring to me as the reader.
The book affected me in a simple yet profound way: I found it inspiring. It made me think about the role of autobiography in journalism and art, and I was happy to read a clear, coherent story written by someone who evidently had been carrying it around in their heart for nearly all their life. Ayed had something to say for a long, long time and after investing time in getting it out on paper, she said it. That is something all journalists and writers can aspire to.