Sunday, 14 October 2012

One book, a thousand farewells

My journalism class and I have recently read Nahlah Ayed's highly acclaimed nonfiction book, A Thousand Farewells, detailing her journey from Canada as a young girl to the Middle East. As a girl, she was whisked away to her parents' native land in Amman, Jordan to live in a refugee camp with her family. The reason behind this move was to introduce Ayed and her siblings to their Palestinian heritage and culture. Eventually, Ayed develops a fascination with Middle Eastern culture and politics and becomes a correspondent for that area while working at CBC with a focus on the war with America. There she experiences a plethora of unimaginable feats, one seemingly more dramatic than the one before.

I'm not going to spoil the book for those who haven't read it, so that's as far as I'll go.

At over 300 pages, it is clear that Ayed provides an excruciating amount of detail in the book. Perhaps, dare I say, too much? On one hand, I understand it's a book that's meant to educate readers about the politics of Iraq, and therefore, plenty of detail, facts, names, and dates are essential to the story, but a lot of the time I felt like it was just too much. At the end of the book, I had forgotten all of the facts, names, and dates provided by Ayed. But the good thing is if ever I need to look those nuggets of information up again, I know they're buried somewhere in those pages.

One thing Ayed does really well is capture emotion in her storytelling. In between the hundreds of thousand of facts, I specifically remember the stories about her family and the feeling of dread when she was attacked in Kathimiya.

Consequently, I am willing to admit that I wanted to know more about her family in the book and less about the war. Some testimony from her parents would've been nice. I would have liked to read how they felt about her being away from home for so long in such scary conditions. What are her brother and sister up to now? Sprinkling the story with familial interaction (if any) would have made the tedious task of reading through the heavy, factual material more bearable.

Despite the fact-heavy contents of this book, it is a great piece of journalism. I was impressed by Ayed's unbreakable spirit and constant search for information and truth throughout the book. She included facts which are very important and essential to any news story. She obtained quotes from people from all walks of life. And she provided both sides to the ever complicated story of the Middle East.

But the most valuable information a journalist can take away from this piece of nonfiction is that no matter how long you've been a journalist, the awkward task of talking to people never fully goes away. I nodded fervently to myself when she described the discomforting feeling of talking to someone a second after tragedy strikes. It feels insensitive and wrong, and I'm glad someone of Ayed's stature and expertise brought it up.

Last year, my classmates and I read Journey for Justice by Mike McIntyre which was a non-fiction work. When comparing the two, I can't help but notice that McIntyre's book was much more interesting (and easy) to read. I think it's because it had a human angle complete with plenty of interaction and quotes. It was structured like a novel with short paragraphs. But because Ayed's book was non-fiction, she can't exactly conjure up interaction when there wasn't any. Ayed's book was also about people, but it was just bogged down by so many facts, names, and dates.

When reading this book, I couldn't help thinking of my parents. They, too, came from a refugee camp in a war-stricken country. But they would never do what Ayed's parents have done. I don't think they would want to go back to Cambodia, let alone with their only daughter, to the place that caused them so much pain and anguish. When I read that Ayed and her family went back to Jordan, all I thought was, why? And even though Ayed said she was thankful for that experience, I don't think I would have reacted the same way. I imagine I would be bitter for a good part of my life.

But I'll never know what that's like.

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