A Thousand Farewells


I first learned about Nahlah Ayed's book, A Thousand Farewells from my mom. My mom is a type of social worker who helps people from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other countries, settle into their new life in Canada. Through her work she has met incredibly strong and resilient people, who have survived devastating wars and conflicts that many people, including myself, only read or hear about in the news. When my mom told me about Ayed’s book, she described it as a fascinating account of one of the most politically charged areas of the world. I knew I could probably take her word for it that it was a book worth reading, and so I was really excited when I learned we would be reading A Thousand Farewells in our journalism class.

Ayed’s style of writing is something that I think works really well in this book. Within the first few pages, Ayed's poignant writing drew me in. From descriptions of her childhood home in Winnipeg to that of Al-Wihdat, the cramped and dirty camp Ayed’s parents uprooted them to, Ayed’s writing details, dictates, and informs readers. I for one appreciate her journalistic style of writing during parts of the book that deal with war and conflict that are ridden with layers of complex history and politics. For example, when Ayed describes various wars in the Middle East, she provides the who, what, when, where, why, and how of each situation, to the best of her ability.

Ayed's dedication to providing readers with the facts and historical and political background of each region she visits, is an aspect of the book that I think works well. Although some people have described the book as too dense, I think Ayed expertly navigates around layers of history, culture, and conflict, to ultimately tell a moving story about people and humanity. I admit there were some parts of the book I had to read a couple of times to make sure I had the story straight, but I don’t think this is a negative aspect of the book. Wars, governments, and politics are complicated topics with complicated histories, and the road to understanding how they affect people is not straightforward. I think Ayed used as simple language as accurately possible, and provided a true account of what it’s like to live in the Middle East.

What doesn’t work well in this book is that there are many, many confusing names. In some cases, I think Ayed could have provided more complete physical descriptions of characters in order to help readers remember who is who throughout the book. More than once, Ayed introduced a minor character early on in a chapter, only to move on from that character, and then return to them after several pages, or even an entire chapter. Sometimes when she did this, I had no idea who she was referring to and it brought me out of the story as I had to flip back to remind myself of who the character was.

There are a couple things missing from the book that I think readers would find useful. Firstly, the book could benefit from visuals such as a map of the Middle East, and photographs of some of the places Ayed travels to. Secondly, while Ayed describes her childhood in Winnipeg, her family’s move to Al-Wihdat, and then back to Winnipeg again, she doesn’t offer up much about her personal life throughout the rest of the book. I would like to know more about her personal life as an adult. Did she have a romantic life at all? What did she do for fun while living in the Middle East? What about her friends back home? Lastly, I was often left wondering about the logistics of being a journalist in the Middle East. I am curious as to how Ayed managed to gain access into some of the more dangerous areas. Was it the CBC that arranged it? Some people may find these kind of details boring, but I am interested to know how she managed to navigate within such unstable regions.

I think what journalists can learn from this book is that regardless of what they are writing about, whether the story is about a war, plane crash, storm, election, or some other issue, the story is always about people. The people Ayed meets, interviews, quotes, and befriends in A Thousand Farewells are really what make the book come alive. I also think journalists can learn to play on their strengths the way Ayed does. She uses her language skills, culture, and network of connections to get to the root of the story. Lastly, I think journalists can learn that there are multiple sides to every story and that trying to represent as many sides of the story as possible as Ayed did in this book, will lend credibility to their work.

As I was reading this book, it reminded me of another non-fiction book I read recently called Arrival City by Doug Saunders. Like Ayed, Saunders is a journalist interested in how people in the developing world are affected by social, political, and historical issues, as well as conflict that results from these issues. His book, Arrival City provides a fascinating look into the lives of people living in slums around the world. Like A Thousand Farewells, Arrival City contains stories of people living in poverty, who are frustrated with government, and struggling to survive day-to-day. But also like A Thousand Farewells, Arrival City is full of stories about people who are resilient, hopeful, and determined to change the future. 

This book affected me in a number of ways. Reading about the realities of war and poverty in the Middle East reminded me of why I am so thankful to live in Canada. The fact that I can live in a house and go to school and work without having to worry about my safety in any major way, is something I am very thankful for.

This book was also a wake-up call for me as it made me realize how little I know about conflicts in the world that continue to kill and displace people. So many of the people I interact with on a daily basis, at school, the grocery store, and even people I pass walking down the street, have immigrated or come to Canada as refugees. I know so little about what these people have been through and the reasons behind political instability in countries around the world. This summer I plan to pick up another non-fiction book like Ayed's in order to try and learn more about world current events.


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