Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Book Review: A Thousand Farewells, by Nahlah Ayed (2012)

Part personal family memoir and part recent street-level history, in A Thousand Farewell journalist Nahlah Ayed recounts her strange childhood and subsequent experiences reporting from various Middle East hotspots, culminating in her witnessing the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

Ayed was born in Winnipeg, to Palestinian parents who had immigrated to Canada via Jordan and Germany. The first part of the book goes into some unnecessary details about Ayed's ancestors, of interest only to direct family members. But then there is an unexpected detour. When Ayed was a young girl of six her parents took the strange decision to abandon a relatively comfortable life in Canada, uproot the family and relocate to a derelict Palestinian refugee camp in a suburb of Amman.

It reads like a misguided, and ultimately failed, attempt to immerse Nahlah and her siblings in a defeatist and regressive culture that they had little time for. Nevertheless, it opened young Nahlah's eyes to the pervasive pessimism and misery in the Arab world, and if she never did quite embrace the region and its people, she at least gained valuable insights into the mood and motivations of the Arab populace.

This would be put to good use starting around 2002, when Ayed, now a burgeoning journalist, more or less settled in the region as a result of a series of small decisions rather than a stated intent to spend ten years away from home. The second half of the book consists of Ayed's experiences as a somewhat reluctant on-the-ground reporter witnessing events shaping a new Middle East.

Working mostly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, she covered the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent sectarian war, narrowly escaping from a rampaging mob enraged by a massive car bomb. She then covered the turmoil of Lebanon at the time of the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri (Ayed's apartment was within a few hundred metres of the explosion site) and the subsequent Cedar Revolution. Finally, a much more seasoned Ayed covered the full-fledged popular revolutions that engulfed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, including experiencing the magical bedlam of Cairo's Tahrir Square in full revolution mode.

While Ayed's prose is easy, honest and straightforward, her analysis of causes, consequences, and long-term implications is strictly rudimentary and limited to material already well chewed-over in the general media. There is little in A Thousand Farewells that would surprise even a casual observer of recent events in the region.

A tolerable book, A Thousand Farewells does not break any new ground but provides an early and sure-to-be-superseded chronicle of the latest convulsions in a turbulent region.

Subtitled: A Reporter's Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring.
339 pages, plus Index.
Published in hardcover by Viking.

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