A Reporter’s Learning Journey in the Middle East: “A Thousand Farewells”

Jim Taggart's picture

Our personal learning comes in different ways.

I’m an avid reader of books, periodicals and online sources. I love learning while visiting new places. And during my 32 year working career I experienced many varied events–some great, some good and some not so good.

One thing I love to do, ingrained in me for decades, is sharing what I discover with others. If you’re a follower of my leadership blog, you know what I’m talking about. While away with Sue, my wife of 35 years, on vacation this past June I picked up the usual haul of books at various bookstores. I want to share with you what I learned from one of these books, a remarkable story in personal leadership and dedication by a renown female Canadian foreign correspondent.

Meet Nahlah Ayed, a Canadian-born woman of Palestinian descent who shares incredible insights in her new book A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring.

Being a news junkie with great interest in international events, I’ve watched Ayed’s reporting on CBC television for the past several years. I’ve admired her crisp and clearly delivered reports from some of the world’s most tense conflict areas. It wasn’t until I read her book that I came to appreciate this incredible woman.

Ayed grew up in Winnipeg (where I was also born). Her Palestinian parents immigrated to Canada in 1966 from Germany where they had lived as refugees. When she was about five years old, Ayed’s parents wanted to expose their children to their Palestinian heritage. This led to the family moving in with an uncle in a refugee camp outside of Amman, Jordan in 1976. She recounts the hardships and adventures as a young child growing up in a very impoverished area of the world.

In 1983 the family moved back to Winnipeg where her father managed a convenience store. As Ayed states, by the time she had turned ten she felt as if she’d said a thousand farewells, remembering who cried and what was said to whom. Watch this excellent interview with CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos.

Her book moves forward quickly to 2001 when she describes her trip as a Canadian Press reporter to Afghanistan following 911. Upon returning to Ottawa she suddenly realized that the world was quickly changing, prompting her to pack her belongings, resign from CP and accept a contract with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She applied for an Iraqi visa. There begins her correspondent’s journey.

Ayed is highly effective at making you feel that you’re with her as she talks vividly about the invasion of Iraq, the downfall of Saddam Hussein and the heartwrenching impact on civilians. She shares an amazing story about one man she met who had walked from Baghdad to a city in Western Europe, paying guides a significant sum of money. He was working as a waiter, living in a subway stop and illegally in the European country. In response to Ayed’s astonishment with his length walking journey, the man replied that others had done the same. He had left Baghdad with only a compass and the clothes he was wearing.

She takes us up to the onset of the Arab Spring, which started in December, 2010, in Tunisia. And while much violence has been perpetrated by Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad since her book was published, she spends some time talking about that country’s struggle.

As noted in the below video interview, she opens the kimono and admits to the effects on her from a decade of living in and reporting from warzones in the Middle East. This takes bravery, considering that journalists are expected to suck it up and hide their feelings and any psychological issues they may experience from the nature of their work.

Take a moment to watch this excerpt from an interview with CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, in which Ayed talks about how she lost her nerve during a frightening encounter in Iraq.

For my non-Canadian readers, I am happy to report that Nahlah Ayed is still reporting for the CBC, working on a variety of stories in North America.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of this outstanding book.

I’ll leave the last word to Ayed. I chose a passage from her book, where she describes what it was like working in the Winnipeg convenience store her father managed. I loved this part because it demonstrated to me just how hard immigrants work to contribute to society, to provide for their families and to lay a set of values for their children. It has particular meaning to me since my dad, too, was an immigrant (as a young child) and who worked fulltime until age 72.

My parents were as devoted to the Store as they were to us, and they were devoted to it because of us….They were typical hard-working immigrants: running the business with minimal outside help, all the while urging us to put our efforts into school. Later I took pride in what pioneers my parents had been, the model immigrants they were: they worked extremely hard because they had ambitions, mostly for us. But they also took an active interest in their adopted home. They always voted. They obeyed the law and impressed upon us the importance of respecting authority and playing by the rules.

They came to our PTA meetings, applauded at our games and concerts, never once went on the dole, and always paid their taxes on time. They were proud of who they were and where they’d come from, but equally proud of the country that had adopted them. They were aware of its current affairs and tried to foster the same interest in us. They naturally embraced Pierre Trudeau’s multicultural, bilingual Canada, and Mom dreamed of learning French, if only she had the time.

My parents welcomed customers of all walks of life with open arms, acquiring a motley crew of friends, admirers, and idle characters, among them Ethiopians, Italians, Portuguese, Aboriginals, Jews, and French Canadians.

My parents despised debt: the more they owed, the harder they worked. The Store barely netted enough income for a small family to live comfortably. But because of their zeal and meticulous planning, my parents soon bought a real house and paid it off in record time, despite the astronomical interest rates. They also managed to put most of us through university, all thanks to the Store.

Please take a moment or two to reflect on Nahlah Ayed’s story about the Store and her parents.

I welcome your own stories about sacrifice, teaching values to children and contributing to society. JT

Contentment with what you have is a treasure that never runs out.
– Arab proverb