My take: A Thousand Farewells

As far back as, let’s say the seventh grade, I knew I wanted to be a journalist.

I remember watching the evening news with my parents. It was so exciting to see Canadian reporters all over the world sharing stories to us people back home. Unfortunately, most of the stories were of death and destruction — that just seemed to be the nature of things.

Even so, I was fascinated.

I realized the importance of sharing global stories. I wanted to know what was going on overseas, and I wanted others to want to know, too.

I used to watch CNN reporters like Lisa Ling, and I wanted to be her. When I watch Anthony Bourdain travel the world and report on “Parts Unknown,” I think ‘Man, can I take over your job when you retire?’ And when guest speaker Michel Cormier came to speak at Red River College last semester about his book The Legacy of Tiananman Square, I was captivated by his stories.

So naturally, when I realized we were assigned to read A Thousand Farewells by Nahlah Ayed — a CBC foreign correspondent — for our photo 2 (3)journalism class, I was looking forward to it.

An inside look into a journalist’s experience in a fallen Baghdad? Awesome.

Although the stories in the book are sad and often times unpleasant, they’re important.

As a future journalist and wannabe foreign correspondent, an accurate depiction of what this job entailed was never really clear. I knew that being so close to war would be dangerous and devastating, but I never really thought about all the difficulties a foreign correspondent could face doing the job they loved. Her personal struggles really helped me see the realities of being a journalist overseas, and what that career could look like for me.

She had to make a lot of tough calls, and her safety was often called into question. Is talking to this person when they’re clearly distraught worth the story? Do I leave out pertinent information from my stories so audiences back home will get it? Do I stay in a place where bombs are going off around me?

Ultimately, Ayed had to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, and I appreciate her honesty. Because, it was obviously just me being naive, but PTSD isn’t something you think about when you’re young and dreaming about telling stories abroad.

However, aside from my personal interest in her life story, what made the book such a powerful read were the real-life stories. When a global news story gets covered, that is often what’s missing. The evening news snippets and articles in our local newspaper are quick to show footage and photographs of explosions and give us death toll numbers, but they lack the raw, real-life stories Ayed masterfully shares in her book.

And that is really unfortunate.

As Ayed says in the book, “People are the story.”

Although the dates, countries, religions and history are all important to any journalistic piece, it’s not what makes the story captivating. Ayed reminds journalists people are driven to stories that make them feel something.

And I think that’s why I enjoyed this book. Not only did I learn about the Middle East’s — at times extremely confusing — history, and gain insight into a mysterious possible career, but I felt something.

If the book was missing anything, it was a clear genre. Was it memoir? Was it a history book? Was it a journalistic piece on a series of interviews? I’d like to say she had a good mixture of all three, but some chapters were extremely history heavy — which at times was difficult to follow — and the overall flow wasn’t always there.

And, the only thing I can say for sure that I didn’t like was the timeline. The chapters jumped back and forth, and had she written them in chronological order, it would have been a much easier read.

While I was about halfway through A Thousand Farewells, I took an evening off from reading and watched a documentary on death squad leaders in Indonesia called The Act of Killing.  The film focuses on the story of Anwar Congo and his friends as they helped the military kill more than one million communists in less than one year, in 1965.

The film was similar to the book I left at home, because, like the book, I was unaware of much of the history. However, with the film I was left with a clear understanding of what 1965 Indonesia looked like. Unlike the book, I thought the film did an excellent job of weaving in important dates, names and history.

And who knows, maybe that was because of the difference in media platforms, or maybe it was just the overall complicated history of the Middle East, it’s hard to say.

The film and the book really reminded me how the stories of foreign countries that make it to our TV screens and newspapers more often than not tend to be sad ones. They tend to be stories of death, destruction, human rights violations, political messes, etc. — and both had their fair share of that.

But what the film lacked that A Thousand Farewells didn’t, was the beauty behind it all.

Although the Middle East wasn’t a safe place, bombs were going off, a lot of its buildings had been destroyed, and a sad story could be found around every corner, Ayed came to love it. She was sad to leave. She was affected by it’s people and their stories.

But what I think affected me most about the story is that it reiterated the kind of journalist that I want to be.

I want to be the kind of journalist who can find the beauty in the seemingly un-beautiful. I want to be the kind of journalist who can make those tough calls and put myself in uncomfortable situations. And I want to be the kind of journalist who can share a person’s story and make others feel something.

Because that’s what good journalism is all about, right?


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