A Thousand Farewells

This week, I am going to deviate a little bit from my grandfather’s story.  Currently, I am studying and reading Winnipeg born, Nahlah Ayed’s book, A Thousand Farewells.  Ayed is a journalist for CBC that covers the Middle East.

It’s funny when things catch you off guard and have an immediate impact on you.  As any Creative Communications student would agree, life is busy and there are so many things going on that take you every which way; our magazine project, IPP proposals, shooting and editing and so on.  The last thing on our minds is a 350-page book on the Middle East.  But Ayed’s book caught me off guard.

Nahlah Ayed reminded me to slow down.  As I read page by page of her family picking up their life in Winnipeg and moving to a Palestinian refugee camp, her becoming a journalist, her coverage of the Afghan War, the Iraq War and the beginning of the Arab Spring, it reaffirmed my belief that books like this are so important to the generations of today.

These stories and the collecting of these stories are so important in the telling of history.  In years past I studied European History at the University of Winnipeg and for the past ten years have been cataloguing my grandfather’s stories to ensure that they are not lost.  The efforts of this can be read in my prior blog posts.

I tell my family, friends and colleagues that collecting stories about the Second World War and the Holocaust is paramount in making sure that the future generations understand what happened and what people like my grandparents had to do and go through.

Nahlah Ayed does just that for the modern day history of the Middle East.  And she does it masterfully.

What works for this book is that it separates itself from the large-scale historical narrative and relates to what matters – the people.  Every journalist, aspiring or veteran should take note.  Ayed blends the historical narrative with personal accounts and stories of people that lived it, felt it, and bled with it (herself included).

Sure some of the historical timelines within the book are sometimes difficult to follow and even a map of the area inside the book would help clarify, but by collecting and writing stories of the people, Ayed provides this complicated time some much needed context (I also think a chronological chart of her experiences would help guide the reader on her journey- this could be very powerful).

Ayed, by finding and uncovering these stories is keeping them alive for the future generations.  She is making the conflict real to us ‘Westerners,’ 5000 miles away.

I will never forget the story about the man searching for his brothers in a mass grave near Hillah, Iraq.  These mass graves were from Saddam Hussein’s late 1980s and 90s somewhat unknown large-scale purges.   “Let the world see,” this man in a white dishdasha repeated to Ayed.  Ayed described the grave as a “jigsaw puzzle” of bodies wrapped in plastic.  She talked about seeing the bits of tattered clothing, the watches, and yellow ID badges.

Now I can’t relate to having my brother taken away and executed or having my home bombed out, but I can see the faded ID badge, I can feel the dirt between my fingers and I can feel sun on my cheeks as I read about Ayed interviewing this mourning man.  I am now able to process this event and remember this story.  It has been saved in my memory.

When I think of the Second World War and my grandfather, I don’t think about how many people died, when each battle was fought and so on.  I think about my grandfather and each individual story; rescuing his captive girlfriend from the Germans or sitting on train tracks and crying when he lost his family.  The individual story then allows me to relate to cold hard facts.  The stories are what provide me perspective.

Nahlah Ayed’s book reminded me a lot of Geert Mak’s, In Europe: Travels through the Twentieth Century.  In 1998, a Dutch newspaper had the awesome idea of sending Mak, a veteran journalist through Europe to report on the history of Europe in the Twentieth Century.  Mak, along with his typewriter traveled all over Europe in a camper van to write a, “final inspection,” as he put it of the most important century in our history.  Along the way he provided a beautiful narrative of each city he visited, both past and present.  He travelled to every important European site from the last 100 years, from Amsterdam to Auschwitz, Moscow to Munich and Berlin to Bastogne.  He interviewed people that lived through two world wars, a cold war and genocide.  He met Holocaust survivors, talked with farmers who constantly were digging up First World War artifacts and talked with children and grandchildren of Nazi perpetrators.  He did like Nahlah Ayed did, he returned the historical narrative to what matters- the people.  He captured the essence of the time, it took him 876 pages, but the book is captivating and brings Europe to the reader.  Ayed does the same the thing to the modern day Middle East.

Some books and authors ask big sweeping questions that cloud and confuse the situation.  They give complicated and confusing answers that leave a person who is interested in the subject matter searching for answers.  Ayed doesn’t try to provide answers to the conflict, but by returning to stories about the people she makes the conflict real to the reader.  She takes such important events in our world’s history and brings it to our front door.  She keeps the stories alive.  The difficulty with this history and the events of the Middle East is that they are endless.  It is so far away and so confusing and becomes unimportant, unless that is, if we can have something to connect to.

As a way of concluding I am going to quote my wise instructor Duncan McMonagle, who just announced his retirement this week.  He says, “Journalism is telling true stories.”  What a better way to do that than to talk to the people who lived it.  So I am thankful that we were assigned this book.  It made me take time to reflect.   It reminded me why I signed up for this program.  It cut through all the assignments, papers, tests and really hit home for me.

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