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Bookends: Ayed provides an incisive look at the Middle East February 18, 2015

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Bookends: Ayed provides an incisive look at the Middle EastA thousand farewells

By Dan Davidson

November 12, 2014

– 872 words –


A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring

By Nahlah Ayed

Penguin Canada

376 pages



Nahlah Ayed didn’t start out in a refugee camp. Her parents had escaped the grinding conditions of Palestine and made a solid life in Canada. She was born and spent her early years in Winnipeg, growing up Canadian.

This proved to be an issue for her parents, who, having decided that the whole family needed an immersion course in Palestinian culture, left everything, and moved back there. They experienced the poverty and squalor of a refugee camp for some years, though they did eventually work their way out of that and into better circumstances. Her father actually had to go back to Winnipeg in order to make enough money to support the cultural experience of being “refugees by design”, and they gave up on it altogether after seven years, returning to Winnipeg and starting over.

While she didn’t see it as a good thing at the time, the immersion experience gave her two things that most reporters on the Middle Eastern situation never get: an understanding of what it is like to actually live there, and the ability to speak Arabic, as well as recognize some of its variations.

With degrees in both the Arts and Sciences, Ayed didn’t set out to be a journalist, but fell into the career while working on the university’s student paper. This led her to a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Carleton University and eventually to a position with the Canadian Press as a Parliamentary Reporter.

She was recruited to the CBC in 2002 and was stationed in Beirut until 2009, covering the entire region from there, including major conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon.

Her writing about transitions is interesting. She lost more than a few steps in her command of English during her time as a child in Palestine, and when she returned there as a reporter, she faced the same situation in the other direction. She is a determined individual, who strives to overcome whatever challenges she is faced with and this included staying in dangerous places far longer than she should have.

After more than one encounter with individuals who didn’t like reporters, or Westerners, or women; after having a nearby bomb shatter the windows in her apartment; she began to suffer symptoms that could only have been a type of PTSD, and ignored them until they stole her sleep and sometimes caused fainting spells.

“I knew from the start,” she writes, “that working in the Middle East meant total commitment. I had no choice but to immerse myself in every aspect, read every word, jump into every conflict. It is true that I overstayed, to the point of exhaustion, but choices always existed, and I could have left at any moment, with out without the CBC.

“I chose to stay, and while the unpredictability of life in the region partly determined how my life unfolded, I, too, was culpable, a willing participant whose only goal, always, was to deepen my understanding.”

As a culturally embedded reporter she saw the beginnings of what would eventually become the Arab Spring long before most observers, and warned her superiors to watch for events in Egypt as early as 2010, while she was stationed in London as a respite posting. The chapter titled “Revolution” chronicles the events of 2011 that the Western world placed such hope in, and yet were the gestation of the barbarous movement that would call itself ISIS/ISIL just a few years later.

Ayed writes that her book merely provides snapshots of a story that is far more complex than can ever be made clear in three minute segments in a newscast.

“It is not so much a political examination as a glimpse into the Arab condition, focused on how people became the product of their challenging environment – and on the civilians of the region who have long been mischaracterized and misunderstood.”

One of the richest things about this book is that it provides glimpses of ordinary life amid the context of the chaos that has infected the region for decades.

Ayed has won several broadcast awards for her reportage from the Middle East, and she is one of those reporters who always provides a solid story when one of her reports appears on the National. This book was short-listed for a number of prestigious awards.

What seems to be missing from Ayed’s story is much of a personal life. From what we read here, she is the job, and very focused on her interpretation of how that should work.

The book stops just short of things beginning to fall apart again, and readers might be best advised to pick up the second edition, which has some updated material in it. The same thing has happened to Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now, which I reviewed here about a year ago. Such books are always being overtaken by the march of events, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable as roadmaps to understanding the world a little better.












Bookends: How the war in Afghanistan broke a reporter’s heart January 1, 2014

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Bookends: How the war in Afghanistan broke a reporter’s heart

By Dan Davidson

December 11, 2013

– 894 words –


The dogs


The Dogs Are Eating Them Now

Our War in Afghanistan

Alfred A. Knopf
By Graeme Smith

298 pages


I haven’t actually met Graeme Smith, but he became a Facebook friend of mine after I assisted the Writers Trust of Canada in helping to raise the public profile of the contest for the. I photographed the cover of the book, which they supplied me from the list of finalists, against the backdrops of a number of iconic Dawson places, including the London, Service and Berton sites.

Even before it was announced that Smith had won the prize, he had seen the pictures and requested to connect with me. It’s been interesting reading his occassional postings from Afghanistan, where he currently works as senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. A fairly recent post commented on an event that occurred during his return to Kabul.

“Just arrived back in Kabul. My colleague Sharifullah Sharaf says he will slaughter a sheep to celebrate our good luck: on the way to Gardez, flying over Logar province, our white UN helicopter was hit with a .762 round which passed through the cabin – not hitting anybody – and lodged near a small fuel tank. The bullet was 10 centimetres away from causing a problem.”

He says his understated reaction wasn’t one of bravery because no one in the chopper knew how close they were to dying until after they had arrived safely at their destination.

I was reading this book at the time and thought that this seemed like a reflection of the whole problem with the Afghan conflict.

Some years ago now I read a book about the history of conflicts in this region. The British called their efforts in the area the Great Game and reputations were made and lost there. The Russians learned the hard way that the place could not be subdued the way they had done in contiguous parts of the world.  The Americans were instructed once again, and once again failed to learn, the lessons they should have learned in so many other states where they financed the anti-Soviet forces only to have their protégés turn out to be problems equally as bad as the regimes they had aided them in toppling.

Smith concludes that the Western powers in Afghanistan have never understood the nature of the place, the fractiousness of the population, the degree to which they were seen as invaders, and the amount of corruption among members of the current elected government.

When a bomb or a drone kills the wrong people, or even when it kills the right ones and just a few innocents, the Afghans do not view it as “collateral damage”, that sanitized vocabulary of modern warfare. No, they see it as a personal affront, and will avenge it with a persistence that we in North America tend to find only in the tales of the Hatfields and McCoys, or the Black Donnellys.

Smith takes us through his life on assignment for the Globe and Mail during the war, beginning in 2005 when he was a shiny new war correspondent full of excitement at the idea that an international force was actually going to go into the mess there and clean it up, “bring the whole basket of civilization” to the state. He arrived during the period when the prevailing theory was that throwing enough troops, ordnance and money at the problem (the first two parts of that equation quaintly termed “surges”) would produce the desired effect: no more Taliban and a transformation of the country into something like a recognizable democratic state.

By the end of his time there he had realized that “Our attempts to set up a moderate Afghan administration gave birth to a regime that resembled neither a fully democratic government nor a group capable of ruling its entire territory.”

The message is not remarkably different from that found in Michael McLear’s 1980s documentary on Viet Nam, The 10,000 Day War. Afghanistan was once described as the USSR’s Viet Nam, but during its 4000 plus days (and counting) it has turned out to be pretty much the same experience for everyone involved in it.

The book’s title comes from an anecdote on page 65, an example of how war hardens well meaning man and leaves them with memories that might begin to account for some recent suicides among veterans.

Aware that the Muslim Taliban did not like to leave their dead behind, but collected them for quick and proper burial services, some soldiers staked out some dead bodies as bait and waited for the Taliban to come and claim them. It didn’t work and later the corpses were devoured by wild dogs.

“The soldiers casually joked about it afterward; in our of my audio recordings an officer sounds casual about it. ‘We hit a couple of guys over there,’ he said. ‘Left them out as bait. And the dogs are eating them now.’”

In addition to the Weston Award, Smith’s book has been nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize. It’s a depressing read, but well worth your time. Expect things to get worse over there, though we’ll probably hear less about it as our presence is withdrawn.