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Review: A Thousand Farewells

March 1, 2013

As you may have guessed from my last post, I read through A Thousand Farewells recently, a memoir-style novel by Nahlah Ayed. In it, she details her life in the Middle East, from growing up in a refugee camp to covering the seemingly unending conflicts that plague the region.

This book is somewhat less personable than I would have expected from the subhead (One reporter’s journey…). While she never veers away from her own personal tale of living in warzones, suffering from PTSD, and the interactions she has with people caught up in conflict, I repeatedly felt as if I was reading a pre-packaged, carefully considered newscast. That isn’t to say she whitewashes what she’s seen and been through; She frequently mentions things that would never make the evening news.

Everything in the book is put there to let you understand why the Middle East is so broken. Her experiences growing up in a refugee camp exist solely to let the reader know what the lives of many Arabs are like growing up. I know that such a statement is factually untrue, but it comes off that way in the book.

My biggest problem with the book is that it smacks of “My First Middle East Primer.” Instead of getting her opinions and views, and reading about a person’s journey through the Middle East, we are given background information and historical context and on and on and on. If I wanted to learn about the roots of conflict in the Arab world, I’d read something more scholarly and comprehensive.

Some of the fault may lie in my own understanding of the politics and history of the Middle East. The information I was being provided was not new to me, and as a result sections of the book that may have been informative to others were wasted space to me. I was far more interested in her personal thoughts and the thoughts of the people around her than re-learning the history behind the situation.

I expected and would have enjoyed a closer and more detailed view of her time in a warzone, such as any scrounging she had to do or saw, and any moments of genuine uncertainty of her physical safety. Instead, she takes a larger view of the situation she is in, never delving too deeply into the details of her life. That may have something to do with her novel being written years after the events described, but that does not excuse her failure to truly personalize her tale.

When she does focus on the here and now, she still struggles with being as real and, for lack of a better term, visceral as I would like. She touches on the fact that she has been a reporter for the majority of her life, and that she has neglected her own life in the course of her work. I think this manifests itself in her writing, which is too dry and “news reportery” for the purposes of a novel. Perhaps she has been wearing the news cap for so long she has forgotten how to take it off.

As for what journalists can learn from her experience, I think she does an amazing job of making you care for the people she describes. Total immersion isn’t the only way to report, but it certainly gives you the most options. She takes the time and effort to remind you that the people you see chanting in the streets, or fighting in dusty alleyways, are people. I just wish she had done the same for herself.

All things considered and all criticism taken into account, I enjoyed the book. It was a nice refresher on the recent history of the Middle East, and anyone unfamiliar with its history would be well served in seeking it out. I only wish she had made the effort to personalize it more, as her story itself is very interesting, just told too objectively for me to truly identify with and care.

Buy it if you would like a finely crafted overview of the Middle East.

Don’t buy it if you would like a personal tale through the Middle East.

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