Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Nahlah Ayed: Shall we say farewell to the cranky uncle?

Nahlah Ayed, author of A Thousand Farewells says at the beginning of her talk, that she won’t say farewell to the crowd until the very end, till after her story. Therein lies the journey of the reporter, from refugee camp to the Arab Spring. Ayed’s talk is a quick peek through her book and thus, her journey could not have a beginning without her parents’ decision to return to Jordan when Nahlah was six years old. Both she and her sister were born in Manitoba and not unlike the odyssey of so many immigrants – the story of Chinese-Canadian poet Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill  being the most pertinent example – her parents wanted them to meet their relatives. And to be rooted in and imbibe the same values that they themselves grew up in and, most importantly, to learn the medium of those values: the Arabic language.


Having been born and raised – till the age of 6 – in a comfortable home in Winnipeg wherein the voice of Gordon Lightfoot  filled the air and the children played in the sandbox outside; the move to a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, where the only sight of green was afforded by sewage, was jarring to say the very least. “It was the worst case of culture shock I have ever experienced,” says Ayed of the move to Jordan. So much so that even after all her travels, she says she never experienced anything quite like it. Or perhaps it was because of that very experience that regardless of what Ayed encountered through her travels, she would not be overwhelmed. Ayed later jokes the move to Jordan, away from a comfortable life in Winnipeg, means that she can eat without reservations and can sleep just about anywhere too - pointing to a pew at the front and saying that "that could work very well!"


One thing I found particularly interesting was that after her family’s sojourn of seven years in Jordan, Ayed had come to know the “Middle-East” as a cranky uncle that she would rather avoid. Her mind was made up on pursuing a career in medicine. She was doing her Masters in Human Genetics at the University of Winnipeg, when a piece in the student run newspaper caught her attention. A switch to the Journalism program at Carleton University ensued, coupled with a stint at the Canadian Press, after which Ayed found herself in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks.


Conflict after conflict, from the Iraq war, the exodus of countless Iraqis, and the fall of Saddam Hussein; the violence that erupted into a civil war in Baghdad and her own capture when Ayed was beaten and bloodied by a mob, came close to being shot; to covering the assassination of Lebanese President Rafik Hariri, Ayed explores the burgeoning outcry of millions throughout the Arab world and the veritable phenomenon that has come to be called the Arab spring.


Apart from Ayed’s brief, yet moving, tour through her journey, one feature for which the evening was unlike many events that I have had the opportunity to attend was Adrian Harewood’s conversation with Nahlah Ayed. From the very beginning, he saw Ayed’s book as a love letter to her parents for it was not only their decision to move to Jordan, in spite of their having themselves faced challenges as Palestinian refugees. So that their children may learn Arabic – without which Ayed could not have taken on that journey – but also that they returned to Winnipeg and put their hearts into Canada. So much so that when at the end of the conversation, Harewood asked Ayed what being Canadian meant to her, for a brief moment there was silence, and that silence itself bespoke of the seeming impossibility to define, and thus limit, her sentiment. “It’s everything” says Ayed, after that eternal moment, “it’s my soul, my heart.”


Adrian Harewood posed questions that were not only born of an understanding of Ayed’s work, but of an admiration of it too, and the conversation was an event in and of itself. In the end, the audience could see the necessary groundwork for the Arab spring right there; the spring is the natural result of a conversation, and not an imposed monologue. And it seems from her book that that monologue is imposed by both those within and from outside the Arab lands for were one to travel through those lands and meet people as Nahlah Ayed has, they too, like Ayed, would come to see that this "cranky uncle" can be pleasantly surprising.