After covering the Middle East on and off for a decade, CBC TV journalist Nahlah Ayed thought it might be time to write a book about how people are affected by war and uprisings in that part of the world.
That was her idea, not her publisher’s.
“Initially, I wanted to write a book about displacement in the Middle East because it really is a feature of that region, with the highest number of displaced people in the world – an estimated 17 million at last count.
“Basically, when I spoke to a publisher about it she said: ‘Well, you can’t really write that story and not talk about your history.’ That’s how it became part memoir, but that was never the intention,” Ayed recalled during an interview with Carleton Now.
The Carleton grad – Ayed graduated with a master of journalism in 1997 – is notoriously private, so talking about herself in the book was not something that came easily.
In fact, she is so private that some of the details in A Thousand Farewells even came as a surprise to her friends. Part of her discomfort comes from the fact that Ayed subscribes to the age-old tenet of the trade that the reporter tells the story but shouldn’t become the story.
“It feels awkward and it goes against every grain in my body. Generally I try to avoid, as much as I can, talking about myself in stories. I think it’s fine in blogs or on Twitter, but in my main stories I avoid talking about myself,” she said.
“I do think a memoir is the right place to do it, if you are going to do it, but it still feels weird to me.”
Initially, when people told her she should write a book, she didn’t seriously consider it until about 2007.
“Then I started realizing how much of what we gathered in the course of our work never makes it into a piece that is two minutes long or an article.
“That’s where it started. I started feeling that I needed to do something a bit more than the stories that ended up on the news and there was so much more to say.”
The self-described “workaholic” wrote A Thousand Farewells during a series of vacations rather than taking a chunk of time off.
The reason? She didn’t want to miss a story.
“I never wanted to miss the story because it was part of what ended up in the book. All kinds of events intervened. It was supposed to initially be published in 2009 and we kept having to push it back because a big story had come along and had taken all that time.
“I was trying to do both – I didn’t want to miss the story and I didn’t want to stop writing this book,” she said.
What is the biggest myth about foreign corresponding?
“People think it’s glamorous,” said Ayed. “They think we have some kind of jet-setting lifestyle, with huge budgets and nice hotels. It’s so not that. It’s 20-hour days and it’s conditions that are iffy most of the time, it’s a lot of demands on your time – it’s non-stop work from morning to morning.”
Like most reporters, Ayed is not only expected to do her stories for television; she turns them around for radio, she blogs and is constantly tweeting – because she is expected to multi-task.
For the moment, she is in Canada “awaiting” her next assignment from the CBC. While she’ll miss covering the Middle East, she said there may be opportunities to return in the future to cover stories.
“I am looking forward to a new challenge and some other complicated story to cover because I love complicated stories,” she said of her next assignment.
As for advice to budding journalists who may be considering foreign corresponding, Ayed said that the job is not what it used to be.
“I think you’ll see there are fewer and fewer correspondents based in certain regions because it just costs so much. I would say you shouldn’t lose heart because we are still doing it and it’s still very important.
“Sometimes we have to find the stories and convince our bosses that they are worth doing – so I would say they should always keep their eyes open to opportunities and stories that Canadians need to hear about. We do need to hear about them because we are not an island and we need to keep our eyes on the world,” she said.
Ayed is an award-winning journalist who has been honoured for her work in print, online and for her television reporting. A former parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press, Ayed also holds a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and a B.Sc. in genetics from the University of Manitoba.
She was born and raised in Winnipeg.