Sunday, April 22, 2012

0ut-of-Town-Authors: Nahlah Ayed

Ordinary people in extraordinary times

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
by: Ariel Gordon

Nahlah Ayed was born in Winnipeg. In 1976, her parents decided to move Ayed and her siblings back to a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. Seven years later, they were back in Winnipeg.

Ayed was doing a degree in genetics at the University of Manitoba when she started volunteering at the student newspaper, The Manitoban. By 2002, she was back in Amman, this time as a foreign correspondent.

Ayed will be launching her memoir, A Thousand Farewells, at McNally Robinson Booksellers on Monday at 7 p.m.

How do you approach readings? You're used to being in front of the camera, of course, but how is doing author events different?

Speaking publicly is so very different than what I do for a living. People assume because you're on-camera that you're a natural public speaker, and I am not. I have become more accustomed to it in recent years, but I do still get nervous. I find that there is far less pressure speaking to a camera, or, even better, speaking to people one on one. I love people and interacting with them - so in fact I'm often far more at ease during the informal part of a public appearance than the on-stage part.

So the way I have been approaching public events for the book has been to try to relax and remember that often, the people who attend are the same ones who watch us on television. I try to imagine them as a collection of individuals, all of whom I want to meet as opposed to a monolithic, terrifying crowd.

What do you want people to know about A Thousand Farewells?

I want them to know that while it is part memoir, it is also a story about ordinary people in the Middle East. It was my attempt at putting all my reporting there into one coherent narrative, highlighting the bigger picture of what life is like in such a troubled region. I also want them to know that it is a book that once had a much more sombre ending - that was before the Arab Spring. Though it isn't yet clear whether the spring will ultimately bring the hope it had promised to the people at the start, it is still progress of a kind, in a region best known for stagnation.

You've lived in Winnipeg, Jordan, Ottawa and Toronto, with stops in a hundred other places since you became a foreign correspondent. What feels like home to you now?

Home to me is a place I can recognize from the air - a place whose features I can point out from a plane. So Winnipeg is home - I have flown in and out of there endless times. Ottawa is home. Beirut is home - I can pick out just about every building and street you fly over as you land there. Home is also where I find loved ones, and go back to old haunts. Winnipeg, where my parents still live, is at the top of the list. Toronto and Ottawa are close seconds.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

It just so happens I am actually reading the late Anthony Shadid's A House of Stone. He was a colleague in Beirut and passed away on his way out of Syria earlier this year due to an asthma attack. I used to write a regular column for CBC online and had to suspend that for a while until I finished the book. I will be writing for them more regularly now.

Why, at this point in your career, did you decide to write a memoir?

I hadn't intended for this to be a memoir. Initially, I wanted to try to make sense of all that I had lived and witnessed in the Middle East and try to share that with people who are interested in an effort to help explain that region's malaise. Even before the Arab Spring, I felt the region was at a pivotal moment and that it could not remain the way it has been for decades for much longer. But it became evident early on that it would be disingenuous to write a book about the Middle East without addressing my own history there. That's how it became part memoir.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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