Nahlah Ayed will never forget the day she looked into the eyes of death.
She stood still, the gun pointed at her. The man was ready to shoot her. She stood on a street in Iraq and kept repeating that she was just a journalist, she was just doing her job. A foreign correspondent with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Manitoba-born Ayed says if journalists claim they are not scared to report from war zones – they are lying.
One has to be brave, Ayed says, to report from the front line. She still can’t forget the stories she has covered, the images she has seen: mass graves of people who were lined up and shot, Iraqis digging amid piles of dead bodies, hoping to find their loved ones.
And that day when the suicide bomb exploded, the day when amidst panic and people dying, Ayed and her cameraman were beaten and separated in the crowd; the day when Ayed luckily escaped her death from the gunman. These memories still haunt her.
That day, CBC News called her and asked if she would go on the air to tell her story. Ayed, beaten and bloody, refused to go on the air. Ayed says the tragic event was not about her – the story was about Iraqis who died and were wounded: as was the case on a regular basis, ever since the war started.
“Because around me, I saw hundreds of people die on this day – and I got a bloody nose and some bruises… so what?,” Ayed says.
Journalists – who travel around the world and witness wars, death, poverty, injustice and corruption – are reluctant to insert themselves into the story. Yet, after seeing so much blood and horror, Ayed discovered that writing a memoir became her revelation, a form of therapy to help her cope with her horrible experiences as a foreign correspondent reporting from hot spots for over a decade: Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, Haiti and Pakistan. The book has surprised her family and friends, because Ayed kept so much to herself for many years.
“While I was writing this book, I realized that it affected me far more than I admitted to myself, writing helped me to deal with that,” Ayed says. “In a memoir, it is appropriate to talk about your story, but it’s still uncomfortable. I didn’t even want my picture on the front cover.”
In the book, she could tell a more profound story than just hard news. Ayed wanted her readers to understand that politics and people are separate. This book is about her life and about people for whom war is not an evening news item, but reality.
By writing a book, she also wanted to break a common stereotype that the Middle East is just a violent part of the world, Ayed says. It is also a region with beautiful nature, and with welcoming people who want nothing but peace.
“People over here are unaware of it, partly because of the way the media covers it. When you see Arabs on the news, it’s usually [mobs] denouncing the West,” Ayed says. “Extremists and politicians get all the attention. Regular people are lost in the shuffle. So, I think, there is a misunderstanding. Arab people are very warm.”
As Ayed recalls the Arab uprisings, her eyes shine. She says it was one of the best stories she ever covered – the opportunity that comes “once in a lifetime.” She was “so lucky” to be there “because I watched the Middle East that was so stagnant show signs of change. It gave me goose bumps the whole time I was there.”
There is still a long way to stability for the troubled region. But seeing hope in the eyes of protesters who have been repressed for many years under authoritarian regimes as they find courage to voice their dissatisfaction and show their resistance, inspires Ayed to keep doing what she does well – to report from the front lines.
Many people who watch news broadcasts from the comfort of their couches don’t realize how hard it is to be a journalist nowadays. Sometimes a journalist is a reporter, a translator and a cameraperson. Yet, despite everything, Ayed says she is destined to be a foreign correspondent.
“It’s an addiction to be on the road, it’s a way of life.”