Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
As a general rule, journalists don’t get involved in their stories. The profession requires objectivity, and a journalist is supposed to tell a story, not become involved in it. This is the notion that Carol Off establishes at the beginning of her latest book, All We Leave Behind. However, the story reveals how certain circumstances can strain this professional detachment.
While in Afghanistan to cover the war, Off meets Asad Aryubwal, a man willing to go on record speaking against one of the most powerful warlords in the country. The interview is a huge opportunity for a Canadian reporter, and forms the basis of an award-winning CBC documentary. It was only later that Off learned it had also put Asad and his family in serious danger. As a result of his candid interviews with Off, Asad was banished from Afghanistan. He and his family became refugees, but were still threatened in Pakistan. They ultimately contacted Off to ask for her help, and together they began the lengthy process of trying to bring the family to Canada.
The book is a captivating read. The stories of Off’s work in Afghanistan and Pakistan are incredibly engrossing, and the friendship she develops with the Aryubwal family is seen developing over time alongside her reporting. Not only does Off give thoughtful reflections on the communities and situations she encounters as a foreign correspondent, but she also provides a good deal of political history and background, weaving the factual details seamlessly into the storytelling. This history allows the book to be framed by a broader historical context, encouraging the reader to draw connections between global events.
The journey of the Aryubwal family brings a personal connection to these events as well. Off speaks about their challenge to have the family declared refugees and then have their application accepted by Canada, a process that many Canadians might only hear about from a distance. The story brings a personal focus to these experiences.
The latter third of the book moves a bit slower, as much of it is spent on this tedious process of working to bring the family to Canada. This part of the book spends a fair amount of time on the application and encountered corruption, and the extensive work and time required. To be fair, this is part of the point: the systems in place can be unbearably slow and frustrating, and the process very drawn out.
When it comes down to it though, at the heart of All We Leave Behind is the right of free speech, and what it means when it’s denied. The desire to speak out and be heard is what endangered Asad in the first place, but it’s also the driving force behind the work of a journalist. This book not only examines the repercussions of speaking out, but also looks at the role of a foreign correspondent and her responsibility when asking for someone’s story. This is a book not to be missed.
All We Leave Behind is published by Penguin Random House.