Friday, 14 January 2011
Book Review: The Woman who Fell From the Sky - An American Journalist in Yemen
“Travel is always like this, I remind myself. Uneven, with stretches of loneliness and anxiety followed by unparalleled moments of bliss and discovery. In the droughts, I have to learn to trust that the joy will come.”
This is one of my favorite quotes (and there are many) from The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen, by Jennifer Steil, this month’s book review. It’s a true story about a journalist from New York who is looking for a change and takes a short assignment to teach the basics of news reporting to a rag tag group of reporters and editors at the Yemen Observer in Sana’a, which is said to be the oldest city on earth. As a young, career-minded, very liberal woman, it seems like folly at first that she could even remotely feel that she could make a difference in this male-dominated, Muslim, Middle Eastern country. We forget momentarily that she was actually invited to conduct the training so there’s got to be some interest from the publisher to create a newspaper with Western values.
Does she appear idealistic at the beginning? Maybe. But, she makes such an impression during the three week training program that she is offered a job as editor-in-chief on a one-year contract. Her charges are a mix of both male and female writers who possess various skill levels but all very rudimentary. None have even the most basic understanding of how a news story is investigated and written, preferring to write their own opinions as fact.
Her year in Yemen is full of adventure starting with the challenge of simply settling into expat life. One day very soon after her arrival it dawns on her that even as a well-traveled, thick-skinned New Yorker, this was a land more foreign than she’d ever been in. “I had no idea how to find my way around this medieval city. It was getting dark. I was tired. I didn’t speak Arabic. I was a little frightened.” Determined, she shakes it off and passionately embraces her new position, protecting and defending the women on her staff (who are fighting the cultural norms of the region by pursuing careers) and patiently cajoling the men to do their jobs in order to make deadline often coxing them in from the courtyard where they take long breaks to chew qat.
Steil faces the expected daily battles of producing a newspaper but also a constant power struggle with her male boss and co-editor (as a woman and an expat she can’t officially be the editor) and the cultural limitations of being a woman in Yemen doing what’s perceived to be a man’s job. Her female reporters must be home before dark and aren’t allowed to travel alone making it difficult for her to send them out on assignment.
Kidnappings, stampedes and suicide bombings are part of the daily grind but things get even more tense when her co- editor is put on trial and the government threatens to shut down the Observer for good when the paper re-prints a controversial editorial cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.
The Woman who Fell from the Sky is a beautifully written, riveting read. It’s very timely for this memoir to come out while the role of the media in the Middle East is being hotly debated. The character development is brilliant and I found myself really cheering her on and feeling her pain as she took two steps forward and one step back. I too have delivered communication and media training programs in this part of the world and I could really relate to what she was experiencing. What we take for granted in the West is not so clearly defined in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). Their realities are very different and there are adjustments that Steil must make as she absorbs the unfamiliar realities of Yemen. I will close by sharing with you that there is a story book ending that would rival any romance novel but that comes at the very end and I’m not going to give it away. You’ll just have to read it!