The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen
Published by Broadway
she was a woman
who fell from the sky in robes
In 2006, Jennifer Steil accepted an offer of a short-term job to teach journalistic skills to the employees of the Yemen Observer, an English-language newspaper in Sana’a, Yemen. Despite the poor English and almost non-existent journalism skills of her students, Steil was sad to leave at the end of the three weeks. When the owner offered her another job, to act as editor-in-chief and continue mentoring the staff, she jumped at the chance to return to a city and people she had fallen in love with.
Friends and co-workers were less enthused. As her then boss exclaimed, “Holy fucking shit, are you kidding me? Are you out of your fucking mind? You’re crazy! You’ll die over there! I can’t believe you are seriously doing this! Why?”
This book tells of Steil’s experiences in Sana’a and her travels in Yemen during those initial three weeks, and then during her year as editor at the Yemen Observer. Sana’a is known as the oldest city on earth, and Steil shares her delight in the gingerbread houses of the Old City. She talks about the frustration of working with qat-addicted men who take four hour lunches and the joys of watching her women journalists become talented reporters. (Qat is a stimulant that the majority of Yemenis rely on. It’s a plant…you stuff the leaves in your cheek and chew. Qat chewing is also a very social activity.) She discusses her experiences with the medical system, and her embarrassment over packages seized by customs (a friend sent her a vibrator). Steil truly immersed herself in Yemeni culture, eating at local restaurants with her fellow employees (but only the men, as women do not eat out), joining in qat chews, and attending women-only weddings (the men and women celebrate separately). Yet she also reveled in the expat experience (after she got the newspaper under control and found some free time), going on weekend vacations with friends, drinking alcohol at expat parties, and hooking up with a few men.
I really enjoyed seeing Yemen through the author’s eyes. While she was certainly frustrated at times by the sense of male entitlement and the restrictions many women faced, Steil fully participated in Yemeni work and life. She is able to share a wide variety of experiences, thereby giving me a glimpse into a culture that I previously knew nothing about. It’s also interesting and entertaining to read about her efforts to instill a work ethic and journalistic ethics into a group that had no previous training in journalism.
Despite my vow to not buy any books, I bought this one last weekend. Because it has a truly gorgeous cover…so really, who can blame me?