August 15, 2010


An American Journalist in Yemen
by Jennifer Steil
336 Pages, Broadway

Review by SF Winser

I've been skipping the news a bit recently. How's that whole Western-Civilization versus Islam thing going...?


You don't say.

Because that entire meme, is, of course, total and utter bull. As this book proves. Anyone pushing that garbage either has an agenda or has been brainwashed by someone with an agenda.

In 'The Woman Who Fell From The Sky', Steil describes how she spent a year as the effective editor of the 'Yemen Times', an English-language paper run from Yemen, after spending most of her life in the West.

She needs to learn about this culture, the people, the politics, the language. She needs to learn fast. On top of this, she needs to teach her staff English skills, journalism skills, how to run a newspaper and, hopefully, a sense of journalistic integrity.

In this there is no room for stereotypes.

The real thing – or one of them – that one comes away with here, is that constant sense that people are people are people. If there were no Imams or Fundamentalist Christian Preachers, if there were no politicians... then we'd all get along a hell of a lot better. The people under a veil or carrying a ceremonial knife are just as nice as people in bikinis or carrying their dad's old pocket-knife. Steil makes real connections with many of her staff. Some of them she probably feels closer to than family.

The other thing I felt throughout this book was that ignorance is dangerous. Even educated Yeminis think that Jews run the entire US and hate all Muslims. And through Steil's exchanges with people back in the US, one finds that people in Western countries have absolutely no sense that even within various factions of Islam, the followers are just as diverse a group as any random sampling of people. And just as likely to include both paragons of humanity and jerks.

Steil is running the paper in, admittedly, a conservative Islamic country. But the people in the country are just people and the paper is just a paper – albeit staffed with untrained journalists. Steil pushes to make the paper more hard-hitting. To try and make facts the centre. To, perhaps, even challenge the powers within Yemen's political system. This gets her into some trouble. It gets her colleagues into more trouble. And then... she backs down. She keeps the paper a decent read, with journalists of decent calibre reporting on relevant topics.

What she disappointingly steps back from is making the paper a force for change in an obviously one-sided political background. After months of forcing journalistic integrity down the throats of her peers, she caves in to pressures from the financier and the law. I couldn't blame her – one of her colleagues spends time in a hellish jail for the crime of printing culturally insensitive material (They reprinted the infamous Dutch Mohammed Cartoons. They printed censored versions and with a denouncing editorial, but apparently even THAT was too insensitive). The financier had the power to fire her or kill the paper and HE had ties to the ruling party. She was walking a tight line with jail on one side for people she loved and respected and the risk of the paper becoming a tool of the government on the other. She took the middle route that didn't involve destroying lives. Good for her. But I'd be lying if I said that I felt like it was a moral victory for her in any way. She doesn't bail-out of doing political stories, but she does tone them down and move them about and generally not try as hard as she seems to want to.

Steil seemed, throughout, to be obsessed with things that annoyed me. Physical beauty (hers and others) are a major theme. Dresses and make-up are lovingly described. At one point she laments the thought of never being called beautiful - Oh woe is me and give me a goddamned break! Steil comes across a bit 'Sex and the City'. Being a brash New Yorker who is successful and beautiful is fine, but being superior about it and going ON and ON about how beautiful someone is out of their veil, somehow renders all this shallow. She even manages to find – in Yemen! - the Understanding Gay Friend. It's a bit weird to enjoy a book so much while getting the feeling that the author, in person, would rub you the wrong way like getting a massage from Captain Hook.

Essentially, Steil takes a paternalistic view of her staff (and her superiors). One hopes this is more because she's an experienced journalist and editor and her staff aren't. She DOES know more than them in this area. And she's their boss. But it does get a bit wearing after a time, this odd intimation of superiority. I doubt Steil was even aware of it as she wrote, but one starts to hope that she doesn't treat everyone in her life quite so much like children.

However, there is a lot to admire about Steil. She is driven, open, insightful and a talented writer. She has a real compassion for the people she meets – even the ones who she has every right to distrust. Even though I may have stereotyped the fact that one of her colleagues was gay, Steil manages to tease out interesting socio-cultural insights about homosexuality within conservative religious societies through talking to her friend. Not always deep ones, but a few interesting points are there.

'The Woman Who...', as a book, is very rich. Steil's love for the city of Sana'a and the people are obvious. She can't stay away, returning at least twice after leaving. She writes glowingly about the city, the country, the people, the food, the culture. What I found very telling was that even when Steil was somehow making fun of an aspect of Yemen, it came across as self-deprecating. She was an insider, making jokes at her own expense, not an outsider teasing the locals. Yemen is part of her and she shows us as much of what is good about it as she possibly can.

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