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An American Woman's Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth

Written by Jennifer SteilAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jennifer Steil

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On Sale: May 11, 2010
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-71587-6
Published by : Broadway Books Crown/Archetype
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

 
 
"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. But hadn’t I battled scorpions in the wilds of Costa Rica and prevailed? Hadn’t I survived fainting in a San José brothel?  Hadn’t I once arrived in Ireland with only $10 in my pocket and made it last two weeks? Surely I could handle a walk through an unfamiliar town. So I took a breath, tightened the black scarf around my hair, and headed out to take my first solitary steps through Sana’a."-- from The Woman Who Fell From The Sky
 
In a world fraught with suspicion between the Middle East and the West, it's hard to believe that one of the most influential newspapers in Yemen--the desperately poor, ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, which has made has made international headlines for being a terrorist breeding ground--would be handed over to an agnostic, Campari-drinking, single woman from Manhattan who had never set foot in the Middle East. Yet this is exactly what happened to journalist, Jennifer Steil.
 
Restless in her career and her life, Jennifer, a gregarious, liberal New Yorker, initially accepts a short-term opportunity in 2006 to teach a journalism class to the staff of The Yemen Observer in Sana'a, the beautiful, ancient, and very conservative capital of Yemen. Seduced by the eager reporters and the challenging prospect of teaching a free speech model of journalism there, she extends her stay to a year as the paper's editor-in-chief. But she is quickly confronted with the realities of Yemen--and their surprising advantages.  In teaching the basics of fair and balanced journalism to a staff that included plagiarists and polemicists, she falls in love with her career again. In confronting the blatant mistreatment and strict governance of women by their male counterparts, she learns to appreciate the strength of Arab women in the workplace. And in forging surprisingly deep friendships with women and men whose traditions and beliefs are in total opposition to her own, she learns a cultural appreciation she never could have predicted.  What’s more, she just so happens to meet the love of her life.
 
With exuberance and bravery, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky offers a rare, intimate, and often surprising look at the role of the media in Muslim culture and a fascinating cultural tour of Yemen, one of the most enigmatic countries in the world.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

One

Fantasia in Gingerbread

I didn't immediately see Zuhra when I walked into the bridal chamber. The room was dim, and she was curled over in prayer on the floor to my left, a mass of white satin with a black scarf over her head. Few people were allowed in the room with her--only sisters and dearest friends--and everyone was quiet. I stood still against a wall, watching her, waiting for her to finish. I hadn't thought I would see Zuhra until she began her slow, deliberate march down the catwalk that ran the length of the wedding hall. But her sisters had summoned me, pulling me by the hand into this back room. Zuhra looked tiny and vulnerable, solemnly whispering her prayers.

But all hint of gravity vanished as she finished and pulled the veil from her face to beam up at me. She stood, the silky scarf slithering from her bare shoulders, and came to let me kiss her. Above the white of her Brooklyn-bought dress, her arms, back, and clavicle were painted with curling flowery vines, rendered in nagsh, a black ink favored by Yemeni brides. We didn't speak at first but just stood smiling at each other.

"Antee jameela," I said, touching her tiny waist. "Beautiful. Like a little doll bride."

"Really?" She turned this way and that, so I could admire all of her. Her thick black hair was piled on top of her head in fanciful hair-sprayed loops. Her dark eyes were outlined in kohl, her face thickly powdered, and her lips colored a pale pomegranate.

"Really. I wish I could take a photo!" We had all been patted down at the door, to ensure none of us smuggled in a camera.

Zuhra pulled me down beside her on cushions at the end of the room, where we stayed for another hour waiting for her guests to finish their sunset prayers and work themselves into a frenzy of anticipation. Zuhra passed the time chatting with me and making calls on her mobile phone, mostly to her groom, who was (contrary to tradition) picking her up at the end of the night. "You are sure you haven't argued with anyone today?" she said into the receiver. "You sound like maybe you argued." She was worried that her husband had squabbled with her brother but was evidently reassured.

"Are you nervous?" I said. All the Yemeni brides I'd seen before had looked stricken with terror on their walks down the aisle. But unlike those brides, Zuhra knew her groom.

"No," she said, smiling placidly. "I am just happy."

Her two older sisters, clad in long, shiny ball gowns, popped in to tell us it was almost time.

I stood next to Zuhra, feeling tall and awkward in heels, which I rarely suffer for anyone. Outside the door, we heard the increasingly boisterous ululations of women, meant as encouragement for the bride. As this Arabic yodeling threatened to reach a crescendo, Zuhra suddenly looked panicked.

"My pill!" She grabbed her purse from a friend standing nearby and rummaged through the pockets of her wallet. She pulled out a blister pack of birth control pills, with all but four missing. We'd spent an entire afternoon picking out these pills, making sure they were the right combination of hormones and made by a legitimate pharmaceutical company.

Zuhra struggled with the package, unable to get the pill out with her fake nails. "Here," I said. "Let me." I popped one out and handed it to her. She washed it down with a swallow of water from someone's bottle and picked up her skirts.

"Jeez, Zuhra, just in time," I whispered as we started out the door.

I entered the room just ahead of her. The hundreds of black-cocooned women I had seen hurrying into the hall earlier that evening had transformed into gaudy miniskirted butterflies, coated with glitter and lipstick, tottering on three-inch heels. There were no men.

Zuhra's youngest sister thrust a basket of jasmine petals into my hand. "Here," she said. "Throw."

Zuhra stepped forward. The lights had been dimmed, and all of the younger women and girls were on the stage at the end of the catwalk, their hands over their heads, swaying like so many colored streamers. Music swelled from behind the screen, where the band was hidden. At first I couldn't quite believe the evidence of my ears. At a Yemeni wedding I expected Arabic music. But no, Zuhra was starting down the aisle toward her married life to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," from the soundtrack of Titanic.



There is an old joke about Yemen, told to any traveler who sticks around long enough: "Noah came back to Earth recently, curious to see how it had evolved since his time. In a private jet on loan from God, he first flew over France and said, 'My! Look at France! How it has changed! What exciting new architecture! What amazing innovation!' He then flew over Germany. 'Incredible! I would hardly recognize it! So much new technology! Such thrilling industry!' And then he headed to southern Arabia. 'Ah, Yemen,' he said fondly. 'I'd know it anywhere. Hasn't changed a bit.'"

In many ways, it hasn't. Of course, I wasn't in Yemen back in the first millennium bc, when Noah's son Shem is said to have founded the capital city of Sana'a. But in many parts of the country, people are living exactly as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. They herd goats and cows; they grow wheat, pomegranates, and grapes; they travel long distances to fetch water. They live in simple square mud-brick homes. They paint themselves with nagsh for weddings. They pray.

The ancient landscape reveals little evidence of the passage of time. On a flyover today, Noah would find that erosion has run light fingers over the jagged mountains of the central highlands. Long stretches of empty beaches in the south are touched by the same tides that have washed them since the Flood. In the east, desert sands shift in barely perceptible ways. The green terraces carved into the Haraz mountains in the west or the hills around Ibb and Ta'iz to the south may have been there since the dawn of agriculture, cultivated by generation after generation of Yemeni farmers. The dense vegetation of the valleys suggests the whim of a playful god who, weary of the relentless beige of Arabian rock and sand, tossed a thick emerald quilt over Yemen's countryside, creating a fertile layer that has fed the Yemeni people for generations.

Noah would find the most familiar territory in the country's remotest places, such as the island of Soqotra, located 220 miles off Yemen's eastern coast. On Soqotra, there are few roads and fewer electric lights. The dominant structures are not the crumbling stone buildings (which blend so completely into the hillsides that you don't see them until you trip over a small child running out of one) but its fanciful dragon's blood trees, their tall, thousand-year-old trunks erupting into such a wild tangle of branches that they resemble a forest of umbrellas blown upward by the wind.

Many Soqotri people still live in caves, where they boil tea over fires in a corner to serve with goat milk still warm from their animals. Their dining rooms are thin woven mats spread outside their doors, where they eat fish stew with chewy flatbread under salty night skies. There are people on Soqotra who have no idea what happened on September 11, 2001, in America. There are no radio stations, and almost no one can read. Everything they know they have heard from neighbors, imams, or the occasional foreign aid worker. Britney Spears does not exist here. Hollywood is meaningless. Ice cream would not survive--there is almost no refrigeration.

Many of Yemen's mainland villages feel just as remote, tucked along a mountain ridge or at the edge of a stretch of desert. These villages get their news from state-controlled television or from the mosque. Only the elite would pick up a newspaper or read a book. But what use is news of the outside world to these people? Will it help their crops to grow? Will it keep their goats free from disease? Will it bring them closer to God? No? Well, then.

Yemen has not only kept herself looking much the same as she did in Noah's time, but she also wears the same perfume she did when she was young. Cruising at a lower altitude, Noah would smell frankincense, the fragrant resin that put Yemen on the map for traders four thousand years ago and is still burned as incense; the acrid sweat of laboring men and rayon-wrapped women; the purple-and-white jasmine flowers that proliferate in its lush lowlands; and the smoke of wood fires warming bread ovens. In her cities, these odors mingle with the smell of frying beans and jalapeños, fenugreek-flavored meat stews, tobacco smoke, and roasted lamb, while the countryside is fragrant with overtones of manure and ripening bananas, dates, and mangoes.

Following those scents earthward, Noah would soon glimpse clusters of boxy brown houses, their roofs strewn with airing carpets and drying laundry. Through the maze of streets hurry men on their way to mosque, women selling flat disks of bread, and children chasing a ball.

Sana'a is one of the oldest cities in the Arabian Peninsula--and in the world. Built at least 2,500 years ago, it was once home to Sabean kings and Himyarite rulers.

Islam arrived in the seventh century ad, rearranging the face of the city. Many of the buildings erected during the time of the Prophet Mohammed are still standing, though crumbling a bit around the edges. The Great Mosque of Sana'a was built under the instructions of the Prophet himself, according to local legend. It is not only the biggest but the most famous mosque in the Old City (Sana'a al-Qadeema). It contains a large library and a host of ancient manuscripts.

More than a hundred other mosques now populate the Old City, a fact that is particularly evident during the calls to prayer. No matter where you stand, you feel as if you are directly underneath a mosque loudspeaker. The muezzins drown out conversations and make it impossible to listen to music. Which of course is the point. Prayer is the only appropriate activity at these times. When Allah's messengers talk, you should be listening.

No modern buildings mar the ancient aesthetic of the Old City, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984; it probably looks much the same as it did thousands of years ago. Noah would definitely recognize it.

This is Yemen yesterday, this is Yemen today.



Yet there are unmistakable signs of change, too. The city roofs are now dotted with satellite dishes. Billboards advertising GIRL brand ghee, the Islamic Bank of Yemen, cardamom and cinnamon toffees, and the fabulousness of President Ali Abdullah Saleh deface the sides of buildings. Women can be seen walking to jobs in government ministries. Men sport pinstriped Western suits or polo shirts. Brides march down the aisle to Celine Dion. A few silver Porsches can be spotted maneuvering down congested, Chinese-built roads. Even remote rural villages are now knee-high in modern detritus--plastic bags, candy wrappers, and soda cans.

And if Noah were zooming by in June 2006 and looked very, very closely, he might have seen me, clinging to the edge of a building in the center of Sana'a, terrified, exhausted, but bursting with wild hopes for changes of my own.



I was teetering on a ladder, under siege by my outfit. The long black skirt I'd bought back in Manhattan wrapped itself around my legs every time I took a step and the scarf kept slipping off my hair. Altogether too much material was swirling around me. I clung to the ladder with one hand and pulled at my drapery with the other.

I was standing between two roofs of a tall gingerbread house in Sana'a. It was my first morning in the country--my first morning in any Arab country, for that matter--and my first time attempting to dress like a Yemeni. The building I was climbing belonged to Sabri, the amiable director of the Yemen Language Center, and housed his apartment, a dozen or so students of Arabic, and, temporarily, me. I needed a place to stay while teaching a three-week journalism workshop to the staff of the Yemen Observer, and Sabri had kindly accommodated me.

Having landed in the middle of the night, I had no idea what Sana'a looked like. All I remembered from the hazy, nausea-inducing car ride from the airport was a series of bright storefronts, wheelbarrows brimming with mangoes, and men. Hundreds and hundreds of men. Men in long white robes (called thobes) with daggers dangling from ornate belts; men in Western suits; men in patterned foutahs, traditional Yemeni man-skirts.

There had been no other women on my flight, and I saw none at the airport. I found this most peculiar and striking. Yemen seemed to be a land without women.

Sabri was leading me up the side of his house to show me one of his favorite views of Sana'a. The bright early-summer sun sailing up the sky made me squint as I climbed, and I resisted looking down until I had managed to haul myself--and several yards of black fabric--up the last rung of the rickety ladder and staggered to Sabri's side. I was out of breath. Sana'a lies at 7,218 feet above sea level, and you can always tell who the foreigners are by who is panting on the stairs.

I stood next to Sabri on the flat, dusty rooftop and gazed around me. Sand-colored mountains rose from the plain in every direction. Having spent my formative years in Vermont, I have always found the sight of mountains enormously reassuring, and this morning was no exception. Below us stood the fantasia in gingerbread that is Sana'a's Old City, a cluster of tall, square, cookie-colored homes trimmed with what looked like white frosting, surrounded by thick, high walls. Sabri pointed out some of the more prominent of the city's hundreds of mosques, liberally sprinkled across the city in every direction, their slender minarets thrust perpetually toward God.

Sabri's house stood just outside of the Old City, on September Twenty-sixth Street, named for the date on which the Yemen Arab Republic was officially formed in 1962 (sparking civil war that lasted until 1970). As I stared silently at the improbable landscape, Sabri carried on, explaining to me which direction was north (toward Mecca) as well as the locations of various neighborhoods, hotels, and major streets. He also pointed out the antennas for his wireless Internet, on a roof below. He was particularly proud of these.

I was overcome with gratitude for Sabri. When I had shown up on his doorstep close to midnight the night before, reeling with disorientation, he had rushed downstairs to welcome me with the sprightliness of a woodland faun. In his early forties, Sabri was slim, dark-eyed, curly-haired, and quick to dissolve into laughter. Even better, he seemed delighted to see me.
Jennifer Steil|Author Q&A

About Jennifer Steil

Jennifer Steil - The Woman Who Fell from the Sky

Photo © David Neff

Jennifer Steil is the author of the memoir The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, about her experience as a journalist living in Yemen. Before moving to Yemen in 2006, she was a senior editor at The Week, which she helped to launch in 2001. She currently lives in Bolivia, where her husband is European Union ambassador.

Author Q&A

An Interview with Jennifer Steil
Broadway Books 1: How does writing a memoir compare to writing news stories?
 
          Writing a memoir is in many ways much easier than writing news stories. News stories require such intensive reporting and running around, and then must be written on very tight deadlines. I had a year to write this book, and nearly another year to edit it, which felt very leisurely to me! Of course the book required research as well, but much of it was based on the daily journals I kept during my first year in Yemen.
          Writing a memoir is also a much lonelier business than writing news stories. When I am working as a reporter, I am constantly talking with people, either interview subjects or colleagues. Writing a book required long solitary hours in my office, and I found myself longing for someone to talk to at the water cooler!
          Of course, there are also huge differences in structure. I found myself struggling with the structure of the book, whereas I can fairly easily structure news stories. I figured out the structure the book as I went along – with lots of help from my editors!
          There are also some commonalities between book writing and news writing. Both memoirs and journalism require scrupulous reporting of facts. I always try to be as honest and fair as possible. A memoir, however, includes plenty of my own opinions and feelings, which news writing excludes.
         
BB2: At one point, you were surprised to find yourself sounding patriotic as you explained American constitutional rights to Farouq. How did being an expatriate affect your sense of what it means to be an American?
 
          I feel that living abroad has deepened my affection for America, while also making me more critical of certain aspects of American culture. When I left the US, I was furious at our government and the country in general. A dedicated Democrat, I was bitter about the last two elections and outraged by pretty much everything George W. Bush ever did. I was embarrassed to be American and pessimistic about the future of the country.
          Living in Yemen did not improve my view of the Bush administration, but it did make me grateful for the many privileges of life in the US. All the things I took for granted—drinkable tap water, free speech, freedom to dress however I wanted, a variety of healthy food available everywhere, dental care, good hospitals, decent education, diversity—became more precious to me. I felt proud that I came from a country where I could rant about whatever I wanted without fear of the government tossing me into jail.
          I used to complain about sexism in America, which does still exist. But it is nothing compared to what women are subjected to in Yemen – and in so many other places. I feel so lucky that by the sheer accident of my birth I grew up in a country where I have had the freedom to go to school, be critical of religion, make friends with men and women, and choose a career for myself. I appreciate the fact that in the US I feel that I am seen as a person with an intellect and rights, rather than as property.
          That said, one thing I liked about leaving America was shedding so many THINGS. I gave away or threw out most of my possessions (aside from books and notebooks, which I stored in my parents’ barn) and it was really freeing to realize that I could easily live for a year with just two suitcases worth of clothes and other things. So much about life in the US seems excessive from here. I mean, do we really need 97 flavors of chewing gum and 53 flavors of iced tea? I would go to stores and just get overwhelmed by the choices.
I have become more critical of the frivolity of American life. It’s hard to get worked up about my own small problems when Yemenis are worried about the most basic things: access to water, access to schools, starvation, sickness, and war.
 
3. Despite the hardships, you truly fell in love with Yemen. What was the turning point?
 
          There were many little turning points – meeting and having tea with my neighbors in Old Sana’a, finally finding time to eat lunch outside of the office (it made such a difference to get away for an hour!), figuring out how to do all of my shopping and errands in Arabic, and taking time to get out of Sana’a and explore more of this gorgeous country. I am glad I came here alone, because I got such a huge sense of accomplishment from finding my own way and becoming self-sufficient in this strange land.
          Perhaps my biggest turning point came as a result of getting the newspaper on a regular schedule. Once I had achieved this Herculean feat, I was finally able to spend more time with my reporters individually. I could give them the training and attention they needed. I could also spend some time with them outside of the office. This made my job suddenly much more enjoyable. I loved spending time with my staff. They are the reason I came to Yemen, and the absolute best part of my first year here was watching their progress and forming relationships with them.
          Once we were on a regular schedule, I also had more time to explore Yemen and meet people outside of work.
         
4. How do you hope the book will affect readers? What stereotypes would you like to overturn?
 
          So many westerners I meet in the US and England have not even heard of Yemen. If they have, they only know it as a hotbed of terrorism, which is how it’s generally described in the news. News coverage of Yemen is extremely skewed—western papers rarely write about the country unless embassies are being attacked or tourists are getting blown up.
          What you hardly ever read about is the amazing hospitality and generosity of the Yemeni people. The overwhelming majority of people I have met in Yemen have been kind, open-hearted, and curious about westerners. Yemenis will invite you home to lunch five minutes after meeting you. And if you go once, they will invite you back for lunch every week. This kind of immediate and sincere hospitality is not often found in the west.
          I hope my book helps eliminate the stereotype that all Yemenis are crazed terrorists. I want people to come away with the understanding that Yemen has a diverse population, and the majority are peaceful people.
           
 
5. Most books about Yemen have been written by men. What’s different about your perspective as a woman—a western woman at that?
 
          Western men have pretty much zero access to women in Yemen (and Yemeni men don’t have much more!). Therefore, the books written about Yemen by men are missing half of the story – the women’s story. At least one male writer I’ve read admits he knows nothing of the world of Yemeni women, but adds that it is his understanding that Yemeni women may have little influence on political and public life, but that they rule the home. I did not find this to be true—certainly not for most of the women I have met here. The women I know have to obey the men in their family in every sphere—they are not free to go to school, fall in love, stay out after dark, work, go out, make friends with men, etc. without permission from men.
          Because I am a westerner, I am sure there is still plenty I do not know about Yemen and Yemeni women in particular. While I’ve become close to many women who have confided in me, I am still ultimately an outsider. Yet some women confide in me because I am an outsider—they tell me things they are afraid of telling other Yemeni women, for fear of being judged.
 
6. Recent events, like Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner, have put Yemen in the spotlight as a source of international terrorism.  How did you and Tim fare during the recent closure of the British Embassy?  Do you feel personally under threat?  And have these events changed the way you fundamentally feel about the country?
 
          The recent closure of the British Embassy only lasted a few days. These closures happen periodically, in response to threats. This is not the first time the Embassy has been closed since I have been here. But it’s the first time it has gotten so much media attention – because Sana’a was swarming with reporters looking for something to write about. I was in London with my newborn daughter Theadora at the time of the closure, so it didn’t affect us. I always worry about Tim’s safety, as the threat of terrorism here is pretty much constant. But I don’t necessarily worry more during Embassy closures. The risk is always there.
          During my first year here, when I was running the newspaper, I felt almost completely safe. My neighbors in the Old City were wonderful. Most Yemenis are overwhelmingly hospitable. I lived alone (except when I took in various homeless Europeans!) and I walked everywhere alone, without too much concern for my safety. The biggest problem I had was sexual harassment on the street – I spent more time getting worked up about that than I spent worrying about terrorism.
          That changed after the attack on the Spanish tourists in Mareb. Suddenly the risk felt more real and immediate. Since then, there have been a slew of terrorist attacks that suggest to me things here are getting worse. I have visited three places that were sites of terrorist attacks, which makes me realize that it easily could have been me who was killed, but for luck.
          That said, I hadn’t felt personally in danger until last August. I was six months pregnant, and hiking in the hills with four other women, when we were surrounded by Yemeni tribesmen wielding AK-47s. They pointed their guns at us and accused us of being spies. I have never had a gun pointed at me before. It was terrifying, and we were lucky to escape. I have not been hiking since, which is a terrible shame because this country has incredible hiking trails and fantastic scenery.
          As a result of this experience, as well as of the attacks on the US Embassy, Korean tourists and diplomats, and westerners up north in Saada, I do feel differently about the country than I did during my first carefree year. I have grown more pessimistic about Yemen’s future, and more afraid of traveling around. I regret this enormously. I also find myself quite angry that regular Yemenis don’t seem to be concerned that terrorists are using their religion to kill people. I wish they would have protests in the street when there are terrorist attacks. I wish the people would more vocally condemn violence. But they don’t. When I asked my Arabic teacher about this, he simply said that people are too afraid to protest.
 
7. You candidly write about how hard it was to go so long without physical intimacy, yet it was sometimes liberating to conceal your body in conservative clothing. How did your time in Yemen change your perspective on sexuality? In your opinion, what are the effects of a society that associates sex with shame?
 
          Living in Yemen has strengthened my conviction that to suppress sexuality is unhealthy and dangerous. Sexual harassment is common in Yemen, and it is rare that I can walk down the street unmolested by crude comments—no matter how covered I am. Yemeni women suffer the same assaults. Making sex taboo seems to have simply served to make everyone obsessed with it. I had two terrible experiences in taxi cabs, when my drivers began masturbating while driving me (forcing me to leap out of the car at busy intersections) When healthy sexual feelings are repressed, they become twisted and come out in unhealthy ways – like masturbating while driving passengers, harassing women on the street, or finding 9-year-olds to be appropriate marriage material.
          Men and women never mix in Yemen, and the women are kept hidden from view. I feel that the result of this is that men and women don’t really see each other as whole people, with intellects, emotions, and ambitions. They see each other purely as a sexualized “other.” At least that is how men seem to view women. I don’t think it speaks well of men that there is the assumption that were women not covered, men would not be able to control themselves. I mean, are they really nothing more than animals?
          I do feel grateful for my loose, plain clothing here, because it is a bit of protection from the ravenous stares of men. And there is something freeing about giving up makeup and pretty clothes and just being my unadorned self. When I was back in New York and London, I found myself actually shocked by how little clothing women could get away with wearing on the street. Even young girls seemed to need to tart themselves up, and I am not sure that it is a wise thing for girls or women to present themselves as such blatant sexual objects. I don’t want to sound like a prude—I still enjoy wearing a nice cocktail dress! But there is a middle ground between draping oneself in black and dressing like a prostitute. I have a renewed respect for modesty.
           
 
8. Your book culminates with the story of your relationship with Tim. How did your work at the Yemen Observer enhance your sense of self and pave the way to being a good match for your future husband?
 
          Working at the Yemen Observer greatly increased my confidence in my own abilities. I had never run a newspaper before—I had never been a manager of any kind. It was surprising and heartening to find that I could actually do it. I could edit a newspaper. I could get my staff to meet deadlines. I could help them improve their reporting and writing. And I could do all of this in an extremely challenging country. I was an imperfect boss, but I am proud of the work I accomplished and how much I learned in the process.
          I am also proud that I managed to create a real life for myself here. I found a wonderful home, made interesting friends, and explored quite a bit of Yemen.
At the end of my year here, I was uninterested in returning to the US. I hungered after similar challenges in other difficult countries. This is why I accepted a job training journalists in Sierra Leone. But I ended up having to turn down that job, in order to have time to write this book. I am still sad about that, and I hope to do something similar in the future. 
 
          I think Tim and I would have been a good match even had we met years earlier! We share so many passions—we’re both ardent readers, we both love the theater, opera, ballet, films, hiking, news, bicycling, entertaining, and exploring new countries.
But I’d like to think that my experience in Yemen has made me an even better match for Tim, as I am a more independent and confident traveler and writer than ever before. I’ve also learned many things about Yemen that I was able to share with Tim in his early months. I find Tim’s work fascinating, and he is equally interested in mine. I like to think we inspire each other. We’re also  both fairly extroverted and love traveling and meeting people. It helps that I have a flexible career—I can write or work as a journalist in just about any country. So I am happy to travel with him to wherever his work takes him.
 
9. What do you predict for the future of Yemen?
 
          I am definitely not qualified to predict the future of Yemen! It is a very unpredictable country, and even those who have studied it for years cannot say for certain what its future holds. Sadly, over the years I have spent here, I have grown more pessimistic about Yemen’s prospects. Terrorist attacks have increased over my time here, the government has grown more unstable, and the unemployment rate has only increased. The population continues to explode, the economy is not diversified and overly dependent on decreasing oil revenues, and cities are running out of water. Women—perhaps the country’s greatest natural resource—are underutilized. The future to me looks disastrous. So much needs to happen politically and economically for the country to save itself, even with help from the outside world.
 
10. What is your next challenge as a writer and editor?
 
          I would really like to write a novel. I’ve written one before, but I am not sure it should ever be published! So I’d like to start again. I think it would be fun to write something completely untrue for a change. Though it is tempting to write something about diplomatic life...


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"From the first page of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, Jennifer Steil comes across as a person blessed with sensibility and sensitivity in equal measure. She is the kind of woman who's not fearful of culture shock, danger, or the trials and tribulations of life in what is the Arab World's rawest land. Her writing is an absolute delight -- no nonsense, clear, funny, and sometimes alarming, as she threads her way through the ins and outs of Yemeni life. Steil has achieved far more than a simple description of a stint working at a newspaper in Sana'a. Rather, her book shines a vibrant light on the region, showing it how it is, with astonishing clarity from the inside out."
--Tahir Shah, author of The Caliph's House and In Arabian Nights

"Steil puts humanity and color into her description of a country most Americans know only as a desert haven for terrorists. Her affection for Yemen and its people will make readers want to see it for themselves. A lovely book that offers a large measure of cultural understanding in a region that is too easily misunderstood and caricatured."
--Nina Burleigh, author of Unholy Business

"The Woman Who Fell From the Sky
is that rare animal: a memoir which reads like a novel. From the exquisite detail to the passionate, poignant, and often hilarious story of one powerful woman immersed in centuries of patriarchal tradition, Steil takes us on a journey that left me exhausted and exhilarated. Hugely entertaining and vitally important to our times, the book tucks us under a veil and allows us a unique glimpse into a culture as old as Noah. Not only did I remember what it feels and smells like to live imbedded in the Arab world, I also relearned my craft of journalism along with Steil's students in her dusty classroom halfway around the world. Veils and hats off to this winner!"
--Jennifer Jordan, author of Savage Summit: The Life and Death of the First Five Women of K2
 
"With intelligence, humor, and courage, Jennifer Steil's book helps us see beyond stereotypes of male and female, East and West, conservative and liberal to appreciate the beauty and wonder of deeply rooted cultures--and the authentic relationships that can transcend them all."
--Susan Piver, author of How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life and The Wisdom of a Broken Heart
 
"Jennifer Steil's voice recalls that of Isak Dinesen and Freya Stark: generous and observant, unabashed in her love for her home in exile, yet unafraid to speak her mind about injustice, and everything laced with wit and rich detail. This is an important book about a corner of the world we cannot afford to misunderstand, and Jennifer Steil is the perfect person to guide us."
--Tom Zoellner, author of The Heartless Stone and Uranium


From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Raising compelling questions, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky provides reading groups with many ways to explore the global issues of our time. We hope that the following questions will enhance your experience of this provocative memoir.

Discussion Guides

1. The book’s title, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, and the epigraph evoke images of women who have extraordinary powers. What did Jennifer’s experience demonstrate about women and empowerment?

2. What gives Zuhra the courage to be outspoken? What accounts for the distinction between Yemeni women who remain fearful and those who seem fearless?

3. What did Jennifer discover about how America is viewed in the Middle East? What misconceptions was she able to dispel? What aspects of American culture did she appreciate in a new way?

4. Discuss the clash in work ethics described in this memoir. What motivates Jennifer to put in so many hours at work? Do most of her colleagues have a nonchalant attitude about work hours because of their low wages, or are other factors at play?

5. As Jennifer and her reporters encounter language barriers, what cultural differences emerge? How does language reflect identity? Were you surprised that in Yemen an English-language newspaper carries prestige, though the English-speaking world is distrusted?

6. What transformations occur as Jennifer sacrifices creature comforts in exchange for intellectual ones? What personal changes have you experienced after encounters with cultures that are different from yours?

7. What does Jennifer observe about the effects of merging religion and politics? How is Yemeni society shaped by Islam?

8. What leverage does Jennifer have in negotiating with men in Yemen, such as Faris? Why is it more difficult for her to have sway over editor-in-chief Mohammed al-Asaadi? 

9. Faris is continually concerned about whether the Observer is profitable. How have the media in the United States maintained profitability alongside credibility? Has the rise of online media put this separation in jeopardy, making it difficult for the public to tell the difference between news and promotional content?

10. In teaching her reporters about reducing bias and being precise in their use of language, what is Jennifer teaching them about integrity? What is her greatest civics lesson for them?

11. What could be done to quell Yemenis’ use of qat? What social programs would have to be in place to address the widespread addiction? How have Americans handled similar public health crises?

12. Discuss the recent Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner, allegedly perpetrated by a Nigerian terrorist with ties to Yemen. Jennifer lists several probable reasons for Yemen’s vulnerability to terrorists, including government corruption and economic disparities that breed resentment. Could the Yemeni media cure some of these ills?

13. Along with recipes for savoring locusts, the book features luscious descriptions of traditional Yemeni cuisine. How does cooking form a cultural bridge for Jennifer?

14. How does love shape the book’s narrative? What are the distinctions between Zuhra’s wedding, which provides the opening scene, and Jennifer’s relationship with Tim, which provides the closing scenes?

15. If you were going to spend a year working anywhere in the world beyond America, what locale would you choose? What would you want to teach your overseas colleagues? What would you want to learn from them?


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