The Book of the Week is “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky” by Jennifer Steil, published in 2010. This is the personal account of an American journalist who went to Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, to lead a 3-week training program for Yemeni journalists at an English-language newspaper in 2005.
She fell in love with the country. The Yemeni publisher, with whom she had attended high school in the United States, invited her to become the editor of the paper for a year. She took him up on his offer.
However, because she was an American moving to a third-world country in the Middle East, she experienced culture shock. For Ms. Steil, one of the most frustrating aspects of the culture, is that it is mostly Muslim, and therefore, male-dominated.
Although she was required to wear the prescribed head-to-foot clothing, and could not have her name on the newspaper’s masthead with the official title of Editor (reserved only for men), as a foreigner she was considered a special, third categorization of person, and was treated almost as well as the men.
The newspaper, the Yemen Observer, was very liberal in that it employed female journalists. The females’ families were very liberal in allowing their daughters to pursue a career. However, the females were paid a fraction of the males’ wages, were looked down upon and subjected to a host of societal restrictions.
Unlike the men, the women were punctual, did not take smoking breaks, did not chew qat (a mild narcotic chewed like tobaccco that is the national drug and the center of all social life), and submitted their stories by deadline time, even though they had to leave the office earlier than the men, as they were not allowed on the street after sunset.
Ms. Steil had to teach the group not only journalism, but how to form coherent sentences in the English language. In the early going, she spent many, many hours re-writing and editing. She was extremely dedicated in that she worked around the clock, despite the various, serious problems hindering the publishing of the paper.
She quickly realized that disseminating print news whose quality met Western standards was out of the question. The publisher was unwilling to contribute resources to important areas, such as paying the workers competitively, reimbursing journalists for story-gathering related expenses and supplying them with press passes.
Ms. Steil was forced to engage in a power struggle with a male journalist who had been working there before she arrived. Her standing by her principles of journalistic integrity caused friction with the marketing and advertising department. She would not let her staff write “news” stories pushing goods or services, even if it brought more revenue to the paper.
Despite all of the problems, living in Yemen, with its other-worldly, frustrating culture (for an American such as she), was a life-changing experience for her. She was in love with the people, the food, the architecture and many other aspects of the country.
This book is a good primer on Yemeni culture and engagingly recounts one woman’s adventures in living and running a newspaper there.