Thursday, June 10, 2010

The woman who fell from the sky

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in YemenI love hearing about new books coming out and this one in particular caught my eye as one that will have to go on my 'to read' list. Read on to find out more about Jennifer Steil's The Woman Who Fell From the Sky.

Yemen is the worst country in the world in terms of opportunities and resources for women, according to the 2009 World Economic Forum, so it was always going to be a challenge for a 30-something single woman from Manhattan to take up the position of editor-in-chief at The Yemen Observer in Sana’a, one of the oldest and most conservative cities in the Middle East.

But Jennifer Steil is no ordinary woman. When she was offered the chance to train young journalists in Yemen, best known to many Westerners as the heartland of Osama bin Laden’s followers, she didn’t hesitate even though she knew no Arabic and had never taught a class in her life.

For their part, her students plagiarised articles from the Internet and had trouble distinguishing opinion from news, but they were desperate for training and eager to learn. Never before in her career had Jennifer felt so useful.

It was when she took on the role as editor-in-chief for a year that she faced the real challenges of living and working in a conservative Muslim country. Learning to cover herself from head to toe was nothing compared to the frustration of dealing on a daily basis with the male editor she replaced and coping with the untrained reporters, the constant electrical outages and water shortages and trying to set deadlines when the answer was always ‘Insha’alla’ (if God is willing). Not to mention the obligatory self-censorship so as to avoid having the building bombed.

The usually calm and collected journalist lost her temper and wept in front of her boss. Her Western ways caused problems such as spilling a bottle of bootlegged vodka on the office carpet and causing a major uproar with customs when a friend sent her a vibrator (which they referred to as an ‘artificial man’). She also made friends for life and learned far more than she could ever teach, including the surprising comfort and advantages of the anonymity provided by the voluminous folds of a black abaya. And then when she least expected it, she fell in love.

Jennifer lives in Sana’a, Yemen, with her fiancĂ©, Tim Torlot, the British Ambassador to Yemen, and their baby daughter.

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