The Woman Who Fell From the Sky

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Jennifer Steil
321 pages | Buy this book

In 2006 New York journalist Jennifer Steil scored an invite to teach a short training course at a Yemeni newspaper. She planned to visit the capital of Sana for three weeks. Instead, she ended up taking over the reins of the English-language Yemen Observer for what turned out to be a professionally rewarding, if personally scandalous, entire year. The memoir details her immersion in a part of the world that most Americans equate with heavily veiled women and terrorist bombings—and her discovery of the surprising contradictions at the heart of modern-day Yemeni culture.

What’s the Big Deal?

To most Westerners, Yemen is little more than another faraway terrorist haven. In fact, it’s a deeply impoverished, deeply conservative country where many residents have never heard of Hollywood or 9/11. Steil digs into the challenges facing Yemen today—endemic corruption, an unethical press, and, yes, extremist violence. What she finds is inspiring: Yemenis, both male and female, working to attract international investment, welcoming foreign visitors, and challenging human-rights abuses.

Buzz Rating: Hum

Steil’s tome has sparked a furor in Britain. The reason? The memoir recounts intimate details of her affair with Tim Torlot, the (married) British ambassador with whom Steil now lives and has a child. It’s been a field day for tabloids such as The Daily Mail, which ran sultry pictures of Steil alongside sheepish ones of the diplomat.

One-Breath Author Bio

Steil was a magazine staffer for Playgirl and Folio before joining The Week at its founding in 2001. The British Foreign Office now recognizes her as Torlot’s “official consort.”

Judging by the Cover

Soft pinks and pastels set against the gingerbread houses of Sana’s Old City (aglow over a picture of a ripe, round pomegranate) suggest an exotically seductive “forbidden fruit” story hidden inside. Turns out there’s truth in advertising.

Don’t Miss These Bits

1. Modernity and tradition blend in unexpected ways in Yemen. While Yemeni women are pressured to be completely covered in public, girls hide Western-style blue jeans and spangled dresses under their abayas. Premarital relationships are frowned upon, but everyone’s flirting via text, e-mail, and Bluetooth. Homosexuality is punishable by death, but men constantly cruise Steil’s gay American co-worker. Adultery, too, could get you killed, but Steil’s German roommate is having an affair with a Yemeni man. “He seems kind and not at all the sort of man to take the risks he is taking,” Steil writes. “But people here, I am learning, are rarely what they seem” (page 136).

2. Don’t judge the women by their veils. The first time Steil sees a woman clad in full hijab (headscarf), niqab (face covering), and abaya (black overgarment), she feels an “unexpected shudder of fear and revulsion” (page 9). She’s also instantly ashamed of her “instinctive horror.” She soon finds that many women regard wearing the veil as a marker of dignity. One of her reporters says outright, “I wear it because I respect myself . . . When the beauty is hidden, the more important things rise to the surface.” Steil finds that her women at the paper—and particularly her star reporter, Zuhra—are far from the docile and subservient doormats that Westerners often assume Islam forces girls to be. Meanwhile, male reporters at the paper constantly disparage the women and belittle their contributions. Nevertheless, the women prove to be the hardest-working and most diligent, and they’re the clear heroines of this story.

3. Visit Yemen! Yemen’s working hard to market its tourism sector, and it has no better advocate than Steil in her chapters on the starkly beautiful islands of Kamaran—a place of white-sand beaches and coral reefs, named for the two weeks a month when it is possible to see both the moon and the sun shining side by side in the sky—and Socotra. The latter is a rugged isle of fanciful dragon’s-blood trees and djinn-infested mountain caves. “The sky is heavily salted with stars when we arrive at the little stone hut by the sea,” Steil writes of her last evening there. “A pot of reddish fish stew is set before us, and we dig in . . . as we sit there, eating and talking with the family, a wave of tranquility washes over me.” (page 211) The tourism board would be wise to put her on the payroll.

Swipe This Critique

Steil’s sections about training reporters at the Observer are so joyful and engaging, it’s unfortunate that she wraps up the story on the affair. Having splayed her personal life so frankly in front of us, one wonders whether she’s daring us to judge her accordingly. Or, perhaps she’s merely unaware of the striking disparity between her early condemnation of the Yemeni practice of second wives and her breezy dismissal of the fact that Torlot is still married: “ ‘You’re in the same situation!’ [Zuhra says.] ‘Tim isn’t keeping his first wife,” I remind her.” (page 319) This is, at best, slippery wordplay and, at worst, intellectually dishonest. Steil does nod to the fact that her love affair is “horrifically painful” for Torlot’s family. Considering this, her romance-novel-esque sections on seducing Torlot seem somewhat cruel, given the circumstances. Sure, sex sells. But it also ends up detracting from the rest of her story, and the result is a far less flattering portrait than her newsroom chapters would otherwise suggest.

Tic Alert

A fondness for descriptors such as “sparkliest.”

 

Gradebook

 

Prose: Steil writes in a chatty, confiding tone that draws you in. It’s no Kapuscinski, but it’s perfect for an enlightening summer read.

 

Construction: Steil is great at introducing characters and situations, but often fails on follow-through.

 

Bottom Line: For all the distraction of Steil’s torrid love plot, the book’s newsroom scenes and its detailed portrait of Yemeni life make this a worthwhile read.

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