Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Jennifer Steil's "The Woman Who Fell from the Sky": Book Review

Lively, crafted with care, engagingly detailed, paced smoothly, this reads as if invented rather than fact. In 2006, Steil enters Sana'a, dons the veil, and mutes (slightly) her New York sass.

This is not Sex in the City 2-- no shopping mall sprees in Abu Dhabi. On the other side of Arabia's peninsula, women vanish into black ghosts, rarely seen in the light. Steil dons this garb, and begins her transformation. Her pale blue eyes mark her to all-- men in public, women in private-- as a newcomer. Initially, she comes to advise for three weeks the hapless staff of the Yemen Observer daily paper.

How this seasoned journalist adjusts to life in Yemen and how its men and women adjust to her turns into a frenetic adventure. This feels more like a novel than an autobiography. Steil's knack for recounting dialogue that characterizes cultural clashes and common bonds energizes this episodic account of the year she decides to devote to running the paper.

Arriving in the capital, Steil sees its women draped entirely in black, its men in white. "This was a world before color, before fashion, before the rise of the individual," she reflects. (21) Tribe, class, piety, status, income: these emerge in the telling subtleties of an embroidered border of an abaya or the engraving on a jambiya's handle.

She adjusts "to become someone else," not meeting a male's gaze, lowering her eyes. She wonders if she will ever cease being their curiosity, their "object of study." Yet, she will become a mentor for Yemeni journalists, especially her female staff.

I learned a lot about the country, and if not as much about the countryside, it's due to Steil's own reliance on guides and mediators within a nation that can be daunting for a Westerner and moreover a woman with little Arabic to navigate. For she explains, she was a "third sex" there, as if a "giraffe." That is, she enjoyed the freedom a Western man could not to move between male and female realms!

A purple vibrator, peanut butter cups, and green pills all make cameo appearances. These unexpected perspectives, as she works with women who have had to struggle much for their status alongside her, and the men who have often had to do little for their status, compelled me to follow her story as a mentor and a resident of this unfamiliar society.

Coming to the English-language, grammatically-challenged paper, she fantasizes: "I imagined writing pieces that would trigger policy changes, reduce terrorism, and alter the role of women in society." (70) Laughing later at her naivete, she shows how hard the few women who work publicly must fight to fit in alongside men who get their jobs by nepotism. The males "will always find work in Yemen; they will always have society's approval. My women I worry about. What will become of them after I am gone?" (186)

Given her "third sex" status, she moves into the women's private life. At a wedding, she notes how mottled the women's skins are due to lack of sunlight, how pale they are uncovered from their confinement. "The dresses resemble the most shameless of prom gowns or things a stripper might wear for the first thirty seconds of her act." (193) When the cameras flash for the bride, "a black rayon wave ripples across the room as the women cover themselves with scarves to keep from getting caught on film." (195)

At another wedding, she gets a henna decoration up her arms as "the tattoos tighten around my wrist like ethereal handcuffs." (293). Then, the filigreed women must "be basted with Vaseline and patted with flour before getting wrapped in plastic, to preserve the design." At such privileged moments, Steil's directs us into scenes we would likely never otherwise witness.

She does seem hemmed in by watchful Sana'a, despite her love of its bustle. Her visit to the island of Soqotra matches in its feel for a very isolated existence that told by Tim Mackintosh-Smith in Yemen. A trip to Kamaran Island also allows her a glimpse of another Yemen, apart from her bustling city. Chaws of narcotizing qat while away up to six hours a day for most Yemeni men and many women. This alters, considerably, her New York expectations for a productive staff. Dissension and civil unrest ferment among Yemenis who fight far removed from her city routine. While more of these exotic perspectives might have enriched this book, Steil's focus on her stint in Sana'a appears to account accurately for most of her Yemen year.

Her personal life emerges gradually. She first has a fling with a much-younger German student; Yemen's Westerners tend to socialize more with each other. Native women have curfews. Native men tend not to meet up with Western women, at least openly. Steil, thirty-eight, seeks romance. The man she then meets is married. Although the mutual tension which arises appears in her recital to be rapidly smoothed over off-stage, this may attest to her discretion. The author's credentials on the back do give away the identity of the man she finds as her soul mate, but this does not ruin the plot.

However, Steil glosses over another situation that presents wider peril. She's embroiled in the controversy over the "Danish cartoons." The paper's Yemeni editor-in-chief-- while condemning the caricatures of Muhammed-- nonetheless publishes three of them (all crossed out) on the op-ed page. He winds up in court charged with "insulting Islam," while peers call for his execution. Given Steil's role, as an editor in all but title (the paper must be run by a Yemeni to fit legal restrictions), she keeps a low profile. This is understandable, but she appears to downplay whatever decisions she did or did not make in her chapter on this incident. The reader may be left wanting more explanation.

Yet, she encourages her reporters to challenge bias against homosexuals. Steil calls for honest coverage of sexuality. She confronts plagiarism and sycophants. She maneuvers between a very narrow press freedom and her own secular values. She stirs up currents that invited more depth.

At times, beneath her identity as a single and sexy New Yorker, Steil appears to have adapted the cautionary camouflage needed to survive in Yemen almost too well. In a regime run by one powerful man and riven by tribal conflict and endemic censorship, she must balance what is boasted to her in public against what goes on in private. Her femininity keeps her off balance in this realm. In this complex hierarchy, some stories will remain as closed off to her as the quarters of one half of the population are to nearly all of the other half.

I found this memoir illuminating if uneven, granted such reporting challenges. Along with Tim Mackintosh-Smith's erudite travel narrative by a long-time ex-pat, Steil's account offers another Westerner's view-- a feisty transplanted New Englander's-- of this misunderstood ancient country. (Her audience might check out the British novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday-- reviewed by me recently on this blog and Amazon US.) In a time when this nation's again in the news, feared for its ideological extremists and shunned by many tourists, it's refreshing to find this contribution to a short shelf of portrayals of Yemen as a more inviting, less barbaric, and long civilized place.

(Posted in shorter, unrevised form to Amazon 6-5-10; and as above 6-21-10 to PopMatters.com.)

No comments: