Synopses & Reviews
"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.
About the Author
Before moving to Yemen in 2006, Jennifer Steil was a senior editor at The Week
, which she helped to launch in 2001. Her work has appeared in Time
, and Good Housekeeping
She lives in Sana'a, Yemen, with her fiancé, Tim Torlot, the British Ambassador to Yemen and their daughter Theadora Celeste.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
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.
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?