Home > memoir, Sociology > The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen

Author: Jennifer Steil

ISBN 13:  9780767930505

Publisher:  Broadway

Published: May, 2010

Pages: 336

Language: English


Price: $17.16

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.

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Tahir Shah Reviews

Tahir Shah is the author of The Caliph’s House and In Arabian Nights. Read his review of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky:

 Just about everyone I meet is writing a book.

At parties and dinners they usually trap me in a corner between a potted plant and a wall, and they harangue me about a their masterwork. As a published author they expect I’ll be able to smooth the way up the long hard slope to Print-hood and success.

Most of the time I tell Would-be-writer dinner guests that they’re fabulous, and that they’re assured easy success, because of their rare and blatant talent. I tell them that because most people only want attention and, when they’ve been given it, they move on to someone else.

Sometimes, at the end of a long evening of being savaged by Would-be-writers, I lash out and hint at the truth–-that the first 100,000 words that most people knock out ought to be chucked in the trash right away. It’s the dirty water that comes through pipes that have never been used.

But once in a while you come across an author who hits the mark first off in the most lively, and enlivening way.

Jennifer Steil is one such writer.

It’s clear to me from the first line of her sleek, intelligent and charming book, that she has done her time in that gymnasium of authorship, the newspaper world. There is nothing like it to build the craft, although the majority of writers these days seem to shun it like the plague.

As a result, Jennifer doesn’t waste words. And, more importantly, she knows how to use them, like a mason selecting the right rock for a spot in a dry stone wall.

It would be enough for this first book to be a delight, which it is, but it captures something far deeper and far more poignant. Through it, she has reached the hallowed ground of the most successful travel writers. By this, I mean that she has triumphed in showing a place, revealing the sensibilities of a people and events, through anecdotes rather than direct description. It’s something which most writers fail miserably at, but a one that has the ability to depict a society in the most enticing way-–from the inside out.

I won’t waste space here detailing the ins and outs of Jennifer’s story in Yemen, because I coax anyone with an interest in the East-West dynamic to read her prose for themselves. But I will preface the book by saying that it is an extraordinary achievement: both eloquent and elegant, hilarious in parts but, most of all, sensible to a society so differing from her own.

Questions for Jennifer Steil

Q: How does writing a memoir compare to writing news stories?

A: Writing a memoir is in many ways much easier than writing news stories. News stories require such intensive reporting and running around, and then must be written on very tight deadlines. I had a year to write this book, and nearly another year to edit it, which felt very leisurely to me! Of course the book required research as well, but much of it was based on the daily journals I kept during my first year in Yemen.

 Writing a memoir is also a much lonelier business than writing news stories. When I am working as a reporter, I am constantly talking with people, either interview subjects or colleagues. Writing a book required long solitary hours in my office, and I found myself longing for someone to talk to at the water cooler!

Of course, there are also huge differences in structure. I found myself struggling with the structure of the book, whereas I can fairly easily structure news stories. I figured out the structure the book as I went along–with lots of help from my editors!

There are also some commonalities between book writing and news writing. Both memoirs and journalism require scrupulous reporting of facts. I always try to be as honest and fair as possible. A memoir, however, includes plenty of my own opinions and feelings, which news writing excludes.

Q: At one point, you were surprised to find yourself sounding patriotic as you explained American constitutional rights to Farouq. How did being an expatriate affect your sense of what it means to be an American?

A: I feel that living abroad has deepened my affection for America, while also making me more critical of certain aspects of American culture. When I left the U.S., I was furious at our government and the country in general. A dedicated Democrat, I was bitter about the last two elections and outraged by pretty much everything George W. Bush ever did. I was embarrassed to be American and pessimistic about the future of the country.

Living in Yemen did not improve my view of the Bush administration, but it did make me grateful for the many privileges of life in the US. All the things I took for granted–drinkable tap water, free speech, freedom to dress however I wanted, a variety of healthy food available everywhere, dental care, good hospitals, decent education, diversity–became more precious to me. I felt proud that I came from a country where I could rant about whatever I wanted without fear of the government tossing me into jail.

I used to complain about sexism in America, which does still exist. But it is nothing compared to what women are subjected to in Yemen–and in so many other places. I feel so lucky that by the sheer accident of my birth I grew up in a country where I have had the freedom to go to school, be critical of religion, make friends with men and women, and choose a career for myself. I appreciate the fact that in the U.S. I feel that I am seen as a person with an intellect and rights, rather than as property.

That said, one thing I liked about leaving America was shedding so many THINGS. I gave away or threw out most of my possessions (aside from books and notebooks, which I stored in my parents’ barn) and it was really freeing to realize that I could easily live for a year with just two suitcases worth of clothes and other things. So much about life in the U.S. seems excessive from here. I mean, do we really need 97 flavors of chewing gum and 53 flavors of iced tea? I would go to stores and just get overwhelmed by the choices.

I have become more critical of the frivolity of American life. It’s hard to get worked up about my own small problems when Yemenis are worried about the most basic things: access to water, access to schools, starvation, sickness, and war.

Q: Despite the hardships, you truly fell in love with Yemen. What was the turning point?

A: There were many little turning points–meeting and having tea with my neighbors in Old Sana’a, finally finding time to eat lunch outside of the office (it made such a difference to get away for an hour!), figuring out how to do all of my shopping and errands in Arabic, and taking time to get out of Sana’a and explore more of this gorgeous country. I am glad I came here alone, because I got such a huge sense of accomplishment from finding my own way and becoming self-sufficient in this strange land.

Perhaps my biggest turning point came as a result of getting the newspaper on a regular schedule. Once I had achieved this Herculean feat, I was finally able to spend more time with my reporters individually. I could give them the training and attention they needed. I could also spend some time with them outside of the office. This made my job suddenly much more enjoyable. I loved spending time with my staff. They are the reason I came to Yemen, and the absolute best part of my first year here was watching their progress and forming relationships with them.

Once we were on a regular schedule, I also had more time to explore Yemen and meet people outside of work.

Q: How do you hope the book will affect readers? What stereotypes would you like to overturn?

A: So many westerners I meet in the U.S. and England have not even heard of Yemen. If they have, they only know it as a hotbed of terrorism, which is how it’s generally described in the news. News coverage of Yemen is extremely skewed–western papers rarely write about the country unless embassies are being attacked or tourists are getting blown up.

What you hardly ever read about is the amazing hospitality and generosity of the Yemeni people. The overwhelming majority of people I have met in Yemen have been kind, open-hearted, and curious about westerners. Yemenis will invite you home to lunch five minutes after meeting you. And if you go once, they will invite you back for lunch every week. This kind of immediate and sincere hospitality is not often found in the west.

I hope my book helps eliminate the stereotype that all Yemenis are crazed terrorists. I want people to come away with the understanding that Yemen has a diverse population, and the majority are peaceful people.

Q: Most books about Yemen have been written by men. What’s different about your perspective as a woman–a western woman at that?

A: Western men have pretty much zero access to women in Yemen (and Yemeni men don’t have much more!). Therefore, the books written about Yemen by men are missing half of the story–the women’s story. At least one male writer I’ve read admits he knows nothing of the world of Yemeni women, but adds that it is his understanding that Yemeni women may have little influence on political and public life, but that they rule the home. I did not find this to be true–certainly not for most of the women I have met here. The women I know have to obey the men in their family in every sphere–they are not free to go to school, fall in love, stay out after dark, work, go out, make friends with men, etc. without permission from men.

Because I am a westerner, I am sure there is still plenty I do not know about Yemen and Yemeni women in particular. While I’ve become close to many women who have confided in me, I am still ultimately an outsider. Yet some women confide in me because I am an outsider–they tell me things they are afraid of telling other Yemeni women, for fear of being judged.

Q: What is your next challenge as a writer and editor?

A: I would really like to write a novel. I’ve written one before, but I am not sure it should ever be published! So I’d like to start again. I think it would be fun to write something completely untrue for a change. Though it is tempting to write something about diplomatic life…

From Booklist

Rootless and restless in New York working for the Week, Steil accepted an opportunity to travel to Yemen, ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, to teach Western journalism to the staff of the Yemen Observer. The staff of untrained reporters, who barely spoke English, nonetheless hungered for her guidance on setting deadlines and professional standards of objectivity, reviving her own love of journalism. The short-term arrangement turned into a yearlong—but surreptitious—assignment as editor because it is illegal for foreigners to run a Yemeni paper. Steil prepared herself to deal with cultural differences—the women cannot interview or travel with men or stay out past dark—as well as suspicions that the paper was little more than a mouthpiece for the president, a friend of the publisher. Steil clashed with her editor and publisher, formed genuine friendships with her staff—chewing khat and visiting with families—and helped lead coverage of everything from presidential elections to kidnappings and bombings. Along the way, she gained a fresh perspective on journalism, Middle Eastern culture, and her own personal life. –Vanessa Bush


“From the first page of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, Jennifer Steil comes across as a person blessed with sensibility and sensitivity in equal measure. She is the kind of woman who’s not fearful of culture shock, danger, or the trials and tribulations of life in what is the Arab World’s rawest land. Her writing is an absolute delight — no nonsense, clear, funny, and sometimes alarming, as she threads her way through the ins and outs of Yemeni life. Steil has achieved far more than a simple description of a stint working at a newspaper in Sana’a. Rather, her book shines a vibrant light on the region, showing it how it is, with astonishing clarity from the inside out.”–Tahir Shah, author of The Caliph’s House and In Arabian Nights

“Steil puts humanity and color into her description of a country most Americans know only as a desert haven for terrorists. Her affection for Yemen and its people will make readers want to see it for themselves. A lovely book that offers a large measure of cultural understanding in a region that is too easily misunderstood and caricatured.” –Nina Burleigh, author of Unholy Business

“The Woman Who Fell From the Sky is that rare animal: a memoir which reads like a novel. From the exquisite detail to the passionate, poignant, and often hilarious story of one powerful woman immersed in centuries of patriarchal tradition, Steil takes us on a journey that left me exhausted and exhilarated. Hugely entertaining and vitally important to our times, the book tucks us under a veil and allows us a unique glimpse into a culture as old as Noah. Not only did I remember what it feels and smells like to live imbedded in the Arab world, I also relearned my craft of journalism along with Steil’s students in her dusty classroom halfway around the world. Veils and hats off to this winner!” –Jennifer Jordan, author of Savage Summit: The Life and Death of the First Five Women of K2

“With intelligence, humor, and courage, Jennifer Steil’s book helps us see beyond stereotypes of male and female, East and West, conservative and liberal to appreciate the beauty and wonder of deeply rooted cultures–and the authentic relationships that can transcend them all.” –Susan Piver, author of How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life and The Wisdom of a Broken Heart

“Jennifer Steil’s voice recalls that of Isak Dinesen and Freya Stark: generous and observant, unabashed in her love for her home in exile, yet unafraid to speak her mind about injustice, and everything laced with wit and rich detail. This is an important book about a corner of the world we cannot afford to misunderstand, and Jennifer Steil is the perfect person to guide us.” –Tom Zoellner, author of The Heartless Stone and Uranium


Most helpful reviews

A tip of the Burka to Ms. Steil…

By NyiNya

In 2006, Jennifer Steil was a successful journalist, working as senior editor of The Week, a fair-to-middling sized news magazine. She’d had some interesting reportorial adventures around the world and was on the cusp of settling down…and then she got the call. A friend wanted to know if she would be willing to relocate to Sana’a, capital city of Yemen, and train some reporter wannabes how to turn out a magazine. Steil jumps at the chance.

Remember now, we’re talking Yemen, where women look like lampshades. This is not Dubai or Jordan, where you can at least get a martini after work. This is whole hog (you should pardon the expression) full tilt boogie Islam, heavy on the `slam.’ Of course, we are going to have culture shock, and Steil knows how to make the most of it. She’s funny, bright, never demeaning to her subjects, and keeps her fast-paced story moving right along.

First, she encounters the reportorial staff of The Yemen Observer. Their idea of news? Lets just say they prefer to err on the side of a good story and not let all those silly facts get in the way. Her team of would be Jimmy Olsons also confuses plagiarism with reportage. They change the facts to suit their own opinions. They misquote if they don’t like a quote, or simply forgot to ask the right questions.

In addition to whipping The Gang that Couldn’t Write Straight into shape, Steil finds herself dumped into one of the most conservative Arab countries on the planet. This is a place, as she says, where a typical excuse for skipping the morning editorial conference is “I have to pick up my machine gun and go defend my village.” It’s funny and hair-raising and, while Steil may take a few liberties with her facts as well, the book is not over the top and doesn’t egregiously ridicule her staff, their country or its customs.

As a westerner (and western journalist, in particular), she has to develop self-censorship both professionally and personally. The Yemeni concept of Freedom of the Press isn’t quite up there with John Peter Zenger’s. In and out of the office, she must abide by Islamic law. Women are not second class citizens, they non-entities. If you think it’s tough for a woman to crack the Glass Ceiling in the U.S., try doing it in a country where you’re forced to dress like a tea table.

Invariably, Steil’s students (mostly) become (somewhat) capable journalists, she is able to shed some of her own misconceptions, and Yemen itself is revealed as a beautiful and exotic (in the real sense of that word)conundrum. It’s an ancient city where half the population wants to wear Commes de Garcon and the other half wants to stone them for it. Of course, what we come away with is that (outside of the fanatics, of which no country nor population is free), people are pretty much the same all over, no matter how odd we find their cultural and social practices (and vice versa). The book is jam packed with rich detail and well-drawn personalities, it sheds light on an unfamiliar society. AND it’s a love story. For me, it just doesn’t get any better.

Culturally fascinating, well-written, and at times absolutely hysterical

By J. P.

THE WOMAN WHO FELL FROM THE SKY: AN AMERICAN JOURNALIST’S ADVENTURES IN THE OLDEST CITY ON EARTH is the memoir of Jennifer Steil, a 37-year-old journalist who goes to Sana’a, Yemen in 2006 to teach a three-week crash course in journalism to the reporters of the YEMEN OBSERVER … and ends up staying for a year. Her time there will change the course of her life and she meets a cast of wonderful, exasperating, funny, interesting, annoying, generous, stubborn, and complex characters.

Steil starts off with dreams of drastically transforming the struggling English-language newspaper into a well-written, well-oiled machine that could be a force for democracy in a country where freedom of the press is questionable. Shortly after embarking on this venture, she realizes that this goal is beyond her – or any single person’s – reach, however the significant temporary changes she manages to implement during her tenure there and the drastic lasting impact she has on the skills and lives of her reporters are undeniable. This was a very enjoyable and enlightening read and one I would definitely recommend to friends – especially my female ones, though this is a book everyone can enjoy.


One of the most fascinating things about this book was reading about the country of Yemen and how one American woman experienced and observed it. Steil includes intriguing details about Yemeni life, gender relations, attitudes, beliefs, culture, habits, etc. There were also touching, memorable, and some very sad side stories that she relates, glimpses into the lives of different people she meets or learns about during her year there.

Additionally, it was interesting reading about certain current events (the maelstrom over the Danish cartoons, Saddam Hussein’s execution) and comparing my experience of them here – with the American media and the American reactions – to Steil’s experience of them in Yemen – with that country’s media and that population’s reactions. Other “exciting” events include Steil visiting a mostly-Somali refugee camp, having one of her co-workers tried and risk the death penalty for publishing an editorial, and being almost-sued by the Ministry of the Interior.

In trying to transform the YEMEN OBSERVER, Steil has to deal with different work ethics, conceptions of time and deadlines, and journalistic standards; a belief that plagiarism can be journalism and anything you find on the internet must be true; and poor (or nonexistent) English language and writing skills. However, we see the change that occurs in both the paper and the reporters and despite many obstacles that Steil has to deal with up until the end – her staff sometimes not being paid, her successor quiting anew every day, being told to retract certain articles or not cover certain topics – there is no doubt that her time and efforts were not in vain.


It must be said that about the second half of the book has some of the funniest passages I’ve read in a long while; I was laughing out loud on *several* occasions. I’m sure you will react the same way, between the English mistakes (ex: the Ministry of Tourism is referred to as the Ministry of Terrorism), Steil being told to go through a dusty pile of x-rays when they can’t find hers and “see if you can find one of ribs” (she’s cracked hers), and the unbelievably hysterical episode that results from a surprise vibrator.


The differences between gender roles/relations in American and Yemen were sometimes fascinating, sometimes horrifying, and sometimes surprisingly nonexistent. The women reporters in this book were absolutely wonderful and I’ll agree with Steil: they were my favorites too :-). I loved Zuhra (I’ll admit I was thrown by a twist at the end) and wanted to cheer her, Adhara, Radia, Enass, Najma, and Noor as they become the “professional journalists” they aim to be. For me this was a window into a new world – and an eye-opening one at that.


Steil remarks somewhat caustically midway through the book that it seems Yemeni men are as faithless as American ones, though instead of having secret mistresses they marry the other women they fall in love with; she then later becomes the girlfriend/lover/mistress/whatever of the married British Ambassador, Tim Torlot. This apparently caused an uproar and slight diplomatic crisis in Yemen, a country where adultery is punishable by death. I was not looking forward to reading about a love triangle in which the protagonist is “the other woman,” however Torlot only comes on the scene at the way end of the book (perhaps the last 1/6, if even that), and so is not a central part of the story (which personally I preferred).


The story is written in vignette form, divided into twenty-four chapters and including an epilogue. ~ There is a beautiful poem at the beginning of the book: “she was a woman / who fell from the sky in robes / of dew / and became / a city”. ~ On April 26, 2010, Ambassador Tim Torlot (now Steil’s fiance) narrowly escaped an attempted assassination by a suicide bomber. [This review is of an advanced copy format of the book]

the voyage of the narcissist

By Umm Lila

Having lived for many years in the Arab countries and also read many travel narratives on the region, I was pleased to come across this account. I’m particularly interested in Yemen (because of the excellent Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s books) but have never found an account written from the female perspective. Jennifer Steil’s wrote this memoir of a year in Yemen heading up a local English-language newspaper. More than most expatriates, Steil came to know and have many friends in Yemeni society, and her accounts of her interactions show considerable openness to participating in a completely different social milieu. She also seems to have been very willing to use people as either journalistic material, lovers, or unpaid cooking staff. The lead in to the book was rather strange; I had to read it twice. First, there is the description of a wedding that actually took place towards the end of the narrative. Then, Steil dives into her arrival in Yemen, without explaining much about how she got there. Overall, I liked this book and Steil’s spirit of adventure and was willing to overlook her various cultural gaffes, but when I got to the end and she poached another woman’s husband and had her and her teenage daughter summarily kicked out of the country, the whole story felt rather tainted.

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