In The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, American Jennifer Steil takes the reader with her on a textbook example of the roller-coaster ride that is every expatriate’s experience when adapting to a new culture. After leading a three-week training course for Yemeni journalists, Steil is thrilled to be offered a one-year contract as editor of the Yemen Observer. Her experiences during this seminal year in Yemen change her forever.
In her new job, she learns first-hand about the ups and downs of qat chewing and its effects on work efficiency, is outraged by gender inequalities, comes to feel like a big sister to a young, female protégé, grapples with a work ethic wholly at odds with all her past experience, and is baffled by the inconsistencies of her boss and her male co-workers. She is appalled by local cultural attitudes toward journalism and reporting and by government restrictions on the media.
Outside of work, she copes with the loneliness of being a single female stranger in a strange land, studies Arabic, parties with other expatriates, has a few encounters with the Yemeni medical establishment, finds a life partner, and comes to a realization that she will never be the same again.
Reminiscent of The Bookseller of Kabal, Steil’s depiction of her friends and co-workers as wholly complex people, inconsistent, emotional and human, makes it easy for the reader to set aside western stereotypes of Arab cultures, while still acknowledging East/West cultural differences. Steil has a talent for unveiling the universal humanness in the people she introduces us to.
The self-discipline of Steil’s journalism training is evident as she never succumbs to “but I can’t leave that out!” thinking. She has a superb knack for selecting the best, story-telling elements, so the reader never gets bogged down; her book is fast-paced, smoothly written, and eminently readable. She knows how to tell a story.
The result is a focused, thought-provoking, humor-filled tale of an improbable expatriate odyssey that has both structure and forward momentum but that still feels like the grand adventure of getting lost in the souq. At Steil’s side, the reader experiences the rich tapestry of sights, sounds, smells and bustling activity that her life in Yemen becomes, in all its messiness, confusion and frustration, but also its wonder, joy and human warmth.
Author: Jennifer Steil
Published by Broadway Books (ISBN 9780767930512)
Review by Kathleen Spradling. Kathleen was an English teacher in international schools for 25 years, and is currently teaching at the American School of The Hague.