The best way to understand a country, its culture, and its people is to spend time in that country. With no opportunity to travel to Yemen in the near future, and aware of the difficulties of travel there, I was grateful for the chance to take an armchair journey. American journalist Jennifer Steil has performed a great service for readers interested in life in Yemen, as well as the political situation in that country, by writing a fascinating and powerful memoir of her year working at the Yemen Observer.
Steil initially went to Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, to train newspaper staff in journalism skills, and was invited back to serve as editor. She experiences power struggles with her boss, and struggles to train her staff into polished professionals. More interesting, however, are the culturally-specific challenges of journalism in Yemen. For example, both men and women worked on the newspaper, but the women generally had to be home before dark, and had their family’s permission to work. However, Steil’s narrative is respectful and careful, tending to highlight the strengths of her female staff.
Based on Steil’s experience, journalists in Yemen face considerable challenges with censorship and government control of media. During the presidential election, it was challenging to convince some staff of the necessity to publicize opposition candidates, for example. Also, the newspaper was prosecuted for reprinting cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad pbuh, even though the cartoons were accompanied by an article condemning such depictions.
Describing her day-to-day life in Sana’a, Steil paints a picture of what life is like for ordinary Yemenis. When staff members invite Steil to their homes and to wedding celebrations, she has an opportunity to experience Yemeni culture and customs in an intimate manner that a tourist would not experience. She was granted many exemptions from cultural norms, due to her status as a foreigner; for example, she ate lunch in a restaurant with a male companion, and saw no other woman doing so. At times Steil wore an abaya (a dresslike robe worn over clothes) to observe modesty, and a scarf over her hair, as an attempt to blend in more readily.
Understandably, Steil faced many personal challenges while living in Yemen. Her work schedule was exhausting, and she experienced illness and loneliness. While adjusting to life in a dramatically different culture, friendships and social outings with other expatriates provided a chance for release. Her descriptions of parties and similar indulgences were perhaps the least interesting aspect of her story.
At this writing, people throughout the Middle East are voicing their hunger for change. Those of us living outside the region would do well to educate ourselves about its unique cultures and political predicaments. Steil’s book serves as a helpful tool in this regard—a highly readable first step in learning about Yemen. The country faces immense challenges, including diminishing natural resources, but Steil was able to lift up its beauties as well.
My hope is that this book reaches a wide audience, helping readers to develop a more holistic image of Yemen, and enticing readers to dig deeper into Yemen’s history. Reading this book has increased my desire to travel there one day (perhaps once freedom increases ever-so-slightly?), and heightened my wish that change will come through peaceful means, making daily life in Yemen, as well as the prospect of tourism, much easier.