The Woman Who Fell From the Sky

The Woman Who Fell From the Sky is a memoir of Steil’s tenure as the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, Yemen. Hilarious and insightful, it is a tale of personal growth as well as of the transformation of the newspaper and its Yemeni staff.

In the spring of 2006, Steil was working as a senior editor of The Week, a national newsweekly based in New York, when her high-school sweetheart emailed to ask if she would come train a group of ambitious young journalists at the Yemen Observer, an independent, English-language newspaper located in the capital city of Sana’a.

In Yemen, she found novice reporters incapable of separating opinion from news. They believed that reporting meant sitting around in the newsroom plagiarizing articles from the Internet, failed to source their stories, and wrote incomprehensible prose. Yet they were aware of their weaknesses and desperately hungry for training. Never before in Steil’s journalism career had she felt so useful, every day. When her fledgling reporters—and the owner of the paper—asked her to stay and be their editor, she couldn’t turn them down. And so, with little knowledge of the Arab world, she found herself in a position of power in one of the most conservative countries in the Middle East.

Steil faced the multiple challenge of learning how to manage a newsroom, train her journalists, and navigate her way through an alien culture, all at once. Progress—hers, her reporters’, and the paper’s—was not linear. There were at least as many dramatic setbacks as there were improvements. But eventually, small miracles happened. Her reporters grasped the rudiments of journalism and began turning in better stories. She accomplished the unprecedented feat of wrestling the paper into a regular schedule. And she learned patience—not only with her reporters, but with the constant electrical outages, water shortages, lack of organization, and a culture that insisted on moving at its own pace. This was a country in which a typical excuse for missing work was: “I have to go pick up my machine gun so I can go to my village and defend my land.”

The Woman Who Fell From the Sky explores the power struggle between Steil and the male editor she replaced; the clash of western and Yemeni work ethics; the self-censorship they were forced to employ to keep the building from getting bombed; her friendship with a feisty female ace reporter; and the courtroom drama that unfolded after the Yemen Observer published the incendiary cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

This book also takes readers into the seldom-seem world of day-to-day life in a conservative Muslim country—including places men will never be allowed to go, such as women’s wedding halls and homes. It offers insight into the challenges of living in such a country as a woman and a westerner. Along the way, it brings to life the wonder, mystery, and beauty of life in an utterly foreign place, as well as the humor inherent in being such an outsider.

Steil does not spare herself criticism or embarrassing stories. She suffered from being a hard-driving person in a languorous culture. She lost her temper, wept in front of her boss, and fainted in the middle of her first dinner party. She made many mistakes and learned from them.

While digging ever more deeply into the lives of her reporters, she also learned a few things about her own ideals and capabilities, while accomplishing things she had never considered possible. Six months into her job, getting the paper on such a regular schedule that she had time time to personally coach each of her reporters felt like a major triumph. Earning the respect and love of her staff—despite her mercurial moods and impossible demands—was an even greater victory.

This memoir is among the first to investigate the pragmatic and ideological challenges facing journalists in the Arab world, especially in a poor, desperate country struggling toward democracy.

The Woman Who Fell From the Sky is a classic story of a culture clash, while at the same time a narrative of breaking down boundaries and finding friendship in unlikely places.