Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 June 2019

Jennifer Steil and her love affair with Yemen

An American journalist and author recounts her story of Yemen's charms.
The author and journalist Jennifer Steil in Abu Dhabi.
The author and journalist Jennifer Steil in Abu Dhabi.

When Jennifer Steil took on the challenge of editing the Yemen Observer for a year, she was prepared for an adventure.

But what the American journalist had not bargained for was falling in love with the country and eventually leaving with a fiancé and baby in tow.

"It was a wonderful place to live and ended up being the most exciting and rewarding year of my life," she recalls on a visit to Abu Dhabi, where she was invited to speak at last week's book fair.

The 43-year-old, who wrote about her experiences in the book The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, was first enticed to the Arab country by a former boyfriend. Then living in Yemen, he invited her to teach a three-week training course at the daily newspaper to journalists who had no notion of how to investigate and report stories.

Before leaving for her first foray to the Middle East in 2006, Steil had little idea of what to expect, other than preconceptions of it being "the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden and full of terrorists and bombings".

Instead, she was seduced by its lush, fertile plains, verdant mountains, the "fantasia in gingerbread" of the ancient city of Sanaa and the balmy beaches of Soqotra island in the south.

Laced throughout her evocative descriptions of Sanaa's winding labyrinthine streets, men asleep in wheelbarrows and the multitude of qamaria, or stained glass windows, casting coloured shadows like gems, is a deep affection for the country, which eventually became her home for four years.

For it did not take long for her to decide to return after that three-week introduction when the newspaper's owner offered her the post of editor.

"I had the most incredible three weeks and felt I had just touched the tip of the iceberg of what the reporters wanted to know. I met the most ambitious, excited, eager journalists and they had a million questions for me," she says.

Back at her desk at The Week magazine in New York, where she held the post of science editor, she felt dispirited at the thought of the "years dwindling away with little to show for them".

She says: "I thought: 'I'm insane to give up this opportunity. No one else on earth is going to hand me a newspaper [to run].' "

So she packed in her US$60,000-a-year job (Dh220,000) and headed back to Yemen, this time to knock the English language newspaper into shape. Along the way, she formed lasting friendships with the three women in the newsroom, attending their weddings and celebrations and joining in qat chews, the leaf-chewing ritual that forms the fabric of Yemeni social life.

"It overwhelmed me how much I was welcomed," she says. "Yemenis were the friendliest people I had ever met. It was one of the happiest years of my life and one of the hardest."

There were plenty of challenges with the male staff resisting change or disappearing for hours on end to chew qat while her attempts to introduce ethical reporting often conflicted with the newspaper owner's dual role as media adviser to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president at the time.

"The women worked much harder," she says. "I feel if Yemen were run by women, it would be much better. To even get to the newsroom, a lot of the women had already fought so many battles."

Just a few weeks before she was due to leave the country in September 2007, she met her current partner Tim Torlot, 54, who was then the British ambassador to Yemen.

Steil's book ends with him walking out on his 23-year marriage and inviting her to return to Yemen to live with him at the ambassadorial residence in the spring of 2008.

But her story did not end there. There was a hostage situation when, hiking in the mountains with friends while six months pregnant, she was held at gunpoint by a "crazy sheikh" for several hours and only released when the British embassy intervened.

She gave birth to their daughter Theadora in November 2009 but had to leave in May 2010 after a suicide bomb attack on Torlot's cavalcade. Although he was not injured, it was decided it was not safe for her or their daughter to stay.

Torlot joined them six months later when he had completed his posting and the family now lives in London, where he works on the Middle Eastern desk of the British government's foreign and commonwealth office, waiting for his next ambassadorial assignment.

While Steil - who is working on a novel - says she would think twice about going on dangerous reporting missions now that she is a mother, she has not lost her appetite for adventure and rues not being able to cover the groundswell of change in Yemen this year, which saw Saleh ceding power after 33 years.

"I only left Yemen because I had to. If I did not have a daughter, I would have been there this year reporting," says Steil. "My daughter spent the first few months of her life there and I want her to go back and see where she first encountered life.

"Going to Yemen changed my life entirely. It was the best decision I ever made. I owe everything I am today to Yemen; it is a very special place."


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Updated: April 9, 2012 04:00 AM