Yemenity2010's Blog

The Newsroom – Sana’a Steil

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Tema: Kultur by yemenity2010 on 21/09/2013

The truth is not always easy to find, but a fascinating place it is. New York journalist Jennifer Steil tried running a newspaper in Yemen a few years ago and shares her experiences in The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a candid account of life and work in one of the oldest known civilizations on earth.

Sanaa-oldcity-flag

Among all the thank-you’s in the introductory pages, there is one dedicated to ”all the taxidrivers who kept their hands on the wheel”. Apparently, as described by the author in one  of the anecdotes later on, not all of them did…

But that’s more of a parenthesis. This contains a lot more than complaints and observations on the less appealing traits of Yemen. Cause that’s where the action takes place. Most of it in the capital Sana’a, supposedly one of the oldest cities on earth – some say 2500 years old, which is mentioned by the author. No one knows for sure. Personally I’m fascinated with her story not least because I spent one year in the same country, though most of the time in the city of Taiz. Also, my journalistic training adds to the common denominators. But I probably wouldn’t have fared so well running a newspaper in Yemen. That’s the challenge New Yorker Jennifer Steil decides to take on some time in 2006. To begin with, it’s only about visiting and teaching some journalistic principles for a few weeks, but she is asked to come back and embarks on an adventure where the cultural clashes become an everyday thing, it seems. Interestingly enough, a lot of it seems to come as a surprise to her, but she also appears to be a fast learner.

A general observation is that Steil’s revealing storytelling includes many details that could very possibly get people involved in trouble. Sometimes she leaves names out, often at least surnames remain undisclosed, and in the fine print you come across the disclaimer that she’s changed some ‘names and details’ and dealt with these issues before publishing the book. Granted, things like the female garments come up and Steil takes time to explain the difference between abaya and balto (two similar kinds of robes) as well as niqab (covers the face except the eyes), hijab (covers the hair) and burqa (hides the face and leaves only a grille for the eyes). At least what they mean in Yemen. For the record, the words I heard mostly were makrama instead of hijab and lithma – another epithet for niqab, the way I understood it.

One of the main dilemmas facing the new temporary editor of Yemen Observer in 2006 is obviously the lack of properly trained reporters. There are a couple of English-language papers in the country but it’s difficult to find staff combining knowledge of English and journalistic education. Also, Steil comments on cultural traits like ”The Yemeni education system does not encourage critical thinking. Children learn almost entirely by rote, and corporal punishment is common”. This and other cultural differences lead to a series of conflicts and frustrations in the process of finding news, writing, editing and producing the paper as a whole. Some of the predominantly young staffers catch on faster and Steil is obviously fonder of some of them, like the always curious and hardworking woman Zuhra. More troubling and unpredictable is the interaction with Observer’s owner Faris al-Sanabani, a man with more of a business-like background. Although educated in the US and with some big visions, he seems to be torn between loyalties; keeping good relations with the government does not always easily go hand in hand with being an independent publisher.

Remember, this was a few years before the so called ‘Arab Spring’ and Yemen had for almost three decades been ruled by authoritarian ex-military officer Ali Abdullah Saleh. Was he a dictator? Not strictly speaking.  As the author explains, Yemen at the time was at least a nominal democracy with some separated branches of government and a parliament with 301 elected members. Yes, there were elections even before the upheaval that started roughly two years ago. The system was more democratic than in many other neighbouring nations. But – Saleh as president and his party still controlled more power than would be accepted in a real democracy, the whole system was known for its corruption and presidential elections were for many years a formality, even if there were opponents. And campaigning.

Is there a form of recklessness inherited in the culture? Well, that might be a provoking statement, but the author makes some telling observations about the Yemeni mindset that are not completely misplaced, such as the frequent use of ”insha’allah” (roughly translated as ‘if God wants…’) as an excuse when things do no go as planned. It just wasn’t meant to be. ”The absence of personal responsibility bothers me” Steil writes (on page 158 to be exact) adding that her female reporters seem to work harder to get the stories finished in time, while the men ”spend the bulk of their time justifying their minimal efforts”. The latter have, in her view, in general had a more privileged upbringing and so… Well, the point is hard to miss. And the notion that girls usually have more obstacles to confront than boys in this respect is probably hard to argue with. bookrevies-blogotype1

Another worthwhile observation that at least seemed valid a few years ago (but may have to be reconsidered after what we’ve seen from the Yemeni version of the ‘Arab spring’ in the news in recent years) is the lack of witnesses in the stories published on especially dramatic events. The reporters seldom come near for example fresh crime scenes and as a rule they get most of their information from so called official sources, something also attributed to ordinary people often being afraid to talk to the press in these cases. This results in ”dull and often misleading stories” according to Steil. This while the country for years has been of interest to international media mainly for the terrorist groups based in the country, due to corruption and poverty. Steil emphasizes the government’s failing in translating the oil revenues to adequate services for people in general as a cause for that situation.

Although the lion’s share of the book takes place in 2006, the epilogue and afterword deals with some later developments, both personal and somewhat political, wrapping up the accounts during the fall of 2010. The conclusion after spending what turns out to be a couple of years in Yemen, is obviously a scepticism towards most of the reports coming out of there. ”It’s not a country a reporter can figure out in a flying visit… The only way to stand a chance of knowing what is really going on in Yemen is to be there. And even then the truth is elusive.” Hard to argue with that one as well.

By the way – I wonder what Aaron Sorkin could make out of this story if he decided to give it a shot?

Reviewed: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Jennifer Steil (Broadway Paperback 2011).

Related: Steil’s official homepage

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  1. […] Not: Tidigare publicerad i en engelsk version här.  […]


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