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.


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


New Map Showing Drone Strike History in Yemen

Posted in Blog Entry in English by yemenity2010 on 08/08/2013

Drones. Or, if you use a more formal term, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, have been a topic of discussion for some time now. The reason being its frequent use by primarily the United States in its so called ‘War on Terror’. Yemen is one of the places where the method has been employed most of all. How much, exactly? There is a recently published interactive map of probable US ”drone, missile and other air strikes” against suspected terrorists in Yemen since 2002, as reported by PBS Frontline News, an American public service broadcaster. Red dots are indicating where the strikes are believed to have been carried out. There are 98 of them, so far. The accompanying blue dots show suspected terror plots, attributed mostly to AQAP, the branch of al Qaeda operating in Yemen from the year 2000 and on. There are 19 of those on the map. So far.

Interactive Drone Strike Map from PBS Frontline News

Intelligent Designs in an Age of Terror?

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Tema: Kultur, Tema: Politik by yemenity2010 on 14/02/2012

The international film festival in Gothenburg took place again recently. I had the privilege to see the British political thriller ”Page Eight”, which was… OK, maybe not great, but definitely good. And as a bonus, the director David Hare took some questions from the audience afterwards. The theme is terrorism, or more exactly, how to respond to it from the perspective of the British intelligence agency MI5. They’ve had a hard time since 9/11 according to Mr Hare, partly because they refused to produce evidence of weapons of mass destruction when the Prime minister needed a case to go to war in Iraq along with the US.

MI5 is, by the way, the branch of British Intelligence that operates within British shores, as opposed to MI6 (where James Bond would have been employed, had he existed in real life). The latter branch was more willing to provide the ‘intel’ that Tony Blair was asking for, than MI5.

– Both have had difficult years, says David Hare who thought the time was ripe for a film on the topic, just like John le Carré wrote novels about the Cold War.

The people in ”Page Eight”, especially the leading character, MI5 investigator Johnny is portrayed in a rather sympathetic way, as played by the veteran Bill Nighy (”Love Actually”, ”The Constant Gardener”) whom Hare has worked with on several occasions.

– I didn’t write the part for him, but when I’d written 30 pages it was obvious it was him. And he wanted to play this part; he’s very mysterious and very attractive to women. Two things that all actors dream of playing…

Hare also got the Australian actress Judy Davis to play a part, but it didn’t come easy.

– I struggled to get her. In Australia she’s regarded as such a great actress that she hardly acts at all! But her agent said to her: if you don’t do this, what will you ever do?

All in all, the cast was made up of mostly experienced and skilled actors (like Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes) who together formed ”a nauseatingly happy family” in Hare’s words. And he admits he needed it, since the film was made principally for British TV with a five-week shooting schedule and a very modest budget. Not like when Hare was involved in making films like ”The Hours ” and ”The Reader”.

– You won’t believe how long we went on filming those…

Now everyone had to be on top of their game, with no time to ‘hang around’.

– I would hate to do it with actors less good than this lot. But these are all actors that can do anything, says Hare who considers the chance to visit film festivals is a nice bonus considering the circumstances while making ”Page Eight”.

But he also notes the fact that many of the best writers in America now works in television, such as Aaron Sorkin.

– After ”Social Network” he’s the most admired screenwriter in America and what is he doing? An HBO series. And why? Because that’s where the intelligent people are and also where the writer is the person who drives the medium. The writer’s the most important person in the room. Well, that is never true in Hollywood – on the contrary…

One question from the audience considered the less flattering portrayal of politicians. Hare agrees, even if the thinks his own creation, the Prime minister played by Ralph Fiennes is more ”formidable, intelligent, resolute and strong” than real politicians usually are. But Hare’s experience with world leaders he ”occasionally has bumped into” are different from other people.

– One thing that western world leaders think is that our civilization is under attack from muslim fundamentalists, who are coming to destroy us. This is what they believe and they believe that everything they do is justified by this threat, Hare explains, while adding briefly that Barack Obama is cleverer than the rest and doesn’t necessarily sees the world the same way.

But the themes in the film are not only what kind of information is passed on to politicians, but also in what way it is obtained. Such as torture, which has been illegal within Britain for more than 400 years.

– There may be a threat, but obviously the film is about the means by which we fight that threat. And obviously a lot of people in MI5 have been very squeamish and disapproving of some of the methods that have been too easily adopted by politicians.

Also, a number of films from the Arab world was shown in Gothenburg. Sad to say, I only saw two of them, of which the Egyptian ”Cairo 678”, about sexual harrassments in society, really impressed me. Three women confronts abuses in different ways, while their destinies begin to converge. The Palestinian drama ”Habibi” had an interesting theme; love in times of conflict and against the odds, but it still felt a bit unfinished and less involving than it should have. Partly because of the male protagonist who was a lot less vivid and intriguing than the female one; i.e. the love of his life.

(More film festival reviews in Swedish are available at

Speaking of films: Not as good as the book – or will it be? ”Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” by Paul Torday was a treat, and soon the film is about to open, as it happens directed by a Swede.

Somewhat related topics: Al Jazeera English has covered a lot of what’s happening in the Middle East lately and here’s a page with an overview of the coverage.

The International Food Policy Research Institute recently released a report titled ”Beyond the Arab Awakening”. Haven’t read much of it yet, but the researchers point out that ”Results suggest that poverty and income inequality in the Arab world are likely higher than official numbers have long suggested.”

The Yemeni water crisis isn’t going away anytime soon, it seems. Could it even lead to wars? Here’s an update from a news channel and the blog The Wadi. I wrote on this topic about 1,5 years ago here.

Att profilera ondska

Posted in Uncategorized by yemenity2010 on 23/07/2011

– Det går inte att profilera ondska, konstataterar Juan Cole efter terrordåden i Norge igår.

Terrorister kommer i alla storlekar, former och hudfärger påminner Cole som är historieprofessor i Michigan, specialiserat sig på studier av mellanöstern och skrivit en hel del om exempelvis al-Qaida, talibanrörelsen och kriget i Irak.

Nu är alltså en norsk medborgare och trolig högerextremist misstänkt för att ha planterat bomben i centrum av Oslo, samt ha skjutit ihjäl fler än 80 personer, de flesta ungdomar på en ö i närheten under ett läger för unga politiskt aktiva. Vi får se exakt hur utredningen utvecklar sig.

Cole berömmer norske utrikesministern Jonas Gahr Store för att ha undvikit spekulationer innan polisen hunnit gå igenom de första bevisen. Enligt organisationen Europol har det största terrorhotet i Europa under lång tid kommit från separatiströrelser, sedan från extremvänstern och därefter från extremhögern, understryker Juan Cole. Visst finns en hotbild från muslimska radikaler, men de är en minoritet i sammanhanget.

Jag har på senaste tiden börjat se om de första säsongerna av TV-serien ”Vita huset” och hade igår, av en tillfällighet, nått fram till inledningen av tredje året som inleds med specialavsnittet ”Isaac and Ishmael”. Det spelades in strax efter 9/11 och kommenterar underförstått de historieförändrande dåden i New York och Washington (även om dessa i strikt mening inte är en del av seriens värld). Där diskuterar den fiktive vice stabschefen terrorism med en grupp besökande studenter och förklarar att militanta muslimska fundamentalister förhåller sig till islam ungefär som Ku Klux Klan gör till kristendomen. Bra analogi? Kanske främst för amerikaner i så fall. För enkelt, eller den bästa jämförelsen som går att åstadkomma om vi ska lyckas komprimera ett komplicerat ämne till så begripliga grundbultar som möjligt? Men vilken grupp den nu misstänkte terroristen (för så rubricerar ju norska regeringen brottet) egentligen kan räknas till, de analyserna pågår just nu som bäst.

För, som Cole säger, att lyckas profilera och lista ut vem som är kapabel att begå exakt vilken typ av grovt brott mot andra människor, eller mänskligheten, det är ingen enkel sak. Själv har jag inga insiktsfulla svar att komma med just nu i alla fall.

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