Author Interview: Journalism,Scandal and Books About Yemen

Destination: Yemen

Interview with  Jennifer Steil

One week from now, the movie Eat Pray Love will (perhaps) be the hot new movie of the summer. The book by Elizabeth Gilbert was enormously successful, and I will be talking about three OTHER women travel writers during this week of hoopla. Sorry, this first interview runs a bit long, but I hope you’ll find it worth the time.

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After I reviewed The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Jennifer Steil, I talked to the author. Ironically, the woman who went to Yemen to teach good journalism practices, discovered even worse journalism in England.  You may want to go back and read the review(click on the title above) to put this conversation  in context.

A Traveler’s Library: You obviously are a person with some strong opinions–how did you manage to be so objective in describing the practices in Yemen, particularly when it came to the treatment of women?

Jennifer Steil: I went there knowing very little about the country and the culture…Yemeni culture is so complex and multilayered that I was always learning new things…

Oddly, I found that the longer I stayed in Yemen, the less tolerant I became of various aspects of the culture. After four years of witnessing the way women are treated there, I could no longer be quite so nonjudgmental about it. In fact, I now get quite furious about things like early marriage, when girls as young as 8 are married off to older men who rape and abuse them.

ATL (When she had finished her year working at a newspaper, Steil met the British Ambassador to Yemen, who was still married. He left his wife and moved Steil into the official residence. They had a child together.)  How has the publication of the book affected your life? Would you like to go back and change any of the things you included in the book?

JS …By the time I finished writing the book, Tim and I had already been together for two years and his divorce was well underway. I was never a secret; Tim had told the Foreign Office about me from the start… Everyone in Yemen, from politicians to our household staff, treated me as his wife.

The “scandal” was invented by the [London] Daily Mail. There was nothing in the least bit newsworthy about my relationship with Tim – divorces are commonplace and so are new relationships… [and]perhaps naively it never occurred to me that anyone in Britain would pay any attention to my book.

I was shocked when the first Daily Mail story came out. Tim and I had already been together two years, I was his official partner, and I was in the middle of giving birth to our daughter. There was no news at all. I was even more shocked at how much of the story the newspaper invented. But even worse than that was that all of the other British papers picked up the story and ran it without doing a jot of original reporting of their own, and without confirming any facts!

If I had been the author of any one of the British stories that has been written about us at any of the newspapers for which I have worked, I would have been fired. Making up quotes and facts are fireable offenses in every paper I know in the US…  I find the whole trashy tabloid culture in the UK just horrifying.

…It was most horrifying that they completely misrepresented my book. It’s most definitely not a book about Tim, who does not appear until the last few pages of the book. It’s a book about this newspaper in Yemen and my staff and how we all changed over that one year together. But the British press missed the point entirely.

…And in fact the first draft of my book did not include Tim. He was only mentioned briefly in the epilogue. ..I usually hate books that end with engagements/weddings. But my editor liked Tim as a character and asked me to write a chapter about him.

Ultimately,though, I bear the responsibility for including him. It was not my intention to upset or hurt anyone [by] including him. If people have been hurt by what I have written than I am deeply sorry and regretful.

I was simply trying to be as honest as possible… I do not regret anything else in the book. It is truthful to the best of my ability. And honesty is what I value most.

ATL: Yemen and the countries of the Middle East in general are so little known by Americans. What books or movies can you recommend to readers of A Traveler’s Library who want to increase their understanding of Muslim countries?

JS:

  • I recommend Tim Mackintosh Smith’s book, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land.
  • And Steve Caton’s book, Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation.
  • There is a Yemeni movie called A New Day in Old Sana’a that is fun to watch, though not quite an accurate portrayal of life in Yemen! It is a fairly amateurish film, but it’s gripping in its own way and has some interesting things to say about the power of tradition.
  • Filmmaker Khadija al Salami has made some wonderful documentaries. I recommend Amina, about a woman accused of killing her husband. Khadija has made several other films as well and is an amazing woman.

I am most grateful to Jennifer Steil for taking the time to answer my questions in great detail (I had to leave out a lot of her interesting replies and hope that I have not distorted her thoughts.)

Reader: What are your impressions of Yemen? Would you go to work in a country like Yemin as Jennifer Steil did, if you had an opportunity? Let’s talk. And if you enjoy author’s interviews, please pass this on to friends by clicking the stumble or tweet button below.

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler’s Library, recreating her family’s past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.


About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Author Interview: Journalism,Scandal and Books About Yemen

  1. Donna, I was thinking the same thing about their affair. Why take that on, I wondered. I agree with the author when she says she grew less tolerant of the culture’s relationship to women. I visited Kenya for the sole purpose of studying women’s issues, and it was much the same as Yemen…men taking very young girls as brides, especially in the bush. I don’t think I could sit back and watch too much of that. The activists there have their hands full.

  2. An interesting-sounding book from a forthright author. I find it interesting that she lived an open life as the lover of the British Ambassador in a country where women are suppressed. I don’t think I could live for long in a country where I women are treated as subservient.

  3. Now that I’m a mom, I’m too much of a wuss to go anywhere for more than a week or so. But I love reading about other people’s adventures.

  4. I’d like to know more about what Jennifer discovered during that year in the newsroom. [Pause] I just went back and read your review of the book. Fascinating.

  5. Wow, that is a strange saga. I’m a US expat, but I live in the first “Western” country to give women the vote- New Zealand. I don’t think I would be able to live in a country where women are treated like belongings.

  6. Interesting interview. I recently read a book on Yemen, “Arabia Felix i terrorns tid: resor i Jemen”, by the Swedish author Eva Sohlman http://www.adlibris.com/se/product.aspx?isbn=9146218505

    She writes about the country’s controversial cooperation with the US, investigates the roots of Usama bin Ladin and interviews some of the most powerful relgious leaders as well as Yemen’s president. I especially liked the part in which she meets local women who openly tell her what they think about the gender roles in the society. A very interesting book (partly as I didn’t have much previous knowledge of the situation in Yemen). I’m not sure whether the book is available in English though.

  7. I knew a kid from Yemen when I was in college, and he was terribly self conscious about where he came from. It always made me sad, because he was a great kid and it makes me really angry when people profile others based on where they’re from. Apparently he’d gotten grief for his nationality in the past and was afraid of it happening again.

  8. Wow! What a tale! I had not been aware of a scandal, but I haven’t been following the story.

    To answer your question, I’m sorry to say I would never have the courage to do as she did and live in Yemen or any place where women are treated with contempt. I did live briefly in Spain many years ago, and that’s about as adventuresome as I get.

    Thanks for the fascinating post. Will pass it along.

  9. This was fascinating. Thanks for sharing. I lived abroad for 25 years, in France, which, while being a Western nation, certainly was, 40 years ago, a country that required adaptation from anyone moving there from the USA, so I can well imagine what it was like for Steil to experience Yemen, a culture where women are treated so badly. (In France, once, I applied for a job as program director of a radio station. The guy hiring told me I was qualified but he could not give me the job, because I was an American, and a woman to boot.)

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