First Edition

by Jennifer Steil MFA '96

Adapted from "The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen" 

In my second day of work, I arrive hours before my staff. (I have a staff! Okay, I am a little excited.) Only Qasim is there, so I give him one of the Jacques Torres chocolate bars I brought as gifts (it is impossible to find good chocolate in Yemen) and three Hershey bars for his three kids (who aren’t yet picky about chocolate). When Radia and Zuhra arrive, I give them embroidered silk Chinese purses, stuffed with soap and chocolate and hand-woven change purses. Accessories are important in Yemen, where the basic outfit doesn’t alter much from day to day. Radia is shyly pleased, while Zuhra announces her gift to everyone in sight. 

I hold my first staff meeting that morning. Everyone tells me which stories they are writing and when they will get them to me. It is difficult to pin down exact deadlines, because when I ask, for example, if Bashir can get me a story by 1 p.m., the answer is “Insha’allah.” If God is willing. Never, in my entire year, would I be able to get a reporter to say to me, “Yes, I will finish the story by 1 p.m.” In Yemen, nothing happens unless Allah wills it. And as it turns out, Allah is no great respecter of newspaper deadlines. 

“Insha’allah” is also murmured reflexively after almost anything stated in the future tense. It makes Yemenis nervous when you leave it out. If I were to say to a Yemeni man, for example, “I am traveling to France next week but will return to Yemen Thursday,” he would automatically add “Insha’allah.” 

Ibrahim, who writes front-page stories for each issue from his home office, joins us, expressing great joy over my arrival. He invites me to a qat chew, which surprises me because I didn’t know that women could go to qat chews with men. But apparently Western women are treated as a third sex in Yemen and thus can wander back and forth from male to female worlds. Western men, on the other hand, do not have this advantage.

   This explains why my male staff members offer me immediate deference. To them I am not really a woman; I am a giraffe. Something alien and thus unclassifiable in the familiar male/female cubbyholes. Were a Yemeni woman to take over the paper, most of the men would quit in protest. They do not treat their female colleagues with anything like the respect with which they treat me, and they’d rather die on the spot than ask a Yemeni woman for help or advice on a story. But oddly, they rarely mind deferring to me.

Al-Asaadi is the exception. It doesn’t take long for me to figure out that he does mind deferring to me, though he makes an initial effort to disguise his resentment. He is always smiling and polite, but he never shows up at the office on time in the mornings when all of the other reporters arrive. He often ignores my deadlines, filing his stories when he feels like filing them. These things tell me that I may be filling his shoes, but he is still his own boss. Thankfully, though, he does show up to the editorial meeting on my second day and is helpful in suggesting which reporters should work on which articles.

After I send everyone off to pursue their stories, I spend the bulk of the morning editing a health story Najma has written about the psychological impact of eating various foods. There isn’t a single source in the entire piece. When I go to the newsroom to ask her to come talk with me about the story, her eyes widen in terror. 

“This won’t be painful!”
I say, trying not to laugh.
“I am just going to help you.”

Zuhra rushes over to reassure her. “Don’t be afraid,” she says as I lead Najma toward the conference room. “There is no one more supportive.”

I explain to the trembling Najma that we need to know where the information in her story comes from, so that our readers can judge its legitimacy. If we are to contend that Brazil nuts can elevate a person’s mood, then we need to be able to quote a specific study from a university or a hospital that provides such a thing.

This is all new to her. It seems she had thought that the mere fact that the words would appear in newsprint would give them authority. This was a common mind-set. One of the greatest challenges I would have working with Yemeni journalists is that they are too trusting, too willing to believe whatever they are told. In a deeply religious society such as this one, children are raised to take everything on faith, unquestioningly. The flip side is that they often do not feel they have to prove their contentions. I have to undo years of conditioning. 

 … the next day, my third day at work, we close my first issue. It takes 19 hours. Yet I am not unhappy, even with the overwhelming amount of work to do. The thing about being at the top of the masthead is there is never any question of leaving early or leaving anything undone. I find something very comforting about succumbing to this total commitment; it eliminates all other choices. I’m going to make this a better paper or die trying. I have nothing else to distract me. I am free of an intimate relationship, having just ended a turbulent on-again, off-again romance in New York; I haven’t time to socialize outside of work; and I have no other deadlines. I can give the paper everything. I will have to.

I wake at 6 a.m. and walk to work. Men stare at me as I pass—it’s unusual to see a woman walking alone, particularly one with blue eyes and uncovered hair—but their comments are mostly benign. Everywhere I go, I am showered with “Welcome to Yemen!”s and “I love you!”s. I stopped covering my hair after I realized it made no difference in the amount of attention I attracted and because Yemenis kept asking me, “Why do you cover your hair? You’re a Westerner!” The morning is deliciously cool and crisp. Sana’anis are not early risers, so the streets don’t get busy until close to 11 a.m.

When the women get in, I consult with Zuhra, who is fast becoming my right-hand woman, and send Najma and Noor to cover a Japanese flower-arranging demonstration. Hardly real news, but it’s a nice easy way to break them in and get them used to reporting outside of the office. I have to send them together, so that neither has to travel alone in a car with a man. It can damage a woman’s reputation to be seen alone in a taxi with a male driver. 

… I spend the morning editing the Panorama page, a collection of editorials from the other Yemeni papers, and Najma’s article about a course that trains women to manage money. It’s an interesting story, but she hasn’t talked with any of the women at the workshop, other than the instructor. “You should have talked with a minimum of 15 women who participated in the workshop,” I say. “Their personal stories are what would really make this interesting.” Too late for this issue. (I have to let a lot of things slide in this first issue.) But Najma seems to understand. So. It’s a start.

I write and edit all day, with no break, save for the 20 minutes I spend walking to the Jordanian sandwich shop with Zuhra. “You need to take a breath,” she says. Back at the office, Zuhra helps me figure out which pages are missing stories. Farouq still hasn’t turned up, so we have nothing for the front or local pages. I try not to panic. I ring Ibrahim at his home office to ask him about the Election page, and he sends over two stories, promising a third by noon. Al-Asaadi promises at least one front-page story. Clearly we need more staff.

Luke swings around my doorjamb toward lunch, flushed with excitement. “Did you hear?” he says.
“The crocodile hunter died.”

“No! Steve Irwin?”

“Yes.”

“What killed him, a crocodile?”

“Stingray. Right through the heart.”

“Jesus.”

“So—front page?”

“Perfect. We have nothing else.”

“It’s definitely of global significance.”

Luke pops into my office often to chat or to trade stories. A half hour later, he walks in holding an enormous jar of amber liquid. “I just accidentally bought 30 dollars’ worth of honey,” he says.

Accidentally?

“Well, I was with al-Asaadi, and there was this guy he usually gets honey from, so I ordered some too, but I didn’t realize it would be this big! Or that it would cost 30 dollars.” He looks forlornly at the enormous jar in his hands. “I have enough honey to last me a year.”

“Well,” I say, “I guess you’d better learn to bake.”

“You don’t bake with Yemeni honey! It’s too special for that.”

“It can’t be really good Yemeni honey,” says Zuhra, who has just walked in. “If it were really good Yemeni honey, it would have cost you 80 dollars. At least.”

Later in the afternoon, al-Asaadi pops his head into our office. “How about we don’t have a front page this issue? What do you think?”

I shrug. “I can live without it.”

But the banter hides a growing panic. The later it gets, the more we shuffle stories from page to page. We don’t have enough local stories, so I suggest we move a story on the back page to the local page and that I quickly write the story on the batik exhibit to replace the back page. It is infinitely easier to churn out a story myself than to rewrite one of theirs. I feel some guilt over this, but not much. It’s just one story. 

Zuhra leaves for work around 3 p.m., as she and the other girls must be home before dark.
She is distressed to leave me on my own, worried I will never survive without her. 

“I’ll be fine,” I say with a complete lack of conviction. “We just might not have a front page.”

She looks at me with concern.

“Do you maybe need to swim?” she says.

I laugh. “Not today,” I say, gesturing toward the stack of pages waiting to be edited. “Tomorrow.” 

 Al-Asaadi returns from a long lunch around 4 p.m. and throws a handful of qat next to my computer. “This will help,” he says. My energy flagging, I follow his lead. The qat tastes extra bitter, and the shiny leaves are hard to chew. But I imagine that al-Asaadi knows where to buy the best qat, so I assume it is good vintage. It must be, given how much I immediately perk up. With newfound vigor, I whip out a 955-word story on the batik exhibit in less than an hour. No wonder everyone loves this drug.

I file the story and run upstairs to choose photos with Mas, the paper’s precocious 19-year-old photographer. When I return, a pile of new things to edit is waiting on my desk. Ibrahim’s election stories are thin; everything I edit ends up half its original length. My reporters repeat themselves ad nauseam.

Around 10 p.m., when I finally start to crash from the qat, dinner arrives. We all eat outside in the courtyard, standing around a table piled with roti (Yemeni baguettes) and plates of fasooleah (beans), eggs, ful, cheese, and tea. We fall upon the food like a pack of wolves. I am the last to leave the table, reluctantly, with a fistful of bread.

My energy is back. Good thing, too, given how much is still left to do. The flash-drive-passing between me and Luke accelerates. I edit the stories, then he edits them, then I see them again on the page, and then he sees them one last time. I don’t take a step out of the building from the time I get there—8:30 a.m.—until the time I leave, in the early hours of the following morning. Yet I am so busy that the day feels short. So many times in those first few weeks, when my reporters come to me with a question, I instinctively think I should run it by someone else. Someone in charge. But slowly, it begins to sink in that the only person responsible for these decisions is me. 

Miraculously, by 3 a.m. we have a front page. And a local page. And an election page, a health page, a reports page, and panorama and Middle East and op-ed. In fact, we have an entire newspaper! We all high-ten each other and say, “Mabrouk!” (Congratulations!) I am briefly euphoric before a terrifying thought occurs to me: We have to do it all
over again. Starting in about six hours. 

Copyright 2010 by Jennifer F. Steil. Reprinted by permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Before moving to Yemen, Jennifer Steil MFA ’96 was a senior editor at The Week, which she helped to launch in 2001. Her work has appeared in Time, Life, and Good Housekeeping as well as many newspapers. She met her fiancé Tim Torlot, British ambassador to Yemen, in Sana’a, where she ultimately spent four years. They now live in London with their daughter Theadora Celeste.