The grade: B
Memorable quote: Travel is always like this, I remind myself. Uneven, with stretches of loneliness and anxiety followed by unparalleled moments of bliss and discovery. In the droughts, I have to learn to trust that the joy will come.
My thoughts: Steil is a 30 something newspaper writer in New York City who moves to Yemen for a year to edit the English language newspaper the Yemen Observer and teach the staff the fundamentals of American journalism (sample lesson: just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true). She encounters cultural differences (see my Teaser Tuesday quotes about Allah and deadlines and gender in Yemen) but grows to love the country so much she can’t bear to leave. She currently lives in Yemen with her fiancée and their daughter (this isn’t a spoiler–it’s on the book jacket).
Steil is a newspaper writer, so the writing is straightforward and reads quickly. For me, it was sometimes too much like a newspaper. She relays a situation with very little reflection or analysis, aside from her current thoughts at the time. This is good journalism—let the reader draw his or her own conclusions–but for a memoir, I would have appreciated a little more editorializing, particularly in respect to gender relations and the treatment of women in Yemen. Of course, this is my own personal issue—I was a women’s studies student and I am a self-identified feminist. I agree with Nick Kristof and Hillary Clinton and everyone else who has said that women’s rights are the battle of the 21st century. When Steil writes about the disrespect (and sometimes downright bullying) her female staffers are subjected to from the male staffers, I wanted her to be as angry and outraged as I am, rather than simply relaying the facts of what happened. I am irate that women are denied something as basic as sunshine, to the point that their skin becomes “grey and mottled” under their abayas. I suspect Steil is too, but she has been trained to leave opinion on the Op-Ed page. I wish her editor had explained that a memoir is also a place for opinion and editorializing.
My pet peeve aside, Steils book is a worthwhile read. She has an excellent passage I must quote in full about the importance of reading:
This learned aversion to education and absence of a culture of reading puts my journalists and the entire Yemeni population at an immense disadvantage when it comes to understanding the world at large and the range of human experience. How can people understand other ways of life and the world beyond their borders without the aid of books and newspapers? How does one develop compassion for someone with a completely different set of values without reading something from their point of view? Books are one of the few ways in which we can truly get into the heads of people we would never meet in our ordinary lives and travel to countries we would otherwise never visit.
I would otherwise never visit Yemen, but in a way I have travelled to Yemen through Steil’s book. I’ve seen the gingerbread houses of Sana’a and the markets overflowing with dates and pomegranates. My understanding of the range of human experience has expanded and for that I say shukran (thank you), Jennifer.