The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (6 page)

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
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As I continued on, having no idea where I was headed, a teenage boy called out, “Hello, heavenly!” Which I have to say is somewhat of a step up from what I get called on the streets of New York.

I left the busiest part of the
souq
for quieter streets. I had no idea where I was or which direction was home. It got darker. Intrigue lurked in the shadows at every corner. The winding, dimly lighted cobblestone streets seemed ideally suited for a first kiss. And yet, this was a temptation to be resisted here, where a simple gesture of affection between a man and a woman could ruin their lives. The most romantic of atmospheres, squandered. Not, I reminded myself, that I was here for romance.

I felt my gait change as I walked farther and farther into the heart of the city. Gone was my confident New York swagger, gone was the flirtatious swing of my hips, gone was the dare in my eyes. Rather than holding my chin up and brazenly meeting the gaze of passersby, as I was accustomed to doing in New York and everywhere else, I kept my face cast downward. I became someone else.

TWO
reading, writing, and robbery

Eight pairs of dark eyes were fixed on me as I scribbled “THE ROLE OF THE
PRESS” on the dry-erase board at the front of the classroom in large green letters. There were three women, all but their eyes obscured by black fabric, and five men, most in polo shirts and slacks. They sat around a long, rectangular table that took up most of the room. Across the hall from us was the newsroom, where these reporters had been busy at their computers before Theo and I had rounded them up.

So far I had managed to disguise my stark terror that I would be found out to be a charlatan. I was still waiting for one of these strangers in front of me to raise his or her voice in scorn and say, “And who are
you
to tell us what to do? Do you think you know better than us just because you are a
westerner?”
Who was I indeed? Just a smallish New Yorker dressed up like a poor facsimile of an Arab, who had no idea if she had anything of use to offer these people. I wished I had had more time to see the country, to read the Qur’an, to study Arabic, more time to sink into this baffling culture, before trying to teach something to its people. I was still off balance, dizzy with the thin air and unfamiliar scents.

It helped a little that I did not look like myself. I had braided my hair and pinned it up on my head, had left my face free of makeup, and wore a long loose black blouse over a black skirt, with a black shawl over that. I felt like a spinster schoolteacher, someone sexless and dry. The costume was already altering my behavior; it is impossible to feel flirty with one’s form obscured by yards of fabric.

My every affectionate impulse had been carefully handcuffed and tied to a chair. Yet I still fretted that I would accidentally smile flirtatiously at one of the men and instantly lay waste to my reputation. I couldn’t, however, refrain from looking men in the eyes. Certainly not here, when I had to see their eyes to know if they had received what I was saying.

The classroom was plain but comfortable, like the building that housed it. While the three-story
Yemen Observer
office building, protected by high walls and a guard, was a less charming, more modern version of the Old City’s gingerbread houses (factory-made
qamaria
instead of handcrafted windows, simple stone instead of mud bricks), it still managed to be pretty. Filigrees of white wrought iron shielded the dozen or so arched front windows, and the large, sunny courtyard was draped with a canopy of grapevines. Three marble steps led to a spacious central hallway, where Enass, the newspaper’s zaftig secretary, served as gatekeeper. To the right was the newsroom, to the left the conference room I was using for my class. Upstairs was the office of the mysterious Faris al-Sanabani, whom I still hadn’t met, as well as the office of
Arabia Felix
, the glossy magazine he owned in addition to the
Observer
.

“So, why do we have a press anyway?” I asked, turning to my class. “What kind of role do you think it should play in society? Why is it important?” The hand holding the marker trembled slightly, and I lowered my arm to hide it.

Silence. I could hear the sound of water running outside in the courtyard, where a tall man was spraying the rows of flowering plants with a hose. Finally, a small pillar of rayon piped up.

“Press is the consciousness of the public.”

“Okay,” I said, turning to her with relief. “How?”

She leaned forward, releasing a sudden torrent of words that tumbled over each other in their hurry to leave her lips. “It is a judge without a court; its authority comes from people. Therefore, people have to respond to journalists; otherwise they hide the truth. Press people know that they are the mouthpiece of people. People do not understand that we are like messengers; our mission is to deliver the message. If we deliver the message, without any faults, protecting the message from being changed during the way, and hand it over to the right people, in the right manner, we are doing the best favor to people and to those who sent the message.”

She went on, without taking a breath, without even looking around her, the words flying out as if she had been waiting for someone to ask her this question for years. Her tiny hands stretched across the table, making rapid, birdlike gestures to give emphasis to her words.

“Life is a cycle. Each one of us has his or her part; if we are able to do that successfully, we will have a successful life. For example, how many nominees for the U.S. election fail because there are some journalists who reveal some truth about them? So, if there are not some good journalists, those people might win these posts and then make a damage to the country. Take the Abu Ghraib scandal as an example: If there were not good journalists to dig up the truth, no one would find out. After the journalists reveal that prison’s scandals, the role of the NGOs and others follows. It is like the players at the opening ceremony of the Olympics: Each one gives the other the torch until they light up the biggest torch. If someone fails, there will not be the Olympic torch.”

At last she took a breath, her eyes anxiously searching my face. For a moment, I was rendered speechless. Her classmates stared at her. Two of the men, Farouq and Qasim, began laughing.

“Hey,” said Theo, who in high school would have been laughing alongside of them, “we have to respect everyone’s opinion here if we’re going to learn. If you want us to listen to you, you have to listen to everyone else.”

“That’s right.” My mind was slightly eased by this reassurance that Theo was on my side. “Everyone’s opinion is equally valuable to me. I want to hear what all of you have to say.”

The men quieted down.

I turned to the woman I would quickly come to know as Zuhra and smiled at her. While it was difficult at first to tell the women apart, Zuhra was easy to identify by the silver-rimmed glasses perched between her
hijab
and
niqab
. And the fact that she pretty much never stopped talking. She had been the only person in the newsroom when I arrived, so I had met her first. “This is Zuhra,” Theo had said. “She should be running this place.”

“That was a lovely definition. You are right in that by reporting something responsibly, by telling readers about the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, we could possibly keep such things from happening again. And yes, the press is, in a way, the conscience of a people. You’ve obviously been thinking about this!” I copied a few of her comments to the board. “Thank you. What else?”

“It can help expose corruption?” This from a more sober Farouq.

“Yes, certainly! The press exists in a large sense to keep an eye on the government and let the people know what it’s doing. So we know what our officials are up to with our money.”

More men decided to join in the conversation. “The press can tell people about diseases,” said Adel, the thin, solemn man who covered health and science.

“And about car accidents,” added Qasim. Qasim wasn’t a reporter at all, but was in charge of advertising for the newspaper. He wore a pinstriped suit and tie and reeked of cologne. He looked just like the advertising guys in the New York offices of
The Week
(where I worked), or advertising guys anywhere, really. Qasim never stopped smiling and had a high-pitched giggle that could be heard from any corner of the building. He looked better fed than the other men, who were painfully thin.

“Good. It can also get roads repaired, schools built, and presidents elected. It can help put criminals in jail and facilitate political change,” I said. “It is a powerful tool. Which makes
you
powerful people. And when we are given that kind of power, we want to make sure that we use it ethically, to help people make informed decisions about their lives, their votes, and their investments.”

The other women stayed silent, but Zuhra leaned forward again. “Sorry I am so talkative but there is so much I have to ask you! Could you please tell us, what is it that makes a journalist professional?”

I didn’t have an immediate answer for her. Or rather, I had several. Professional journalists get paid? Professional journalists are accurate? “Professional journalists,” I finally said, “are objective. This means that they keep their emotions out of their stories, that they keep their opinions to themselves, and that they report every side to a story.”

“Why is that important?” Zuhra again.

“Well, because …” This was something we had taken for granted in graduate school as the crucial pillar of journalism. Wasn’t it obvious why objectivity was important? “If you just report one side of a story, your reader is not going to trust you. He will think you are pushing some sort of personal agenda. If you accuse a politician of corruption, but then you do not call the politician for his side of the story, then you have failed to report the whole story and are not using your power responsibly. Also, that politician will decide you are a bad journalist and be afraid to talk to you in the future. More importantly, objectivity is the way to get closest to the truth.”

“But how do you keep yourself from having feelings about a story?” Zuhra again, her pen poised over her notebook. Had I really worried that none of the women would speak up?

I had just begun to answer her—it’s okay to have feelings, as long as they don’t influence your work—when Theo leaped up from his chair.

“Give me my fifty dollars back,” he said.

I stared at him. “What fifty dollars?”

“You took my money yesterday.”

“No—I paid you back, remember? I changed money in the
souq
and gave it to you in
riyals.”

“You’re lying!”

“I never lie! I’m a journalist!”

“You lie like a rug! You never gave me any
riyals!”

“I cannot believe you would accuse me of such a thing! I thought we were friends!”

“Give me my money back or I’ll take it.”

“I don’t owe you anything!” I glared at him, hands on my hips.

“Fine.” He reached across the table, grabbed my big ugly black purse (bought especially so as not to attract attention in Yemen) from the table, and ran from the room.

“I’ll get you for this!” I called after him, running to the door. “But I am not going to chase you! I refuse to interrupt my class!”

I turned back to my students, who were suddenly very alert, staring at me wide-eyed.

“How could Theo do this to you?” said one of the women. They had known Theo for months before I arrived; they liked and trusted him. They were shocked by his behavior toward a guest of honor—one whom he had invited, no less!

I had opened my mouth to answer her, trying very hard not to laugh, when Theo returned to the classroom, tossing my purse on the table, smiling broadly.

“You better check the contents,” said one of the men.

“Yeah,” concurred the others, getting excited about the prospect of drama. “You had better check!”

I looked inside. “Theo? Where’s my camera?”

I couldn’t help smiling a little, and the students caught on to our little performance. “Yes! Where is her camera, Theo?”

“What camera?” asked Theo.

“Okay,” I said. “I want you to write me three paragraphs about what you just saw. What just happened here? Can you remember exactly what we said and did? Make sure you have a good lead, and turn it in to me by eight
A.M
. tomorrow.” They scribbled furiously in their notebooks.

At one end of the table the three women—Zuhra, Radia, and Arwa—sat clustered together. At the other end were the men: Qasim, Farouq, Adel, Mohammed al-Matari (who went by al-Matari), and Theo. The women were all in their early twenties, as were Adel and Farouq. Qasim was a bit closer to my age, and al-Matari was at least a decade older. Theo was exactly my age. I had asked Theo not to participate, as his presence made me nervous, but he had insisted, promising to be supportive and to refrain from the kind of class-clown behavior that got him in trouble in high school. I didn’t believe him, but if I had locked him out of the classroom, he would have simply climbed in the window. Theo had the obedience skills of your average housecat.

Before class, each of my student reporters had greeted me with passionate reverence. “We have been waiting so long for you,” they told me, clutching my hand until my bones hurt. “We are so grateful you have come. We are so honored.” Where was all that anti-American sentiment I had read so much about? Where were the bitter tirades against Western tyranny? The only times American newspapers ever wrote about Yemen were to report violence against Western interests. Yet so far, not one person in this country had been anything short of hospitable. My reporters fell upon me as though I were bestowing on them the greatest favor imaginable. I felt like Princess Diana. I felt like Seymour Hersh. I felt like a tribal sheikh. (Later, I would in fact be given the nickname Sheikah Jenny by the current editor of the paper, Mohammed al-Asaadi, who was curiously absent from my first class.)

There is quite a difference, however, between being an honored guest and being a boss. In these early days, it was impossible to imagine that one of these sweet, docile journalists, who treated me with such courtesy, would some months later try to tear up one of my editorials or storm out of my office. Just as it was impossible to imagine that I would ever raise my voice to them or threaten to dock their pay.

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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