The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (8 page)

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
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His American wife helped him write and edit the paper on their one computer. One thousand copies were printed of his first issue, which he delivered himself on foot, by bicycle, and through friends. That was more than a decade ago, in 1996. Faris had since divorced his American wife, who hadn’t taken to life in Yemen, and married a Yemeni woman.

By the time Theo summoned me, the paper was printing about five thousand copies of each issue. It still lost money, but it was important enough to Faris that he continued to personally fund it. Besides, Faris was a wealthy man. Profits from his business ventures—not government money—funded the
Yemen Observer
, Faris was quick to tell me. This was his way of claiming the paper was independent, despite his lofty connections. After all, serving as the president’s media adviser (and later his secretary) was not an ideal position for someone who owned a newspaper struggling to be seen as objective. But it was a perfect position for a driven, passionate man with infinite ambitions for his country.

When I arrived in Faris’s office, he was seated behind an enormous desk, fiddling with his computer. He stood up to shake my hand. Only briefly did his eyes meet mine before darting around the room, as if making sure I hadn’t arrived with a retinue of spies. Faris’s eyes were always moving. I introduced myself and explained what I hoped to do with my class. He seemed properly impressed and expressed deep gratitude for my presence. I expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to assist him. I gave him a copy of
The Week
, the magazine for which I write science, health, theatre, travel, and art pages, which he flipped through so quickly the pages blurred. I suddenly panicked as I realized I’d given him the copy with a cover story on gay marriage. The minimum punishment for homosexuality in Yemen is death. I stammered an explanation, but Faris didn’t seem concerned.

“Of course we understand,” he said. “Things are different there.”

Before I left, he handed me a stack of thirty issues of the
Yemen Observer
. “Read these and tell me how to make it better,” he said. “What sections are good, what sections to get rid of, and also, please read this interview I wrote and tell me what you think of it and how I can do better interviews in the future.”

Staggering under the tower of newsprint, I took the papers to an empty office downstairs and read until my eyes dried out. I had managed only about an hour of sleep the night before. I can’t remember ever having had such terrible insomnia, a combination of jet lag, nervousness about teaching, and the wild euphoria of travel. I was in rough shape.

Despite this, the excitement I felt about my class carried me along, and I managed to take about thirty pages of notes on the back issues of the
Yemen Observer

Reporters kept popping in to see me. “About that argument with Theo,” said Adel. “Has he ever lied to you about money before?”

I was impressed—I had thought that none of them would think to interview either Theo or myself. Bravo, Adel! Then al-Matari popped in to ask me several questions about his story and journalism in general. Several small boys visited me periodically to bring me silver cups of water. I had no idea where they came from. Several men stopped in my doorway simply to stare at me.

During our meeting, Faris had asked me if I had any special needs during my stay, and I had told him that I would like to go for a swim if at all possible. I am hopelessly addicted to exercise. So after I had a quick falafel lunch with Theo, Faris sent one of his drivers to fetch me and drive me to the Sheraton, which has one of the only lap pools women can use. (All sports clubs in Yemen are sex-segregated, but the biggest hotels—the Sheraton and the Mövenpick—have coed pools.)

Water is my second home, and the emotional relief submersion brought was instantaneous. Stripped of my Yemeni drapery, I was exhilarated to feel the water and sun on my skin. I was Jennifer again. I recognized myself. As my elbows began their rhythmic rise and fall, the anxieties of the morning dispersed, rising through my body and out my fingertips, dissolving in the chlorine.

I swam for an hour, despite the best efforts of the small boys playing at the end of the pool to thwart me. At first, they just liked to get in my way and dodge me at the last minute, but then they began to imitate my stroke, splashing clumsily after me. I outlasted them, and finally they pulled their shivering grayish-brown bodies out of the pool and wrapped themselves in blanket-size towels, staring reproachfully at me as I serenely continued my laps.

When I arrived back at the
, revivified and still damp (it wasn’t until nearly a year later that a Yemeni friend informed me that going about with wet hair was frowned upon, as it suggested one had just emerged from a bedroom romp—Yemenis shower after sex), I met with Faris and a new reporter named Hakim, a Detroit-born Yemeni. Hakim had joined us from the rival
Yemen Times
, where he and the editor had mutually decided to part ways. Faris had great hopes for him, as his English was better than that of most of our reporters and he had a modicum of journalism training. They peppered me with questions about the paper’s format, and I told them exactly what I thought should be on every single page. After slaving away for other people for ten years, I was filled with the heady satisfaction of being treated like an authority. I was surprised by the things I knew and by how certain I felt that my suggestions were right.

By eight
., I thought I might swoon from exhaustion. But just when I feared I would be there all night, Faris invited me to dinner with him and three Tunisian models for
Arabia Felix
. So, at nearly eight thirty, after more than twelve hours of work, we headed out of the office.

Faris escorted us to a Chinese restaurant, where he ordered for all of us. Thirty dishes must have arrived, heaped with vegetables and fish and meats and rice and spring rolls. As soon as we were seated, the three stunning Tunisian women leaned back in their chairs and lighted their cigarettes in unison. They smoked through most of the meal. The chubbiest girl (still devastatingly beautiful) ate nothing but a few grains of rice, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Refusing an offer of food from a Yemeni is a major slight, so I ate twice as much to make up for her rudeness. But Faris was rude right back to her.

“You are not eating much but you are a big girl,” he said. “Will you go eat when we are not watching?”

The girls spent most of the meal complaining about Yemen in various tongues. They had so much
in Tunisia. In Tunisia, women don’t have to cover their bodies. In Tunisia, the food is much better than Chinese food. Yet their contracts as flight attendants with Yemenia Airways would keep them in Yemen for the next three years. God help the Yemenis.

“Tunisia is a dictatorship,” Faris told me. “But the dictator is liberal—he had all of the women remove their
, and now they are free. But if Tunisia were to become a democracy, the Islamists would win an election in a landslide, and women would be sent back centuries.” This fascinated me. “In Algeria, this happened,” said Faris. “It used to be fairly liberal until it became a democracy, and the Islamists swept elections. They are still fighting there.”

I wondered if the same could happen here. Yemen was moving toward democracy. Would that result in an even more conservative and restrictive culture? Faris didn’t seem to think so. Saleh was almost guaranteed reelection, and Yemen was already an Islamic country.

When we left the restaurant at around ten
., Faris invited me to watch the World Cup with him and his friend Jalal, who had joined us, but I begged off. “If I don’t get to bed I will be useless to you tomorrow!”

So Faris had Salem drive me home. I was asleep three seconds after I crawled into bed, although I woke briefly at three thirty to hear
“Allaaaaahhhu Akbar!”
wail through loudspeakers across the city. A sound that would become as familiar to me as the rumble and blare of Manhattan traffic.

that things would slow down after that marathon first day, I was seriously mistaken. Every day I accumulated new students, every day more of my reporters dragged me off after class to edit their stories, every day Faris would think up some new thing he wanted from me. In addition, I began studying Arabic for an hour a day with a tutor. I almost never slept.

But while I had never worked so hard in my life, I had never felt so useful or so motivated to get to the office. Letting down this group of reporters who had so willingly handed me their trust was unthinkable. They really thought I could turn them into professional journalists. I had to live up to their hopes. Besides, I kept telling myself, it’s only three weeks. I can go flat out for three weeks. There will be time for sleep when I get home.

Still, there were moments when the size of the task overwhelmed me. I was expected to achieve something lasting during my short stay, but when I saw the stories my reporters wrote about my staged fight with Theo, that suddenly seemed impossible. Almost all lacked a coherent first sentence. Most got the facts wrong. And not one of them used anything approaching proper English. This last problem was not something I could fix. No matter how dedicated I was, I could not perfect the English of fifteen reporters in a few weeks. So I focused on what I could change: structure, reporting, and accuracy.

We began our second class by reading these pieces aloud. Here is Zaid’s, in its exuberant entirety.

It was very surprising for everybody to see Theo acting that way. The exchange that people heard between the two, Theo and Jennifer is anything but understood. Theo talking to Jennifer or let’s say quarreling with her over a fifty dollars that she owed him or he give it to her, we don’t exactly know. The quarrel heated a little and we all saw Theo snatching Jennifer’s purse and rushed outside after asking for her camera. What did he do with her purse outside we all didn’t know if really did something from her purse.
I myself was perplexed as I have never seen Theo in this manner especially with a nice woman like Jennifer. We all knew Theo very well. To him money is no object and will never quarrel over it with anybody specially those who are very close to him. Probably Jennifer is the last person who would quarrel with over it. She is the one who responded to his call and came to Yemen in order to train us. She left a dying grandfather and rushed to middle of a place she never knew about. She can never ever be treated this way. It was more of a joke I reckoned in second thought.
But when I looked deeply inside the eyes of the two I saw chemistry. I learned that they both were together in grade 11 and 12 and very competitive. So the whole thing happened between the two is Theo recollection of the memories that he terribly missed back in his school days that were brought back to his mind with the presence of Jennifer. Jennifer brought back all the sweet memories and things that Theo was craving. One could see that from the way he talks and the active attitude he took since the arrival of Jennifer.

Theo and I were laughing too hard to talk at first. “So,” I finally managed. “I see you’ve written an opinion piece. Or was that news analysis?”

After all, I had not told them what
of news story to write. I wasn’t quite sure where to start.

“Um, Zaid, I guess I wasn’t looking for quite so much
. I want to see all of you write a straightforward news lead, with that who, what, where, when, and how that we talked about. Tell us what happened without your personal views interfering with the action.”

Zaid nodded and wrote something down in his flowered notebook. (Yemeni men were quite comfortable carrying around notebooks festooned with flowers, hearts, or cartoon characters, something that charmed and amused me, given how macho their culture seemed from the outside.) I noticed a tape recorder on the table in front of him, its red light flashing.

“Zaid? Are you tape-recording me?”

“Yes!” He smiled. “I am going to memorize everything you tell us. I need to have it to refer to.”

“I see.” I was flattered, but now I’d have to watch what I said.

“Okay then, who is next? Let’s look at Arwa’s story.”

Arwa had written a newsier piece. “In her first class as a trainer in
Yemen Observer
, Jennifer’s camera is taken by Theo Panderos who work also as an editor of
Arabia Felix
magazine,” her story began.

This illustrated a few more of my challenges. Where did I start with prose like this? Grammar? The importance of spelling names correctly? (Theo’s surname is Padnos.) The use of the passive voice?

Arwa continued: “The accident happened after a cute an argument between them … Eyewitnesses said that Theo burst in anger shut the windows close, picked up her bag from meeting table before he pushed out of the room, neglecting all her attempts to explain. ‘Don’t attend my class again, Theo,’ Jennifer said.”

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
2.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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