“Boy, those French: They have a different word for everything!” ~Steve Martin
The Woman Who Fell From The Sky is the story of an amoral American home wrecker who moves to Yemen for a year to be the Editor of an English language newspaper. Ok, the homewrecking bit comes late in the story, but it cast it’s shadow over the entire book for me.
Jennifer Steil encounters reporters who don’t read or write very good English, a culture where women are treated as third or fourth class citizens, and the fondness of everyone in Yemen for Qat-the mood altering drug of choice. She also laments the fact that she can only find two lovers during her year in Yemen, and it doesn’t really bother her much that one of them is married with children.
Our hero, Jennifer The Infidel, finds herself in the same position as everyone else who has entered a radically different country over the past few thousand years-she likes it, but at the same time, wants to change everything she can about it. Living in Yemen brings out both her desire to go native and her desire to be an imperialist. She is much more accepting of this strange new world than I would be, but then, she seems to have the best of both worlds. Being a woman without having to be a Muslim woman gives her a lot of freedom and being in charge of a newspaper gives her a bit of power.
Yemen is a Muslim country where the women have to cover their hair, their faces, and well, just about everything except their eyes. Jennifer makes it clear near the start of the story that they do not wear a burqa, those full body trash bags the West tends to think of when it comes to female oppression. But then the garments she goes on to describe sound, to me, to be exactly the same as the burqa/full body trash bags, only they have a different name. All women and girls were scarfs that cover their hair and faces in public, must be home before dark, and must do as they are told by whatever man is in charge of them.
Jennifer, a bisexual who likes a good time, likes Yemen, but she misses having random lovers and getting drunk. So she figures out that places like The British Embassy have booze and she finds other foreigners to have sex with. At one point before she finds this new sex partner, she gets into a bit of trouble when a friend ships her a sex toy-which is among the seemingly endless list of forbidden items in the fine land of Yemen. The vibrator was shipped with a number of other things, such as chewing gum, a laptop battery, and a few other random items-all of which are confiscated for being sexually related.
On the other hand, so to speak, we have Yemen men, one of which masturbates while Jennifer is in the back seat of his taxi. It is common for Yemen men to yell at Jennifer and tell her that they love her and that she is beautiful. It is also common for men to have more than one wife, and it seems a common enough practice to flirt with as many women as they can find. Odd, since a woman can have her life ruined if she is seen riding in a taxi alone with the male driver.
Everyone in Yemen is fond of Qat, a drug that is delivered to the system by chewing the plant’s leafs. Qat is an amazing drug in that it doesn’t travel well and looses it’s potency within hours of being harvested. This doesn’t seem to be a problem here, as everyone has a Qat Chew whenever possible. Many of Jennifer’s male reporters chew Qat while at work and Jennifer herself chews Qat when she wants to be social or meet a deadline.
One of my gripes about The Woman Who Fell From The Sky is how Jennifer treats her employees. She calls them Her Men and Her Women, which smacks a bit too much of slavery for my taste. Her Overload attitude shines through and shows that she thinks of them as lesser beings, not merely employees. The fact that she is educated and knows a good deal more about the world does not, in fact, make her better than the people of Yemen, only different. This small misconception has lead to countless problems over the years with all manner of travelers.
This is not to say that her staff was not ignorant of the most basic facts-they believe all kinds of weird and odd things and they need some serious education. It’s just that if you volunteer to live in the land that time forgot, you really don’t have any right to complain when everyone there thinks your the idiot with strange ideas.
Then there is the ironic bit of business that she makes constant fun of the Yemen sense of moral conduct or the lack thereof-but she herself has no morals and sees nothing wrong with breaking as many of the local laws and customs as she feels like. She lives in a country where being gay and committing adultery are punishable by death, but clearly Jennifer believes these laws are meant for the locals and not for her.
I liked The Woman Who Fell From The Sky right up until the point where Jennifer giddily tells of how happy she was to be a homewrecking slut. Yes, Tim Torlot’s wife and child are unhappy and promptly get kicked out of the country, but so what? Jennifer got her MAN! Whoopee!
I know, it’s the 21th Century and everyone screws everyone else all the time in the movies, on TV, in novels, in comic books, and so and so forth-but I don’t need the occasional splash of adultery in my Culture Shock story to spice it up. I don’t want to see Anthony Bourdain or Samantha Brown breaking up marriages as they wanders the backwaters of the world-and I don’t want to see some small time newspaper editor breaking up marriages either.
The last lines of The Woman Who Fell From The Sky tell us that Jennifer is still not married, has had a bastard, and is as happy as could be living the soft life of an Ambassador’s mistress in Yemen.