Archive for December, 2011

Book Review & Event ~ The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Jennifer Steil

December 17th, 2011 3 comments

When I first heard about Jennifer Steil’s memoir, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen, I immediately ordered the book. I love reading culture-clash stories about Americans bumbling their way through the Arab World.

Only here’s the thing—it turns out Jennifer Steil wasn’t bumbling. She was successfully running an English-language newspaper in Sana’a–the Yemen Observer.

After a three week stint to train Yemeni journalists, Jennifer returns to her job as an editor in New York City. Yet she finds herself yearning to for Yemen, as her Manhattan life now seems oddly dull compared to Sana’a. She longs to return to accept an offer to run the Yemen Observer for a year.

And so she does.

Jennifer’s memoir recounts her adventures in Yemen, how she throws herself into running the newspaper and whips her staff into shape. In turn, they educate her on Yemeni society, customs, and politics. She integrates herself into her new community, a varied and flawed cast of Yemeni “characters.” She eats meals with them, goes to their homes and weddings and befriends them.

Houses in Old Sana'a, Yemen

Meanwhile, the newsroom of the Yemen Observer is full of drama and power struggles. At one point, an editor is thrown in jail. Later, the newspaper is sued. With marvelous prose, Jennifer recounts the often hilarious day-to-day life in the newsroom.

Particularly interesting are the struggles of her female Yemeni staff, who nearly all wear niqab and come from traditional families. For these women, it poses serious problems simply to interview a man, take a taxi or stay at work past mid-afternoon. Despite all this, the female journalists find ways to work together and excel, often out-performing the men. The star is Jennifer’s Yemeni sidekick, a fellow female journalist named Zuhra.

Jennifer Steil in Dubai

Without relying on the worn-out stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, Jennifer illuminates Yemeni society and problems. The reader learns that half of all Yemenis are illiterate, that Yemen is the poorest Middle Eastern country, and that qat-chewing is a major hindrance to productivity.

This lively memoir is not all about journalism and Yemen. Jennifer writes of her personal life as a single working woman, living in her “gingerbread” house in Old Sana’a. In fact, there is an unexpected romantic twist at the end of the story (which I won’t give away) which turns the book into a page-turning novel.

My only criticism of the book (and it’s minor) is that I wish the book had a map of Yemen and photographs of Old Sana’a. Fortunately, Jennifer has some photos on her website to satisfy my new curiosity about Yemen.

So … when I heard that Jennifer Steil was coming to the UAE (via her Facebook page), I thought her story would be compelling and relevant to Westerners living in Dubai. I suggested she speak to members of the American Women’s Association of Dubai, and Jennifer graciously accepted.

We planned an event at Shakespeare & Company on Jumeirah Beach Road, and 25 women attended. Not surprisingly, Jennifer was a captivating speaker. She talked about her experiences in Yemen, read from her memoir and updated us on the current political situation in Yemen. She also informed us of the looming humanitarian disaster in the country.

You can read more about what is happening in Yemen in this article written by Jennifer Steil for the World Policy Institute: Yemen: Descending into Despair.

Holly, Jennifer Steil & Eileen

Question: Please share your impressions of Yemen or your thoughts on Jennifer Steil’s memoir, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky.


Visit to an Art Gallery in Al Bastakia

December 12th, 2011 4 comments

When a friend invited me to join her on a visit to an art gallery in the Al Bastakia Quarter of Dubai, I readily accepted. She told me we would see an exhibit of photographs of Dubai by an Emirati photographer. It sounded worthwhile. (I could already imagine the photos.) The extra perk was a stroll through Al Bastakia, a district I always enjoy but rarely visit.

Al Bastakia is what I consider the real “Old Town” (not that area around Dubai Mall). The neighborhood is located near the Creek waterfront on the Bur Dubai side, not far from the Dubai Museum. Built at the turn of the century, this quarter has been declared a conservation area, and restoration work has been ongoing.

The area features a number of old, traditional wind tower houses, which were once the homes of wealthy Persian merchants. The wind towers were a traditional form of air-conditioning, whereby cool air was funneled down into the house.

To get to the gallery, we passed old-style shops like this one selling trinkets and even small antique items.

We walked through these narrow, peaceful lanes, and I could sort of imagine the life of the merchants at the turn of the century.

After nearly four minutes of walking, (the area is small) we reached the gallery: Dar Ibn Al Haytham for Visual Arts.

The gallery is a traditional home with a courtyard in the middle and small rooms off each side.

As I said, I already had an image in my mind of the types of photographs we would see—the usual Dubai skyline panoramas, the contrast of old versus new, plus the typical black and white photos of Sheikh Zayed Road in the 1980s, etc., etc. I had seen it all before.

Well, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

We saw a total of five installations, all by the award-winning photographer Jassim Al Awadhi, who was there to give the six of us a guided tour. To me, Jassim is more of a mixed-media artist who manipulates and embellishes his photographs in unexpected ways.

To start, we viewed what I call the “Message in a Bottle” room. This was a whimsical display of photographs inside glass bottles. We were all fascinated by these and we got up really close to study the photos.

This bottle contains a montage of photos.

The bottle below contains a lovely photo of the Dubai Creek.

 And this bottle displays a photo of Sheikh Zayed Road from what appears to be the 1980’s… I knew it!

Next was the room with crumpled photos. Again, we were fascinated. 

What does it mean? Someone asked. Jassim shrugged and shook his head.

To me, the crumpled photos reminded me of a throwaway society, as though one crumples something, tosses it away, but then has a change of heart, and the object is salvaged.

The next room contained framed photos embellished with Arabic calligraphy. Here Jassim explains the significance of fish in Emirati society as he points out the calligraphy written on the fish.

 Here’s a closer view of the fish. Unfortunately, this photo is not very sharp, but you should still get an idea of the calligraphy on the fish.

This is my favorite photograph—an exquisite image of an old, modest Arabic door, covered with small, tidy Arabic calligraphy (added to the photo by the artist). 

Next were the colored photographs. These were sepia-toned photos of the fruit and vegetable market and the fish souk that the artist had softly colored in.


Here is a close-up of the fish. The color is subtle, but it’s there. It seems Jassim enjoys photographing fish. I was drawn to these images as well. 

Finally, the last room—the most unexpected and challenging of all the installations. In this small room were about a dozen of these black-cloaked images, each about 6 feet tall.

Upon closer inspection, each piece contains an x-ray image covered in some variation of Arabic letters, numbers and calligraphy. These images got us all talking, thinking and speculating. 

Some of us in our group made guesses as to the meaning behind these unusual pieces. Jassim just smiled and shrugged. But he did suggest that the installation had something to do with his police work, his specialty being CSI, crime scene investigation. But he wouldn’t say more.

Jassim Al Awadhi has been taking photos for over 30 years now. Most recently he has been Assistant Professor in the Photography Department of the American University of Sharjah and the Chairman and a Founding Member of the UAE Photography Club. His work has exhibited extensively in the UAE as well as Syria, Egypt, Jordan, India and Europe. He also works for Dubai Police.

The Dar Ibn Al Hayam for Visual Arts is located in Al Bastakia, house number 17. This exhibit is showing until December 20, 2011. For more information, call 04 353 5321.

Question: What are your impressions of Al Bastakia and the area around?

Red, White, and … Black & Green ~ It’s UAE National Day!

December 1st, 2011 8 comments

December 2nd is National Day in the United Arab Emirates. The country has been in overdrive for weeks in anticipation, as this 40th anniversary is a big one for the UAE.

The United Arab Emirates is an amazingly young country. Many people walking around have memories of when Sheikh Zayed united the seven emirates and the various tribes into the one union. In fact, the slogan for this year’s National Day is “Spirit of the Union.” This is the logo:

This whole week has been full of funny little surprises. For example, last weekend, my husband and I were eating falafel sandwiches in Sharjah on the canal in Al Qasbah, when this patriotic marching band came by, complete with performers on stilts.

Naturally, the celebrations across the UAE have been endless. For example, an airshow recently took place on the Abu Dhabi Corniche.

(Photo courtesy of The National newpaper.)

Meanwhile, manufacturers are cashing in, selling all sorts of National Day-themed products, including clothing, accessories, food and even limited-edition cars. One of my favorites is at Bloomingdale’s in Dubai Mall: the UAE-themed tote, which can be yours for 150 dirhams ($41). 

Emiratis express their national pride in many ways. Most common is vehicle adornment. Below is a mild example; some vehicles have every inch decorated.

Lots of Emiratis display flags at their homes. I don’t mean standard-sized flags like Americans hang for Fourth of July. No. When Emiratis do something, they do it big—I’m talking about 20-foot, 50-foot and even 100-foot flags. Here are just a couple villas in my neighborhood. 

This past week, my kids’ school has been going all out for National Day. The students dressed in the colors of the country and formed a human flag on the football field.

Meanwhile, the school parking attendants were required to wear patriotic vests this week. 

Here’s a photo of my kids observing National Day. My two older kids are wearing UAE national dress—kandura for the men, abaya for the women. 

Finally, I’d like to end with song. This song was written and produced by Ms. Jules & Mr. Jones of the music and theater department at my children’s school. If you listen for 2 minutes you’ll hear all the lyrics, written in honor of National Day. I think it’s lovely. Click here and tell me what you think: Song for National Day ~ This is Home (The Spirit of the Union)

If you’d like to know more about UAE culture, here are some of my favorite things about the UAE.

Questions: What are your impressions of National Day?

                    How are you going to spend the holiday?