Freya Stark

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painting of Freya Stark in 1923

Freya Stark (1893-1993), a daring English woman, traveled expensively through the Middle East and wrote outstanding pieces about her adventures. She lived in Damascus and first made a name for herself entering the forbidden territory of the Syrian Druze.

Sibylle Duda wrote in Fembio: “Raised in Italy and England by liberal-minded parents, Freya Stark already spoke several languages as a child. Riding and mountaineering were part of her education, and with her mother and grandmother as role models she developed into an unconventional woman who was as at home in elegant salons as she was able to deal with poverty and physical exertion. In spite of her delicate and sickly constitution, Freya Stark was tough and tenacious. [Source: Fembio, translated by Ute Methner and Joey Horsley ^^]

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: While visiting a factory, 13-year-old Freya “got her long hair caught in some machinery, and was yanked free so fiercely that her scalp was torn and her right ear ripped entirely off. The repairing surgery required painful skin grafts, and afterward she always combed her hair carefully over the right side, and wore little bonnets or, later on, big hats. She took refuge in books, completed correspondence courses, and finally managed to go off to college in London; she would have preferred Grenoble, but her father, declaring her already “too foreign,” would pay only for an English school. The climactically gothic episode of her mother’s escapade took place shortly after she left, when her sister, Vera, just turned eighteen—the good and docile daughter—was married to their mother’s Italian count. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont is the author of “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.” |+| ]

“Stark’s two diligent biographers, Jane Fletcher Geniesse and Molly Izzard, strongly disagree on the circumstances that led to these unholy nuptials, and on how they affected Stark. Either the count first made advances to Freya (as she implied, years later) or he passed her over for her more attractive sister: take your choice of poisons. Afterward, as Izzard argues, Vera had a satisfying life with her husband and four children, making Freya’s spinsterhood all the harder to bear; or, in Geniesse’s version, Vera had a dismally confined and dreadful married life, which brought Freya a different sort of suffering. Whatever the reality, Freya veered for years between the urge to decisive, self-fulfilling action—she studied nursing and served, during the Great War, at the Italian front—and a tendency toward illness and breakdown that made her appear headed for the life of a typically quashed female hysteric. |+|

“Stark was a notorious flirt but also something of an innocent. In her mid-fifties, she married a British civil servant and fellow-Arabist who was known to all, except the bride, to be homosexual. Thrilled as she was to shed her spinster status, Stark was not prepared for a mariage blanc, or for the life of a civil servant’s wife. After a few attempts to make the relationship work, she got a divorce and returned to her old life, although she now styled herself Mrs. Freya Stark. It was a serious blow, but she was not one to lick her wounds for long. “I had an idea that my proper work was to love and be loved but it isn’t,” she wrote to a friend, who also happened to be her publisher; “it is just to write books, so what is the point of not doing so?” |+|

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam

Freya Stark Begins Her Immersion Into Arab Culture

Sibylle Duda wrote in Fembio: “In 1912 she began her studies in history at Bedford College in London, but broke them off with the onset of the First World War, when she left for Bologna to work as a nurse.” During World War I, “Stark regularly traveled to London in order to take Arabic language courses at the School of Oriental Studies. In the meantime she was developing a desire to travel to the Middle East to learn the languages there. She applied – unsuccessfully – for a position as governess for the Iraqi princesses at the court of Baghdad. In 1927 she finally made it to Lebanon. She was now in her mid-thirties, single and seeing no meaningful prospects for herself at home.” [Source: Fembio, translated by Ute Methner and Joey Horsley ^^]

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “She was nearly thirty when she began to study Arabic. A professor had suggested that she take up a non-European language: he favored Icelandic. But Britain’s long romance with Arab lands was at its height after the war, as the exploits of Lawrence of Arabia and even Gertrude Bell—a primary power in the creation of modern Iraq, in 1921, and hailed as its “uncrowned queen”—made headlines. Stark, who was then working a flower farm she’d bought in northern Italy, literally struggling in the dirt to make a living, said that she chose Arabic in the hope that it would somehow lead her out of drudgery. The hope was based partly on an astute assessment of contemporary geopolitics, partly on her illustrated childhood copy of “The Arabian Nights,” and partly on a desire to get as far away as she could. The mere sight of a good map, she said, filled her with “a certain madness.” But it was only when Vera died, after a miscarriage, in 1926, aged thirty-three, that Freya took herself in hand. Vera had died, Freya wrote, because she had let other people decide how she would live. She was not going to make the same mistake. In November, 1927, after years of thinking and planning and scraping together the funds, she boarded a cargo ship and, three weeks later, disembarked in Beirut. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. |+| ]

“Stark was received with warmth by the local population, having come, as she noted, “neither to improve nor to rob.” All she wanted was to study Arabic (and, very soon, Persian) in preparation for exploring the “genuine Orient”; Beirut, alas—with its French and high heels and missionaries—seemed to her a soul-divided East-West hybrid. Still, she found the city exhilarating. Despite weeks of freezing cold and rain, her health quickly improved and she was nearly giddy with the joy of being “free all day long to do my own work; this alone was worth travelling across the world for.” Every street, every stranger beckoned with mystery. It was delightful even to be arrested, on her very first adventure, travelling into Syria in search of the native Druse, who had recently led a rebellion against the ruling French. |+|

Freya Stark’s Travels in the Middle East

Sibylle Duda wrote in Fembio: “From Lebanon she traveled to Damascus, took more lessons in Arabic and mingled with the locals, to the consternation of colonial social circles. A first dangerous trip brought her to Druze territory, which was under martial law. She could have been murdered.After travelling in the Middle East for seven months she returned to London to take drawing courses so that in the future she could make her own maps. In 1929 Freya Stark began her next trip to the Middle East. She traveled from Damascus to Baghdad, where she associated with English diplomats and officers as well as with locals; she went on desert excursions to the Bedouins, accompanied exclusively by Iraqi nationals, thus contravening the colonial moral code of the time.” [Source: Fembio, translated by Ute Methner and Joey Horsley ^^]

In 1930, Stark set out for Persia (in the meantime she had also learned Persian). “The goal of her trip was to visit the Valleys of the Assassins, at the time still unexplored by Europeans, and carry out geographical and archeological studies. The Assassins were fanatical followers of a sect belonging to Shiite Islam, who used religious reasons to justify killing their enemies. They were said to enjoy hashish, which is reflected in the name “hashshashun,” or hashish-smoker. French crusaders derived the word “assassin” from the word “Hashshashun”, which came to mean “murderer” in Romance languages. The reign of the Assassins began in the 11th century and ended in the 13th century after the Mongol conquest. ^^

“On the back of a mule, equipped with a camp bed and a mosquito net, and accompanied by a local guide, Freya Stark rode to the valleys near Alamut (= ruins of a mountain fortress castle near the Alamut River), which had not yet been recorded on her map. Malaria, a weak heart, dengue fever, and dysentery plagued her, but she continued her trip and her studies. Back in Baghdad, she received much recognition from the colonial circles; overnight she had gained a reputation as an explorer and scholar to be taken seriously. ^^

“Freya returned to England, took up contact with the Royal Geographical Society, deepened her geographical and cartographic knowledge and prepared for her next trips. She traveled to Kurdistan, Persia, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and India, studied the land, the people, and their culture, and made maps. She had soon become a famous and widely recognized expert on these countries. She gave lectures at the Royal Central Asian Society and for the BBC.” ^^

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “As an explorer, Stark could claim no major discoveries, but her acute observations and her surveying skills had earned her professional respect and, for cartographic contributions, a Royal Geographical Society award. She had located unmarked villages and unsuspected mountains, taken compass bearings and photographs. Once, she had re-situated an entire misplaced mountain range to the correct side of a valley. But this was not why people read her books then, or why they continue to read them now. Stark did not even reliably make it to her intended goals: the routes—usually travelled by camel or donkey—were astonishingly harsh, malaria was rife, and a host of other ailments took their toll. Yet for Stark, despite the bitter disappointment of being beaten to a destination, the cliché that the journey is more important than the goal was irrefutably true. She was a vivid describer of scenes and landscapes. More, she was a connoisseur of people: she knew how to draw them out and listened closely when they spoke. Today, one may be able to gain more scholarly and updated history from other authors. Bernard Lewis’s “The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam” covers much of the same material as Stark’s first book (and its subtitle is guaranteed to catch the modern eye), but it would be a mistake to think that she has been replaced. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont is the author of “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.” |+| ]

Freya Stark’s Books

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker:“Freya Stark had come to prominence a few years earlier, with the publication of her first book, “The Valleys of the Assassins” (1934), a study in Islamic history and geography related with the excitement of an adventure story. The book was a popular hit, as were two books that she wrote, along similar lines, soon thereafter—“The Southern Gates of Arabia” (1936) and “A Winter in Arabia” (1940). All these books were about the contemporary Arab world as well. Stark had travelled through Syria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Yemen at a time when national borders retained a fictive quality, and no one could be sure what political or cultural forces would prevail. British power, just beginning to show the strains of its extended glory, still held firm regional sway—although Stark’s more dangerous explorations were conducted in spite of its warnings and behind its imperial back. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont is the author of “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.” |+| ]

“Accounts of the Assassins, a medieval sect of political murderers, first filtered back to Europe from the East with the Crusades. Our English word “assassin” is derived from the Arabic hashish, under the influence of which this long-defunct Islamic cult—“history’s first terrorists,” to cite the jacket copy of Bernard Lewis’s book—was believed to commit its atrocious acts. The ruins of the Assassins’ castles, on a nearly inaccessible ridge in the Elburz Mountains, in northwest Iran, had not gone entirely unvisited by Europeans, but both the memory and the maps were sketchy until Stark wrote her book. Yet the success of “The Valleys of the Assassins” (Modern Library; $15) depended more on details picked up along the way: a felt rug laid on the grass in sunshine, tea from a samovar set among boulders, and the local people talking happily about the lack of civilization in neighboring Iraq, or about why the lady visitor was not married. There was the poor old man who had travelled miles to beg the foreigner known for carrying medicines to save his son from snakebite, and the impoverished mother who, following the laws of hospitality, fed the few tomatoes from the family’s garden to her guests, then sneakingly offered one of her hungry sons her fingers to lick, for the slight tomato savor that remained. “As for the daughter,” who stood by while the boys divided the remains that Stark had left discreetly on her plate, “she had learnt already what is what in this world,” Stark adds. “She neither got nor expected a share.” |+|

“All Stark’s books offer just such a mixture of romance and harsh reality. Her quest, in “The Southern Gates of Arabia” (Modern Library; $15), was for the origins of the ancient and historically perfumed frankincense trade route, deep in the “gaunt, leopard-colored lands” of present-day Yemen. The fragrant resin had once been required for the incense that burned on altars from Jerusalem and Cairo to Rome, a substance so precious that it made a fitting gift from a King of the East to a new-born god. At first, the trip went well, even its commonplace locomotion yielding pleasures that, with her strength and philosophical aplomb, Stark made seem easy: |+|

“Readers of Stark’s reissued works—Modern Library offers the two earliest books, and I. B. Tauris is in the midst of publishing nine others—will find a writer who endows everyone in her field of vision with the heightened interest that she felt herself. Peasants, Bedouins, tribal leaders, guides, soldiers, and slaves make up a society that is both impossibly strange and palpably near, in the simple and not so simple human sense. Stark was not an objective observer—how could she have been?—but, far more sophisticated than the surveying tools she carried, she was a finely calibrated recording instrument in a land that was just awakening to the changes being wrought by paved roads, nation-states, and oil. |+|

Freya Stark’s Early Travels in the Middle East

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “Stark’s approach to this problem was to set off from Damascus surreptitiously, via donkey, with a Druse guide and an English woman friend who had arrived just for the trip. Stark was proud of travelling without servants or extra baggage—she compared herself favorably in this regard to the ever-daunting Gertrude Bell, who, as an Oxford-educated aristocrat, had made a similar trip, Stark noted, with “three baggage mules, two tents, and three servants: so I consider we were the more adventurous.” (Stark never met Bell, who died the year before Stark got to Beirut.) The essential items that Stark learned to carry were plenty of medications, letters of introduction (preferably embossed), and penny-trinket gifts. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont is the author of “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.” |+| ]

Gertrude Bell and Sgt AFM Reeves

“The little group took the rougher, more hidden routes through a countryside more than rough enough. At night, they slept in hospitable village houses. The French Army officers who finally caught up with them were confounded by the British ladies (one quite pretty, one speaking French and Arabic), who claimed to have been misdirected by their Thomas Cook guidebook. Suspected of being spies, they were confined to Army barracks for three days that quickly resolved into horseback rides, convivial dinners, and visits to local villages, where the leading officer discoursed on the benefits of civilization that the French were bringing to the barbarous land. Farewells were nearly tender. And Stark got more from the experience than she had bargained for: permission to continue on her way, plus the trust of the commiserating Druse for having been imprisoned by the hated French. |+|

“Her first published article, in an English magazine, in 1928, excoriated the agents of the French “imperium”—the word was used contemptuously, in place of “mandate”—for their authoritarian approach and their many abuses of the Syrians, which included forced labor, economic indifference to the agriculture that sustained the peasants, tank attacks, and terrible manners, all symptoms of an inability to see their subjects as human beings. By contrast, British rule in the mandates (which she confessed she had not yet experienced) was alert to compromise and to the living spirit of the native people. She was, nevertheless, presenting the English audience with a cautionary tale. |+|

“Stark was not really concerned with politics, beyond a desire to assuage the injustices she saw immediately before her. And even after she had come to know British rule and rulers well, she rarely gave any sign that local people chafed under their control, or that, beyond the smug unpleasantness of British wives, they had reason to do so. (On one occasion, in Yemen, sleeping outdoors, she awoke to find a knife-wielding member of a “tribe the R.A.F. has been bombing” squatting beside her. But the man merely inquired whether she belonged to the tribe of the British commander—she did not record her presumably sensible reply—and immediately vanished, along with his history and his motives.) The great archeological discoveries of the modern era were Stark’s abiding interest; she read Marco Polo’s “Travels” the way Schliemann had read Homer to locate Troy. And it was in this spirit that she took on the biggest semi-mythic quests she could find.

“There is a cheerful quality in the neat brisk sound of trotting donkey feet on hard ground. And it is pleasant too, to sit on a donkey pack, when you know how to do it, without rigidity, meeting the jolts and caprices of your companion with an elastic temper and a capacity for balance; riding, in fact, as one rides through life, with a calm eye for accidents and a taste for enjoyment in the meantime. |+|

“All too soon, however, she contracted measles from a child in a harem where she stopped to visit, and then a bad case of dysentery, and finally had to be airlifted to the nearest British hospital, in Aden. As a result, she failed to reach the old, sand-covered trading post of Shabwa, which, to add to its allure and her regret, was very possibly the capital of the Queen of Sheba. But she didn’t give up. |+|

Freya Stark Insights into the Arab World

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “The largest-looming figures in this record are the wives. Stark was frequently the first European woman to be seen in the places that she went, and she just as frequently found, upon arrival, that the only area immediately open to her—comprising the only people eager to speak with her, if also to touch her, sniff her, and examine her clothes—was the harem. She became, in time, something of a specialist in the unconsidered trifles of its customs and its days. Here were whole sections of life not on the Royal Geographical Society’s agenda: polygamous domestic arrangements, gossip, laughter, jewelry, bridal costumes, bridal terrors, children. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont is the author of “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.” |+| ]

“Stark was not an anthropologist, and she was certainly not a feminist. Like many extraordinary women of her era—she was born in 1892—she had little patience with the dully ordinary women whose fate she had worked hard to escape. (Stark’s famed predecessor in Arabian exploration, Gertrude Bell, was a founding member of London’s Anti-Suffrage League, and Stark, too, briefly came into its circle.) In part, the harem was for Stark merely a means of gaining trust and approaching the powerful men who were the primary subjects of her visit. But her feeling for feminine rites and habits and, particularly, wardrobes was unfeigned. “There are few sorrows,” she wrote, “through which a new dress or hat will not send a little gleam of hope, however fugitive.” And as an unmarried female from the British tribes, whose trials in life included lack of wealth, beauty, and position, Stark had her own experience of social invisibility, which enabled her to see these women with compassion and, at times perhaps, a touch of envy. |+|

“In some ways, the British were more exotic to Stark than the Arabs. This quintessentially British woman, as she appeared to the Arab eye, spoke English with an accent: the language of her nursery was German, thanks to a beloved grandmother and an early governess, and she had grown up mostly in Italy. True, her parents were English, but, as aspiring painters and confirmed bohemians, they had felt no need to settle down. Stark’s earliest life was a blurred succession of houses and countries. The home she remembered, later on, with the poignancy of a childhood lost, was one that her father had built on the moors of his native Devon, all horses and heather and bluebells, and with a bedstead painted by her mother—who despised the cozy, bourgeois place—with sailing ships. Freya was ten when her mother ended this idyll by running off with a twenty-three-year-old impoverished Italian count. Both Freya and her younger sister were forcibly moved to a dour little town in Piedmont, in the Italian north, where the count used their mother’s money—or, rather, their father’s money, before it was cut off—to set up a factory. The girls lived there in dispirited poverty, with some minimal education from the French nuns in the town, and no escape. |+|

Freya Stark’s “A Winter in Arabia”

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: ““A Winter in Arabia” (Tauris Parke; $17) recounts how, bored and disillusioned by an expedition with a trained archeologist and with its painstakingly inglorious achievements (“The pots are so depressingly ugly”), Stark set off again to explore the frankincense lands. Acting against British counsel—peace among the Yemeni tribes was fragile, and anything might incite them—pushing herself through more illness (dengue fever, apparently), and going as much as twenty-two hours on camelback in two days, she pondered such questions as whether it was “a passion for mystery chiefly which explains the optimism of human beings toward both polygamy and travel.” For her, and for her readers, the mere sound of many of the words—Shabwa, Sheba, frankincense—was part of the driving mystery. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. |+| ]

Hadhramaut coins

“Like previous generations of British writers who romanticized the desert Arabs, Stark often saw the people, too, clothed in mystery and enchantment. The Bedouin, to her eyes, moved with a “natural Arab freedom,” displaying a “genuine aloofness from the trappings of existence.” A latter-day type of the noble savage, that mythical figure repeatedly conjured by Westerners out of the discontents of their own civilization—machines, office jobs, sexual repression—the Bedouins, like Tahitian islanders or Negro jazz musicians, represented an untamed freedom that their rapt admirers believed themselves to have lost. If there is occasionally a sexual frisson to Stark’s description of these Arab men—“Their beauty was in the bare torso, the muscles rippling in freedom under a skin to which a perpetual treatment of indigo, sun and oil gives a bloom neither brown nor blue, but something like a dark plum”—she sees in the women the same exemplary freedom. Even under their veils and heavy drapes, “no one in all that busy moving world wore either shoes or corsets; and it was this, I concluded, which gave them that grace and swallow-like motion.” But Stark was far from blind to the pains and restrictions of this graceful world: in the daily lives of the women (not one of those she met could read), in the lives of the nearly starving poor, and in the lives of slaves. |+|

“In the Hadhramaut—the large central area of Yemen, where she was travelling—“a small slave or servant is given to every infant member of any well-to-do family,” she records, and it is jarring to recall that the year is 1934. Nearly all the slaves are black Africans, and, while slaves were no longer imported into the country, she informs us, “a certain number still remain, gradually disappearing.” Yet, during the course of her travels, the very uncertain number expands to include the Sultan of Makalla’s bodyguards, five hundred slaves in Tarim who had revolted just the year before, and the especially ill-treated slaves who labor in the Bedouins’ fields, since the proud nomads scorn working with their hands. And then there is Mubarak the Slave, who comes to Stark for medicine for his wife; he cannot take her to a doctor in the nearest town, because he is “a slave belonging to this earth and cannot move,” as he has been told, a claim of questionable legality that Stark can only hope some future visiting British authority will dismiss. Indeed, the most startling image in these books occurs when the Bedouins’ slaves, having heard that the R.A.F. might liberate them, come pouring across a field to kiss the author’s knees and garments as she passes. |+|

“The persistence of slavery posed a moral predicament for someone who wished to avoid any intimation of cultural advantage, and it was clearly causing Stark a struggle. When she allowed herself to think about the subject, rather than simply to mention its existence, she argued that the West had rid itself of slavery only when religion declined—when enough people understood that they had to deal with the causes of sorrow in the world themselves, since God would not. The Middle East was still a formidably religious society, but it was changing fast—perhaps too fast, owing to the interference of foreigners like her. When asked by a Bedouin man, around a campfire, if she was indeed one of those foreigners who had come “to make us free our slaves, and pay taxes, and make our women do as they please,” Stark replied with an evasive joke, saying that she didn’t know about the first two, “but I know that your women do as they please already, because I am a woman myself.” The man laughed, and the conversation continued. Politics just got in the way. |+|

Freya Stark Begins Her Career in Arab-Colonial Politics

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “Until politics was all that mattered. In 1939, when war was threatening, Stark offered her services to the British government, and was assigned to the Middle East Propaganda Section of the Ministry of Information. She was by then an illustrious personage among Britons in the Middle East, yet had maintained an identity apart; she had even published a book of teasing “Baghdad Sketches” (Tauris Parke; $16), making light of the complacent British community there. But the British no longer had cause for complacency. Arab sentiment had grown vehemently anti-British in the years leading up to the war, because of unyielding control in the region, but also because of British policy in Palestine. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. |+| ]

“British support for Jewish immigration dated from before the Balfour Declaration, in 1917, and had culminated in harsh reprisals against Palestinian Arab revolts during the late thirties, when desperate Jewish refugees were flooding into the land. But in 1939, faced with the disruption of vital oil supplies and the loss of strategic bases should Arab states side with the Axis, the British reversed their policy, bringing Jewish immigration virtually to a halt. The Germans had already exploited the situation, however, to win wide Arab support. And they continued to tighten their hold with fiercely effective anti-British and anti-Semitic propaganda—in Baghdad, a German-owned Arabic newspaper had serialized parts of “Mein Kampf”—which Stark’s new job was to help overcome. |+|

“She translated Reuters news reports for broadcasting; she sneaked British propaganda films into walled-off, imam-ruled Yemeni territory (she sneaked in the projector, too, claiming it was a portable commode). But her proudest accomplishment was the Brotherhood of Freedom, an organization that she set up along the lines of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, begun in Cairo and pledged to Islam, had been training Arab fighters against foreign domination since the twenties. Britain’s best attempts to ban the Muslim Brotherhood’s militant activities had failed; Stark, admiring its irrepressibility, and also starting out in Cairo, closely duplicated its structure of ideological cells. The members of her network, however, were pledged to personal freedom and secular democracy. And the method of spreading these values was Stark’s great specialty: talk. |+|

“Tea parties, discussion groups, and informal social gatherings mixed local people of every social stratum (street sweepers, students, Army officers) with friendly British operatives who were ready to answer questions, parry objections, and instill confidence that Britain would win the war—especially important during the first two years of fighting, when it seemed as likely that Britain would lose, and many people cared only about backing the winning side. It is difficult to determine the Brotherhood of Freedom’s ultimate effectiveness, if any, but by the middle of the war it claimed tens of thousands of members, and major branches of the Foreign Office competed for Stark’s overseeing presence. |+|

Freya Stark During World War II

Sibylle Duda wrote in Fembio: “Stark spent the war years back in the Middle East, this time however as an advisor to the British colonial administration. Her knowledge of Arab customs and mentality was used to influence the local population in a pro-British direction, and she produced radio shows in Arabic in Aden to this end. She was fully convinced that British politics served the interests not only of Britain but also of the indigenous population. She compared the relationship between colonial administration and indigenous population to that between parent and child. Stark spent the last part of the war in India at the court of the British Viceroy. During political discussions there she became acquainted with Gandhi and Nehru. At parties, excursions, and dances she was a welcome guest. A popular dance partner, her extravagant clothes were also always a topic of conversation.” [Source: Fembio, translated by Ute Methner and Joey Horsley ^^]

British troops in Baghdad in 1941

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “Stark’s most difficult assignment as a propagandist was to sell Britain’s altered position on Palestine in a notably hostile environment: the United States. She made an official tour of the country in 1943, and while she was greeted in the press as “the female Lawrence of Arabia,” and even credited with keeping Rommel out of Cairo, her speeches about the need to put stringent quotas on Jewish immigration did not go over well in New York, Washington, or San Francisco. Stark was not just a Ministry of Information mouthpiece; she believed in what she said. Early in her government service, she had notified her superiors, with evident astonishment, that “every Yemeni I have spoken to has put Palestine in front even of the question of his own borderland!” She was offering personal, burning knowledge about an issue of world importance—or about one side of it. For, even lacking a broader understanding of what was happening to European Jewry, Stark was defending a policy that, the year before, had caused more than seven hundred Romanian Jews to drown when a ship attempting to reach Palestine was turned away by the British, and sank. It was impossible for her to talk these deaths away. She insisted that she was not anti-Zionist: she merely believed that Arab consent should be required before large-scale Jewish immigration resumed. This consent was likely to be granted, she predicted, with the formation of an Arab federation after the war—if the Allies won. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. |+| ]

“Many Americans found her views politically naïve, or worse. She was heckled and rebutted on a variety of issues, from the Iraqi-Nazi accord and British rule in India to the British lust for oil. Yet, in spite of it all, her letters reveal that she took a liking to American women and—the irony was not lost on her—that “the really sympathique people I have met in this country are Jews.” She was taken aback at being labelled a “Judeaphobe” and an “agent provocateur,” charges that made it to the U.S. Congress. In turn, she pointed out that America had far more room for refugees than Palestine, and was closed off only by its own obdurately excluding immigration laws. But continual arguing to no avail was a profoundly wearying experience. The tour lasted six months, after which Stark wrote a “little book, popular and personal,” summing up her recent history and beliefs. (In America, the book was called “The Arabian Isle”; in England it was titled “East Is West,” reversing Kipling’s dictum that “never the twain shall meet.”) Throughout the following decades, however, she kept silent about the Middle East, and she never wrote a book about Arabia again. |+|

Freya Stark Gets Out of a Scrape in Iraq in World War II

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “Although the British had ordered their wives and daughters out of Baghdad, there were nineteen women among the crowds who found shelter in the British Embassy, in late April, 1941, soon after the Iraqi government went over to the Germans. A pro-Nazi coup had occurred a few weeks earlier, in relative calm, but an increase in anti-British hostility and the sudden appearance of armed Iraqi soldiers had brought tensions in the city to an intolerable level, especially since the British—heavily engaged in Libya and Greece—had few reinforcements to spare. The Iraqi Army had already surrounded the nearby Royal Air Force base when, at dawn on May 3rd, the well-known explorer Freya Stark raced through the deserted streets, arriving just in time to make it through the Embassy’s side door. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. Pierpont is the author of “Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.” |+| ]

“The main gates had been locked; sandbags and barbed wire were frantically being placed within; and a mountain of documents was burning in the courtyard. The Persian gardeners, however, continued to water the flowering verbena and, as days and then weeks went by, kept the lawn (despite the number of people sleeping on it) brilliantly green. Living quarters were uncomfortable, with some three hundred and fifty people enduring intense heat, sniper fire, and the not so distant thud of bombs as British planes attempted to retake the airfield. News over the wireless was grim. Yet there was no end of attempts to cheer the trapped and frightened population. One night, there was a lecture, given by Stark; another night, there was a concert. (As a bonus, a cache of rifles was discovered in the grand piano.) Basic provisions were allowed in daily, and Stark, adept at chatting up the Iraqi guards who monitored the prisoners’ fate, boldly requested a quantity of soap and face powder for the women. The extra packages were duly delivered. This small victory for Western womanhood was marred, however, by the policeman at the gate, who remarked that he couldn’t imagine how the harem could think about such things, since they were all to be murdered in a few days. |+|

“Stark could talk her way into any situation and, most of the time, out again, in a remarkable number of languages. She had just talked her way back to Baghdad from Tehran, when, hellbent on safety among her friends and colleagues in the Baghdad Embassy, she was stopped by Iraqi police at the frontier. All British citizens were barred from proceeding further, and she was officially in custody; others, she learned, had been put in prison camps. Yet she cajoled the station attendant into bringing her tea and her police guard into sharing it, and informed the guard of the sheer impossibility of staying on without a ladies’ maid. Surely he could see her problem and wished to be civilized? His people were not, after all, Germans. And the policeman—no longer guarding a prisoner but protecting a lady—put her on the next train to Baghdad. “The great and almost only comfort about being a woman,” Stark reflected, in a maxim that encompasses many such events in her illustrious career, “is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.” |+|

Freya Stark After World War II: In Turkey and Afghanistan

Sibylle Duda wrote in Fembio: “After the war, Stark returned to Asolo, the place of her childhood. She was engaged by the British Ministry of Information as a political advisor to help improve relations with Italy. The marriage begun in September 1947 to the English diplomat Steward Perowne – she was 54, he 46 – lasted only four years. After the separation, Stark planned trips to Asia Minor, in preparation for which she took history lessons and – at almost 60 – learned Turkish. During this time she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. She wrote books on Turkey, Mesopotamia at the time of the Romans, and Alexander the Great. In spite of physical problems and illnesses, she never stopped travelling. At 76 she was in Persia again, before that in Afghanistan and Iraq. At 86 she travelled to the Annapurna in the Himalayas.” [Source: Fembio, translated by Ute Methner and Joey Horsley ^^]

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in The New Yorker: “After the war, she moved back to Italy, living in a villa in the Veneto that she had inherited from a family friend, hosting an international beau monde and cultivating a reputation for charming eccentricity. Even before leaving the Middle East, she had become known not only for her work but for her gaiety, her social skills, and, above all, her extravagant hats: most famous was a pale-blue cartwheel with embroidered clock hands (in pink) mischievously set at five and seven, the early-evening hours when—according to popular legend—wives were free to meet their lovers because their husbands were out doing the same. [Source: Claudia Roth Pierpont, The New Yorker, April 18, 2011. |+| ]

“During the nineteen-fifties, she travelled in Turkey and produced four books, all very different from her earlier work, in that, for the first time in her authorial career, she could not speak the native language. Deprived of contemporary voices, these later books rely on history and introspection—which gives way, at times, to literary strain—and Stark seems more than usually intent on ruins and on the silence that surrounds them. She had always taken wonderful photographs, and the ones she used as illustrations add tremendous richness to the text (even in the reduced and smudgy versions of the reprints). In “Ionia” (Tauris Parke; $17), for example, a photograph mysteriously captioned “Gryneium: Temple of Apollo” appears to show nothing but a young shepherd sitting before his flock in an open field on a roll of hay; only on close inspection does the roll reveal itself as the broken drum of an ancient marble column. There is a quiet melancholy to these books—an unshakable sense of cultures irretrievably lost, and of the ruthlessness of time, which seems to arise both from the nature of the subject and from the nature of the traveller growing old. |+|

“Stark’s introspective bent continued with four volumes of autobiography and eight volumes of letters, the last of which appeared in 1985, when Stark was ninety-three. She had travelled until she was ninety-two, and lived to be a hundred. In her later years, she loved to take trips with her many godchildren—“The young,” she said, “must be illuminated”—an illuminating Auntie Mame hauling her charges over the Acropolis or waking them in the middle of the night to watch the sun rise over Troy. |+|

“Her last important trip was to Afghanistan, in the summer of 1968, when she was seventy-five. She went to see a twelfth-century minaret that had been discovered by archeologists only in the previous decade—she heard that it had been spotted from the air by a pilot flying off course—in a semi-deserted region of the country. The book Stark wrote about her experience, “The Minaret of Djam” (Tauris Parke; $16), is filled with history and introspection but also with people, albeit the British fellow-travellers whom she met as she waited in Kabul, trying to figure out how she could get to the exceedingly remote location, studying Dari, and watching the English-speaking population rehearse a production of “Twelfth Night” for a performance at the British Embassy. She finally reached the minaret, thanks to a highly suggestible couple with a Land Rover who had wandered into one of the rehearsals. And, despite the occasional asphalt road (“to tempt the lazier tourist”) and four-wheel drive, the trip proved a sufficiently daunting adventure. |+|

“But the heart of the book lies in Kabul, where Stark looks out over the garden of the British Embassy, with its lawns and roses and its giant plane trees, which have gone on growing “while the empire that planted them has become a thin voice of the air.” Contemplating the actors in their bluejeans peeling back the centuries and rediscovering the poetry of their own tongue, she cannot help but note how well Shakespeare is suited to the East. There is no need to labor to create a sharpened, otherworldly atmosphere; nor is there disbelief when a wholly unexpected, life-overturning event occurs, since the usual insurances and protections have been cast aside. This was, after all, why she was there. She had come because “this was Illyria”—every open, uncharted mile of it—“and anything might happen.” ? |+|

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons and Amazon

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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