Freya Stark, the English Lady who Travelled and Loved the Orient
This female explorer wandered elegantly through the exotic Orient during most of the Twentieth Century.
Freya Stark was not only a sophisticated English traveller and explorer, she was also the writer of beautifully moderate prose whose interest was captured by the changing and transforming human races, instead of the objects she found along her journey. She visited, among many other places, Syria, Persia, Iraq, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, and was able to communicate the people’s lives in her narrative. She eloquently depicted their suffering, disease and insecurity, as well as the magic of the East in a manner no other person —let alone someone belonging to the elite of the English classes— had done before.
Her story began when she was only 9 years old and she received a copy of One Thousand and One Nights, she then became enthralled with the Orient. But who that has read it has not become infatuated by the Orient? Parting from her reading, she learnt how to read Arabic and Persian, later she moved to London to study History, and when her fluency in languages was strong enough she used it to open the doors of the world, to set off on her first journey towards Beirut. She travelled with Jane Austen and Virgil in her bag and spoke of the Bedouins that “rest upon the surface of the world as seagull rests on a wave”. The letters she wrote to her family and friends were compiled in nine volumes that were published between 1974 and 1988.
Beyond being an “exotic” anthropologist, Stark recovered information and was on top of everything else a brilliant ethnographer that bared witness to her encounters with people and the strange occurrences that happened every day. She always focused on the details of her garments and bared her social class, and she also, cleverly and advantageously, made good use of her gender’s appeal: “The great and almost only comfort about being a woman”, she observed after one of many crass encounters with male officialdom, “is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no-one is surprised” she wrote in one of her letters. In the same letter she revealed that she lived surrounded by ghosts and she delved into passionate love affairs as if she was a character in literature. Besides her fantastical explorations, daydreams and Islam story-telling, Freya made most of her geographical location and offered to support England by advertising the Second World War.
It was during this period she founded the Brotherhood of Freedom, an Ally-sympathizing organization that aimed to convince Egyptians that they’d be better off supporting the known English devil instead of the unknown Axis monster. She became a walking scandal and a darling of the diplomatic communities, they considered her to be impressive enough to keep her close to during the entire war period.
Taking all the latter into account, it is hard to discern Stark’s importance within a single sphere; instead she occupies the frontiers of literature, politics and geographic and cultural exploration. What remains true is that the unbelievable combination that this courageous lioness embodied by venturing out on her own to the Middle East on a whim, and the refinement she wrote her diaries and autobiography with is captivating, to say the very least. Stark, despite her often professed belief in the superiority of the British Empire, tread lightly through the world of the past and brought it to the present without appropriating it, instead she captured it with words: “I have always preferred things when they are clothed in words”, she said.
Her travel logs are in themselves a hypnotizing journey through places we should all have the strength to visit. Freya was the lady that made her way to the Orient not to conquer it but to live it and have adventures with it.
One can only really travel if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one’s own and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism.
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