'Maverick' explorer Freya Stark followed Middle East's transformation

The Middle East explorer Freya Stark published her first book 80 years ago, and Alasdair Soussi looks back at her wide travels.

The British explorer and writer Freya Stark dressed in the traditional costume of the Hadramaut region of Yemen.
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For a woman who lived to be 100 years old, Freya Stark was not so lucky when it came to matters of health and well-being.

Shortly before her 13th birthday she suffered the most appalling head injury when a steel shaft from a carpet factory machine caught her long hair and yanked her off the ground, tearing away part of her scalp and mangling one of her ears. Later, her adult years were blighted by the likes of dysentery, malaria, influenza and heart trouble. Yet, on her death in 1993, this extraordinary woman had had adventures few could ever contemplate let alone ever match.

Traveller, writer, explorer, trailblazer, Stark was, according to the “uncrowned queen of Iraq”, Gertrude Bell, one of the few women of her time who could not only take on the burgeoning numbers of men in her field but also beat them at their own game. Lacking a typical education (she didn’t attend school), yet fluent in several languages, frequently subdued by bouts of ill health, yet tough and determined, Stark gained a fearless reputation for traversing some of the world’s most inhospitable regions.

Taking in such countries as Syria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Yemen when national boundaries still retained a hazy quality, the Briton laid bare her daring adventures in 25 books, not least her first foray into the world of travel writing, Baghdad Sketches (1932), published 80 years ago this year.

The aftermath of the First World War was a heady time for such exploits. Described by The Times (of London) as "the last of the Romantic Travellers", Stark joined that elite band of British adventurers such as Bell and T?E Lawrence who began a love affair with all things Middle Eastern by deciding to make a name for themselves in the vast desert towns and cities of Arabia. And, though frequently strewn with dangers for the intrepid western explorer, these sun-beaten lands soon became a home away from home for the likes of Stark, whose writings continue to find a place within a modern world that, for today's traveller at least, has given up most of its secrets, even if by the time of a radio interview in the 1970s the Middle East still held an enduring nostalgia for the then-octogenarian:

“The English likes the Arab and the Arab likes them – there is a sympathy,” Stark told the BBC in 1976. “I think we have rather the same values. They look for real things more than for show. They’re very, very good judges of people, and however down-at-heel and scruffy you may be travelling about they know at once whether you have the qualities that they consider essential and which we consider essential.”

Freya Madeline Stark was born in Paris on January 31, 1893, to artistic parents Robert and Flora Stark, who, never truly suited as a married couple, eventually separated. Raised in England and Italy, Stark soon settled in the latter to be with her mother after her parents parted company. Stark never regretted her lack of proper schooling and grew up in a multilingual household surrounded by books and a library, though she would gain access to a formal education at Bedford College, London, and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

During the war Stark had enlisted as a nurse in Bologna, Italy, followed by stints as a censor and as a volunteer in an ambulance unit in England. But it wasn't until 1927 and her trip to then-French-controlled Lebanon that Stark's Middle East odyssey began. From then on, this fluent Arabic speaker's books flowed with gusto, not least, following Baghdad Sketches, which is arguably her most celebrated work, The Valleys of the Assassins (1934), in which she documents her travels into Luristan, the dangerous mountainous region located between Iraq and present-day Iran, for which she enjoyed great critical acclaim.

Her work with the British during the Second World War saw her knowledge of the Middle East put to good use to counteract Nazi influence in the region, and she remained productive well into her later years, her final important trip being to Afghanistan in the summer of 1968 at the age of 75.

“She was an immensely significant figure,” says Alexander Maitland, the authorised biographer of the famed Middle East explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger and a close friend of Stark up until her death. “Straight away both as a traveller and, if you like, one of the relatively rare women explorers, she had the advantage over the men of being able to get on very close terms with the women in Muslim societies. And, she was able to photograph them and talk to them and to gain a much closer and much more intimate understanding and appreciation of the role of women in their society than was possible for other male (explorers) who mainly associated with the men. She was very much a part of that lineage of travellers, which included Lady Anne Blunt, Gertrude Bell and Lady Evelyn Cobbold.”

Jane F Geniesse, the author of the Freya Stark biography, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark, agrees, flagging up just some of her achievements and ambitions.

“With training in cartography from officials of the Royal Geographical Society who were quite taken by this ‘funny foreign little thing’ as the British diplomat Harold Nicolson described her, Freya was able to make important corrections to the British Foreign Office maps from her lonely travels through the Elburz Mountains’ valleys and hitherto uncharted lands of the Lurs. To her great vexation, however, she could not claim what she so wished, to be the first European to reach the fabled city of Shabwa in the Wadi Hadhramaut. Measles interrupted, and the honour fell to Harry St John Philby, who got there – she was horrified to learn – by car! Not by camel or donkey, which was Freya’s preferred means of transport.”

although not the strongest physical specimen, Stark, who was childless after a short-lived marriage, was able to accomplish her arduous journeys by sheer force of will, says Maitland, who adds that Stark suffered somewhat from her childhood head injury in later life, including bleeding from the ears.

“She was able to compensate her lack of physical strength by her determination and energy and a gift of seeing what she was going to do,” Maitland says. “She would sustain herself on her travels by reading a couple of lines of Virgil or Dante and she would translate them in her mind and ponder them as she was going along on her pony. She was also very ready to make the most of the country and people and she would always say to my wife – and sometimes to me – that ‘you must never underrate the importance of a smile – a smile can take you a very long way’.”

Although similar to Thesiger, Stark was a different type of traveller to that of her acquaintance who made a name for himself by traversing the Empty Quarter of Arabia for the best part of five years.

“Stark was completely different from Wilfred,” says Maitland, who worked alongside Stark on several book projects and also enjoyed a close friendship with Thesiger. “Not just because of her sex but also in the journeys that she did. She didn’t do the great big journeys of the desert crossings like Wilfred but she withstood and endured a certain amount of danger and hardship on her travels.”

Geniesse is equally forthright on any comparisons between Stark and the explorer, adventurer and nation-builder Bell.

“Gertrude Bell was very much an establishment figure,” she says. “Freya was a maverick, who – initially at any rate – had neither Bell’s connections nor money. Although she longed to be a member of the establishment, she could not resist going her own sometimes outrageous way, resulting in officialdom’s view that she was a loner, not one of them. Thesiger, I discovered in an interview with him, was vehemently dismissive of Freya’s random wanderings. But then Thesiger was not one inclined to admire the achievements of women.”

As for Stark’s character, much has been made of her apparent aversion to keeping the company of women. John Murray VII, Stark’s godson and a member of the illustrious John Murray firm, which published her travel books, described his godmother as someone who “couldn’t really take women”. Maitland, however, is one who vehemently disagrees with this assertion.

“This thing about women and men was complete nonsense,” says Maitland, who adds that while Thesiger exhibited some “waspish” qualities towards Stark’s achievements, he did think her “an outstanding writer” and somebody of “great merit”. “I recall a conversation at dinner once where she told my wife that she’d ‘much rather have the company of an intelligent woman to a dull man any day’. If you look at her correspondence, a lot of it was with women. She would write to my wife or the wife of her publisher – she had a lot of women friends.”

like Maitland, who believes that Stark and Thesiger were almost like "the two halves of the same apple" with their shared gift for writing, travelling and photography, Geniesse is emphatic about Stark's enduring legacy.

“In the end, Freya will be remembered for her appreciation of a Middle East that was rapidly changing as it slowly emerged from a harsh colonial chapter,” she says. “She was a remarkable painter of landscape through words. She caught the flavour of places and people with delicacy and charm, as the talented observer and wordsmith that she was. She will be remembered as one of those extraordinary British women who ventured out to see a remote part of the world with fresh eyes and a joyful nature, and her books will stand forever as testament to a determined and courageous traveller.”

Three other famous female travellers to the Middle East

GERTRUDE BELL Born in north-east England in 1868, the Oxford graduate went on to became a mountaineer, an archaeologist, an explorer and a political heavyweight who literally helped draw the borders of Iraq. As a traveller and explorer she traversed the Arabian Peninsula, where she braved the Nejd Desert and hostile Arabian tribes and journeyed to the town of Hail in north-central Arabia. Bell died in Iraq in 1926.

LADY ANNE BLUNT As the first European woman to cross the northern desert of Arabia, the Englishwoman Blunt was a bone fide trailblazer. Born in 1837, she was not only an able watercolourist but also a talented violinist and a fluent Arabic speaker. Blunt, who wrote the likes of Bedouin Tribes of the Euphrates, died in Egypt in 1917.

LADY EVELYN COBBOLD A Scottish aristocrat born in 1867 in Edinburgh, Cobbold converted to Islam in the late 1800s, having learnt about the faith during her childhood. She became the first British-born Muslim woman to undertake the Haj pilgrimage, doing so in 1933 at the age of 65, and wrote Pilgrimage to Mecca (1934, reprinted in 2008 by Arabian Publishing Ltd of London). She died in 1963 and is buried in Scotland.

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