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Travelers, Wild and Tame

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

For over forty years (except for a brief interlude when she was married), Freya Stark spent some 40 years traveling by herself in the Middle East. I have just finished reading her first book, Baghdad Sketches (1932), consisting of columns written for the Baghdad Times plus some 8 pieces added later for the British edition.

I am amazed that she was able to not only survive traveling in a difficult part of the world roughly between 1928 and 1970, but she lived to the age of 100.

She is not the first to do so. Gertrude Bell (who died in Baghdad just a couple years before Freya arrived there), also covered much of the same ground. Still, I cannot imagine in this period of violent jihad and xenophobia that their travels could be duplicated without a military escort.

Freya had interesting attitudes about solitude and travel. On the former, she wrote that “solitude is the one deep necessity of the human spirit to which adequate recognition is never given in our codes. It is looked upon as a discipline or penance, but almost never as the indispensable, pleasant ingredient it is to ordinary life.” For the modern traveler, she felt with distaste that its purpose “is to give people a glimpse of the exotic places without the least bit of inconvenience to themselves.”

In Baghdad Sketches, she gives a picture of a much more diverse population than exists now in the era of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Stark frequently visited among the Kurds, Yezidis, Shi’as, and Eastern Christians living in Iraq during the 1930s.

Among her books that I have read with pleasure, in addition to Baghdad Sketches, are:

  • The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934)
  • The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey to the Hadhramaut (1938)
  • Alexander’s Path: From Caria to Cilicia (1958)—about Turkey

Many of her books are still in print.