Serendipity: “Happiness, Pure and Immaterial”

Dame Freya Madeline Stark DBE (1893-1993)

One of the most incredible women travelers of the Twentieth Century was Freya Stark, who wrote some thirty books about her solo travels in the Middle East during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. I am currently halfway through The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey to the Hadhramaut (1936) about her trip to a part of Yemen which is currently at war with Saudi Arabia. Yet she managed to travel around by herself with only one problem: she contracted a wicked case of measles when she visited a harem in Masna’a. Before she came down with her illnesses, she reflects on a moment of pure joy:

When the evening came, and the sweet shrill cry of the kites, that fills the daylight, stopped, ’Awiz appeared with three paraffin lanterns, which he dotted about the floor in various places, and, having given me my supper, departed to his home. The compound with its dim walls, its squares of moist earth planted with vegetables and few trees, grew infinite and lovely under the silence of the moon. The gate of the city was closed now; a dim glow showed where the sentries beguiled their watch with a hookah in the guard house; at more or less hourly intervals they struck a gong suspended between poles, and so proclaimed the hour. And when I felt tired, I would withdraw from my verandah, collect and blow out the superfluous lanterns, and retire to my room. None of the doors shut easily, so I did not bother to lock them; I had refused the offer of a guard to sleep at my threshold, the precaution was so obviously unnecessary. As I closed my eyes in this security and silence, I thought of the Arabian coasts stretching on either hand:—three hundred miles to Aden; how many hundred to Muscat in the other direction? the Indian Ocean in front of me, the inland deserts behind: within these titanic barriers I was the only European at that moment. A dim little feeling came curling up through my sleepy senses; I wondered for a second what it might be before I recognized it: it was Happiness, pure and immaterial; independent of affections and emotions, the aetherial essence of happiness, a delight so rare and so impersonal that it seems hardly terrestrial when it comes.


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.