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Volume 28, Number 5September/October 1977

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A Talk With Freya Stark

Written by Betty Patchin Greene
Illustrated by Don Thompson

For centuries the lands that lie between East and West have attracted imaginative and articulate travelers fascinated by past and present civilizations. During the last 100 years, in particular, such travelers have not only replenished the literature of travel, but also have raised it to new levels of grace and perception - none more skillfully than Freya Stark.

A Middle East traveler, an explorer and, above all, a writer, Freya Stark has, with an incomparably clear eye, looked toward the horizon of the past without ever losing sight of the present. Her books are route plans of a perceptive intelligence, traversing time and space with ease. Fording a stream on foot, she looks down at the stones and sees an ancient carved inscription through the running water. On the other side of the stream, the Bedouin guide is waiting, and there is a living village, built on the site of heaven-knows-how-many vanished habitations.

The explorer lodges happily in such villages, in the old quarters of ancient cities, and in the black tents of the Bedouin that "rest on the surface of the world like a seagull on a wave."

Unlike some of the travelers, Freya Stark never sentimentalizes the lives and lands that so obviously fascinate her. She is willing to admit frustration and discomfort, and to express affection, amusement and irritation - often all at once - without a trace of condescension. Perhaps this adjustment to travel was inherited. As she writes in The Freya Stark Story: "My parents treated Europe with extreme nonchalance as a place to run about in." And indeed, the handsome, talented pair of young artists - first cousins of old Devonshire stock - found the baby, born in Paris in 1893, no drawback. Her cradle was highly mobile.

The Starks built houses in rural England, settled for a time in London's elegantly bohemian St. John's Wood, then swung back to the continent, especially northern Italy. In these places Freya and her younger sister Vera grew up, multi-lingual, educated by governesses and nuns, exposed to all sorts of people and to a life close to nature.

Her parents' eventual separation was desperately hard on a girl with strong affections. Yet the need to communicate with them led her to write. In a series of remarkable early travel letters, at once factual and poetic, it is easy to trace the outlines of the many books she later produced.

She did not, of course, reach the Middle East overnight. By the time she started for Lebanon in 1927 Freya had attended Bedford College in London, served as a nurse - in wartime Italy and England - and as a censor. These were years of unobtrusive development - accompanied at times by illness and grief.

After the war, Robert Stark, who had emigrated to Canada, gave his daughter a small house with a piece of land on the Italian Riviera - where she and her mother made a home attractive to a cosmopolitan group of friends and where Freya built up a modestly profitable market garden business.

Some of the hard-earned money went for Arabic and Persian lessons, later continued in England and Lebanon, which were important later when - despite ill health and a slim purse - she began her wanderings through Syria, Persia, Iraq, Palestine and southern Arabia.

In a sort of chain reaction, the new languages she learned sent her off on her explorations, the explorations in turn resulted in her first books and publication of her first writings brought grants from the Royal Geographical Society and, eventually, such honors as the title of Dame, the equivalent of a knighthood for a woman. Public recognition for such books as The Southern Gate of Arabia and In the Valleys of the Assassins followed.

During the Second World War, Freya Stark served with the British in the Middle East, using her knowledge and talent to help counteract Nazi influence in Aden, Cairo and Baghdad. Later she was also sent on mission to the United States, Canada and India.

After the war came the historically-inspired Asia Minor expeditions, resulting in such books as Alexander's Path and Riding to the Tigris. These, found on the shelves of the Dhahran Library some years ago, were my own introduction to Freya Stark.

Last summer I finally met the explorer at home in Asolo in northern Italy. Incredibly young and vital at 84, she had just returned from Turkey where she had voyaged down the Euphrates by raft - a project jointly sponsored by the BBC and Syrian Television. As we looked over a stack of photographs she told us a little about the trip. It was a very Starkian time-bridger. Setting out in Northern Syria, the raft, resembling an open-sided thatched hut set on a platform, first traversed a land where the old customs still survive. Then, after various adventures - at one point the river flooded the raft - she drifted into the 50 mile lake formed by the new Euphrates Dam (Aramco World, January-February 1974).

Here, dame Freya emerged from the past, delighted both with the river and with the technological achievements of her old friends the Syrians. As she remarked, the dam is a great effort for an emerging country, and will produce considerable material benefits for Syria and other Arab countries.

Returning north overland, the Stark expedition visited the camp of the Rawallah Bedouin, who were sending camels down into Saudi Arabia where, as she said in our interview, she had her "first vision" of Arab life. And with that we came full circle, back to her beginnings.

A Talk with Freya Stark

Interviewer: You have always liked the Bedouin; how do you feel about them now?

Stark: Well, my feelings haven't changed. I remember my first sight of the Rawallah camels south of Damascus. I had never seen camels loose before outside a zoo, and suddenly the whole earth seemed full of these creatures, browsing along, apparently going very slowly. But really although I was young then, I could hardly keep up with them as I rushed to take photographs. That was my first vision, and I've never forgotten it. It was in 1927 just 50 years ago.

Interviewer: And other peoples?

Stark: Well, we've been a month on this venture down the Euphrates on the raft, and I found them just as lovable, and just as kind and friendly, as before. They still have the old fashioned ways. You can't buy bread, you know: the Headman came with the flat bread they make to offer it to us as strangers - always given, never sold. Such a nice man.

Interviewer: They will give to a stranger when they are in need themselves, won't they?

Stark: Yes, the Bedouin will give their last drop of water.

Interviewer: In your explorations you have always seemed to be more interested in people than in archeology.

Stark: I have never called myself an archeologist. I don't have the scientific side of it at all. I like, if anything, history. I like the change of races more than the finding of objects.

I was very lucky to be in Iraq just when Leonard Woolley had made his great discoveries. I remember being shown over the Ziggurat of Ur by him, and the little town where, he told us, he knew every house in the street where we were walking. He knew the inhabitants - this was a shop, this was a school, and he explained it all. He was the most gentle and courteous man. I wasn't known in any way yet he took as much trouble explaining it all as if I had been an important visitor. He became a very great friend.

Interviewer: I think one thing that has made your books popular is your unforced feeling for historical personalities. What is it like to travel with Herodotus and Alexander the Great?

Stark: All I can say is that they seem just as real to me as a lot of living people. They are living to me. Perhaps it was because we began very early. We had a German governess - it was the age of governesses - and she made us read little stories from Homer when I was about nine or 10 years old. So they became real.

Interviewer: What would be your advice to a young person who wanted to explore today? Are there any more frontiers?

Stark: Well, not so much frontiers, but there are plenty of little blank spots. But you see, they... go in cars now I don't think that is the proper way to go.

Interviewer: The Second World War rather put a stop to exploration but you had an interesting career during the war years. Can you tell us about that?

Stark: In a way that was exploration to me. I was sent to Aden and in my next volume of letters, which is coming out almost simultaneously with the BBC travel film, I describe that I was also sent to the Yemen. I spent two months up there and it was wonderful because it was very little known. We had about three people there, a doctor and a nurse and that was all. That was quite new. Then I went to Cairo.

Interviewer: What is it like to be in a nomad camp?

Stark: For one thing, they are very pleasant to be with. They have certain manners that I think are delightful. One is that you don't have to talk all the time. If you have something to say, you say it. But they don't mind a circle of 10 or 12 or 20 people, quite quiet and silent, who haven't anything much to say. And then, if someone has, they say it. These pleasant pauses are so agreeable that one is inclined to get into the habit, and it isn't the thing at all in a European drawing room.

Before the meal they have a long social time and then, late in the evening, the sheep or whatever it is brought in, and then you eat and go home. The real evening is before the meal.

And I've never heard a Bedouin interrupt another in conversation. They never get excited and shout at each other. Conversation is a whole art which, I have a theory, comes from the fact that the lighting in their tents has never been good enough for reading. You can't really do anything except sit and talk.

Interviewer: They are a very word-oriented people - in their love of poetic recitation, for example, aren't they?

Stark: It comes largely from this habit of depending on speech. Also on the very great beauty of the language. It is the most poetic language. It is incredibly rich. That is really the difficulty of learning it - the very great quantity of words.

Interviewer: Many people consider that your writing has a highly poetic quality. Do you think Arabic has influenced your style?

Stark: I don't know. I've loved poetry and I've loved words since the age of six. I think I've always seen things rather in the dress of words. I enjoy Arabic. I don't speak it at all elegantly but I enjoy it immensely.

Interviewer: You never really wrote until you went to the Middle East, did you?

Stark: What happened was that I wrote a bad poem when I was about eight or nine, grew up wanting to write, and was discouraged when I showed something to a friend who was a writer and who said, "Oh well, if you worked very hard you might ..." It was very discouraging, so I gave up and thought no more about it Then my mother typed out my diaries and things from my first Persian journey and said I must make a book. I hadn't written before.

Interviewer: One subject that interests westerners very much is the Arab woman. You had many chances to meet them. Did you make friends?

Stark: They were very kind to me always. I like Arab women. And, of course, I feel women are just as influential when they are shut up as when they are let loose. I think we run the world wherever we happen to be.

Interviewer: What first made you want to go to the Middle East after a European upbringing?

Stark: I loved languages, you know, and I loved to travel. My sister and I were brought up to travel; we wandered about I always had a feeling for learning languages, and Arabic covers the greatest number of countries with the most interesting history that was within my reach. I never thought of Far Eastern languages, but I could learn Arabic, and it covers the greatest area. And, strangely, I thought when I was about 20 that the countries where oil was being found were going to be the most interesting in my life. I can't think why I thought it, but I did.

Interviewer: I think people would be very interested in hearing something of the "Brotherhood of Freedom" which came into being during those times.

Stark: I was in the Ministry of Information, and in 1940 the job was to convince the Egyptian people that we meant to win the war in the end. We and the enemy were one to eight in the desert. Our guns shot a little over half the distance of the German guns, and we had all this population to keep happy I was given that job - to talk to the people - and the difficulty was to get at enough of them. You can't just do it alone. So, I thought, I must get different committees in different places set up who were doing the same sort of work, and we would be a central committee and give them the material.

We started with 12 friends and gradually spread. In a year or two, we had over 100,000 people in the committees who wanted to help us. You see, Egypt had offered to fight for us but we could not spare the arms. We said, "If we give you the arms, it deprives our soldiers and that just doesn't do." We needed every single weapon we had...Yet the ones who wanted to help were anxious to do something, and so we had our Brotherhood and they helped in every way. When the Italians came through very near Cairo one day the Brotherhood did marvelously... they stood very firm... They were people who wanted to help and hadn't the means to do so officially - over 100,000 of them.

Interviewer: And that all grew from the little committee of 12.

Stark: Yes...It was very touching. I would meet these little committees in out-of-the-way places. They started there on their own afterwards and it was perfectly disinterested. They didn't really think we would win that war.

Interviewer: What a wonderful thing! And it's almost a forgotten phase of the war now.

Stark: Wait until the next volume of letters, the one that is coming out this year! It's all the letters written from Cairo. Of course, our part in that huge war was tiny... but there is a picture of the struggle as it was in those days.

Interviewer: Have you had the opportunity to meet young Arabs recently?

Stark: Yes. I haven't met them on a sort of political level. Our trip down the Euphrates was just for fun and we had not a single political discussion. We were all enjoying it. I found that this was certainly the way to the heart of the young there, because they like an adventure of any sort.

Interviewer: Do they have a feeling for the past? Are they interested in their own history?

Stark: Yes, but they are not documentarians as we are. We are becoming wedded to the document. I don't think they care about it. They care about the feeling. It is perhaps the old-fashioned way. They care about their own history; they are very proud of memories and of course they are a believing people. Religion is still a great force; they have a faith in their religion. People will tell you that this is old-fashioned and that you hear nothing but oil and money being talked of...but I noticed that among the young people we were with - and they were most of them young - that when you got to know them they were just the same as I always remembered them, with a very strong belief that perhaps we used to have and lost: a belief of being entirely in the hands of Allah, of God, so that human decision is subordinate.

It is a great strength, and it interests me because I think you find it among the Elizabethans. You know Sir Humphrey Gilbert's last words, crossing the Atlantic in a little boat that was sinking: "We are just as near to Heaven on the sea as on the land." Well, the Arab really believes that. We are inclined to say it but not quite believe it I've seen him in action that way.

Dame Freya had summed up her points: a feeling for the past based not on sentimental regrets, but on a sense of historic human values; and a hope for the future drawn from the renewed values she had found on her latest expedition, down a river at the heart of an ancient world.

Betty Patchin Greene was born in China and has lived in Europe and the Middle East. She writes travel and historical articles for American newspapers and magazines.

Books by Dame Freya Stark:
Alexander's Path
Ionia: A Quest
Dust in the Lion's Paw
Journey's Echo
East is West
Minaret of Djam
Gateways and Caravans
Lycian Shore
A Portrait of Turkey
The Zodiac Arch
Perseus in the Wind
Rome on the Euphrates
The Southern Gate of Arabia
The Valleys of the Assassins.

This article appeared on pages 16-19 of the September/October 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1977 images.