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.