Long before many of us started to put pen-to-paper (as the old saying goes), there were travel writers galore. Indeed, whole libraries are devoted to travel writing, so we amateurs are always on the lookout for good examples.
One of my favorite authors, going back to my childhood (I have no idea who introduced me to her writings) is Freya Stark. An amazing lady, Stark (1893-1993) was famous for her story-telling, and the exotic lands she went to simply provided yet one more structure on which she could frame her stories. Claudia Roth Pierpont writes about Stark in “East is West: Freya Stark’s Travels in Arabia” in the April 18, 2011 issue of The New Yorker and notes, “As an explorer, Stark could claim no major discoveries, but her acute observations and her surveying skills had earned her professional respect and, for cartographic contributions, a Royal Geographic Society award.”
So she was more than a story-teller. But those “acute observations,” together with an strong talent for getting to know the people she was meeting and listening to what they had to say, provided the foundation on which her descriptions of her travels through Syria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Yemen were built. Pierpont’s commentary even includes a sort of mini-essay on slavery as practiced in that region of the world when Stark was travelling there. Another describes Stark’s efforts to build the Brotherhood of Freedom (“her proudest accomplishment,” Pierpont writes), which Stark set up to counter the efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood – which had been around for a while for “training Arab fighters against foreign domination.” For this little adventure, Stark’s chosen techniques were personal freedom and secular democracy. And, as Pierpont puts it, “the method of spreading these values was Stark’s great specialty: talk.” All of which worked, as the Brotherhood of Freedom grew eventually to claim tens of thousands of members.
“Proudest accomplishment” indeed.
The Pierpont essay proceeds from the reissue – by Modern Library and I.B. Taurus – of many of Stark’s books. In itself, Pierpont’s article is fascinating, and a delightful biographical read, providing us with much about Stark that I suspect many of us never knew. A good read.