Never mind that upon her death in 1993, the then 100-year-old Dame Freya Stark rated a three-column obit in The New York Times
. Mention her name to most Americans, and it will elicit a "Freya who?" The tales and travails of this romantic traveler, who marched alone into the Middle East from Persia to Yemen, discovering lost cities and creating an anti-Nazi intelligence system along the way, are captured in this compelling biography by former New York Times
reporter Jane Fletcher Geniesse.
The author unveils not the fearless wanderer whose mappings and 30 books brought Stark awards from the likes of the Royal Geographical Society and made her a darling of British society. Instead Stark is seen as humble, insecure, and forever caught in the role of perpetual alien--be it when the English-born child grows up in Italy, where her mother lives in scandal, or when she plunges alone into the East, a feat never before accomplished by a Westerner.
An unwilling iconoclast whose love of travel, she would say, began as an infant when her father carried her in a basket over the Dolomites, Stark longed for the social security of the times: marriage and children. Proposals fell through, on occasion her beloved was married, or the romantic emotions she felt went unrequited--and besides, as a friend later pointed out, marriage would have spoiled her with its confinements. Rising above depression, self-imposed ostracism, and her numerous illnesses, Stark learned Arabic and how to climb mountains, map, partake in geographical digs, and find a niche in strange cultures.
Initially ridiculed for her passionate fondness of the Middle East, her writings ultimately generated vast interest for that mysterious part of the world, where she was surprisingly embraced, made privy to political movements closed to most foreigners, and even shown precious Islamic documents. At times a nurse, a war correspondent, a negotiator, Stark was a one-woman revolution of her time. Geniesse's intoxicating documentation of her life not only serves to stir up new interest in Stark's many books; it also ensures that the name Freya Stark will live on long after her obituary is but a scrap of yellowed, crackling newsprint. --Melissa Rossi
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From Publishers Weekly
A celebrated explorer, mapmaker, ethnographer, amateur archeologist and prolific memoirist, British travel writer Freya Stark (1893A1993) crisscrossed the Middle East, breaking bread with villagers, sleeping in nomads' tents and undertaking colorful and daring adventures. Former New York Times reporter Geniesse credits Stark with fostering a sympathetic understanding of diverse peoples, yet also views Stark's nomadic life of nonstop wandering as an escape: she sees Stark as a successor to mid-Victorian romantics who perceived the exotic East as an alternative to the West's soulless commercialism. During WWII, Stark, fluent in several languages, helped Britain create a propaganda network stretching from Cairo to Baghdad, aimed at persuading Arabs to support the Allies or at least remain neutral. In retaliation, Mussolini imprisoned her aged mother. In 1943, the British government sent Stark, a longtime anti-Zionist, on a tour of the U.S. with the aim of deterring Washington from supporting the creation of Israel. Defending Stark against charges of anti-Semitism, Geniesse writes: "She foresaw that the creation of a Jewish homeland that displaced Arabs to fulfill the dream would spawn a legacy of violence lasting for years to come." With a psychologist's acumen, Geniesse provocatively portrays Stark as a charismatic maverick with a ruthless, competitive streak, a voraciously needy woman of fragile self-esteem. Photos. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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