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The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – July 24, 2001
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Located on the high Hadramaut plateau in what is now Yemen, Shabwa was renowned in antiquity as the source of frankincense. Little visited even then, it was also thought to be a particularly forbidding place; Genesis mentions it as the "enclosure of death," and the Roman geographer Pliny reported that it contained 60 great temples and wealth beyond measure. That was good enough for Stark, who, having not long before made a difficult passage across the badlands of Iran, thrived on improbable adventures. And so, by burro and whatever mechanical conveyances she could find, she ascended the high mountains into a world that was sometimes perilous, but that also sometimes approached fairy-tale dimensions, as when, climbing the Hadramaut, she writes, "The path kept high and open, until gradually the valley clefts narrowed again upon us, and shut us in walls whose luxuriant green made a romantic landscape of the kind usually only invented in pictures."
Stark never reached Shabwa; laid low by measles, she had to be evacuated from territory overrun in any event by warring religious factions and gangs of bandits. Though cut short, her time in the Yemeni highlands yielded this superb travel narrative, full of uncommon vistas and milieus (harems, bazaars, and Bedouin camps among them). Anyone who values tales of adventure well told will find Stark's body of work--and this book in particular--to be full of treasures. --Gregory McNamee
--The New York Times Book Review
"[The Valleys of the Assassins] remains a wonderful description of a people and a place, altered today by Progress, perhaps, but through [Freya Stark's] eyes still alive with bandits, dervishes, idol worshippers, armed tribesmen, and mountain scenery of great beauty."
--From the Introduction by Jane Fletcher Geniesse
"Stark is constantly alive to her immediate surroundings: indeed, what gives her work its extraordinary depth and power is just this ability to focus past and present... stereoscopically, in a single image."
--Times Literary Supplement [London]
Top Customer Reviews
The explorations of these exotic lands are rendered now more strange and lovely by time. Few of us will get to see the lands Stark loved, but we will never see them as she did. For most of the steps along the trail described in this book, Stark was the first European woman to come that way, and that she did so unaccompanied by a European escort gave the Bedouin, the learned men, and the sultans something to admire and wonder at. One who thought himself a leader of her group attempted to exclude her by bringing her meals to a separate area. "He was showing a Victorian disapproval of females who do not keep themselves to themselves, a thing I find dull and difficult to do." She finds that she very much likes being in the middle of the group, even as an outsider.Read more ›
Stark has an eye for detail, as jaundiced as it is with the unavoidable Orientalism of her time and socio-cultural context. This can be forgiven/overlooked, and she's a lot more fair and obliging when describing those she encounters than the majority of her contemporaries. She's at her best when describing the landscapes she is encountering, the stark desert and wadis, the unexpected lushness of the oases and tucked-away mountain crevices where all the shades of green burst forth.
More than anything, what comes through in this book is Stark's grace and abiding respect for the people she meets. She has taken the time to learn their language, and is familiar with their culture, and takes pains to encounter them in terms that will make them comfortable. She does not attempt to bend anyone to a Western European point of view. This is not to say she is subservient or fawning; she most certainly stands up for herself when it is required. But throughout the book and on this journey, her continued success comes from her honesty tinged with her respect for the region and the people with whom she is interacting.Read more ›
Of course, this book journeys not just across cultures but across times, beginning with the author's introduction, which discusses the antiquity of the regioun she explores, especially in the time of great trade in frankincense, which made the region, for a time, wealthy. It is also reflected in the ancient culture and historical monuments and artifacts the author encounters.
Moreover, Freya Stark writes (wrote) beautifully. This book will appeal to anyone who is curious about other peoples, other lands and other times or who enjoys good writing.
However, one thing about this book puzzled me. Compared to most travel literature, it is a most existentialist piece. "Here I am, travelling through remote Hadhramaut.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This was so interesting. A wonderful story about a little known area of the world. The fact that this was a personal journey made it even more interesting.Published 5 months ago by Keiko
I found this book very interesting having recently visited Dubai. It gives an insight into the world of Arabia before it was spoilt by oil. Read morePublished on July 16, 2013 by Heather
Freya is limited with details, introspection, and understanding of the people she visited. She had bureaucratic connections that paved the way for her, and traveled in rather... Read morePublished on January 19, 2013 by Jan Williams
Freya Stark is a writer of incomparable English prose. All her writing is infused with depth and sensitivity, and completely lacking in the typical bored/sniffy American or... Read morePublished on October 24, 2009 by Jim F. Baughman