- Hardcover: 432 pages
- Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (September 28, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0394583965
- ISBN-13: 978-0394583969
- Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 65 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,296,007 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark Hardcover – September 28, 1999
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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
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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Broadly speaking, there are two aspects to Stark's career. The first was as an intrepid traveller, going places in the Middle East where few or no Europeans had gone before. Then she wrote about those places and her adventures in a series of books that belong in the top rank of British travel literature. Among her expeditions, Stark visited the mysterious Druze and explored the castle hideouts of the ancient Assassins in Syria; she explored remote areas of Iraq and Persia; and she traversed the southern Arabian Peninsula, even venturing into North Yemen. She suffered dengue fever, sandfly fever, malaria, and dysentery, and she had several close calls with death. She was aided by her ability to speak Arabic in any number of dialects, her knowledge of the Koran, her ability to improvise, her disregard for the comforts of European civilization, and sheer obstinacy.
The other major area of accomplishment involved her work for the Ministry of Information during and after World War II. As an expert on the Arabs and the Middle East, she was recruited by the government to help keep the Arabs neutral and foster British political interests however she could. She was one of three hundred Europeans holed up in the British embassy during the month-long siege of Baghdad in May 1941. As the war wound down, Great Britain tabbed her to go to the United States as a representative and defender of what was then Britain's "fence-sitting" policy towards Palestine. Part of her message, which she truly believed, was that "it hardly made sense * * * to make the Palestinians pay with their homes and lands for injuries done to Jews by European Christians." The Americans were not persuaded and shortly thereafter the British too changed their policy.
Author Geniesse does a good job of covering Stark's numerous achievements, and she does a better job of giving the reader a sympathetic sense of Freya Stark, who turns out to be a very complicated and sometimes even contradictory woman. Inwardly, she was insecure and craved affection; outwardly, she could be extremely charming, but also imperious, manipulative, and at times just plain bitchy. By middle age, she had become a British eccentric through and through.
From the "How Things Have Changed" Department: "She discovered how safe it was for a woman to wander alone in an Islamic land, for despite what the missionary ladies told her, she had learned that Islamic tradition treats women with exquisite respect." One of the rare occasions on which she felt threatened was when, in Damascus, she was photographing ruins and an elderly man approached her, salaamed, and suggested that she follow him to see something even more interesting; he led her down dark and twisting streets to a public bath and ushered her into its dim interior where she was suddenly surrounded by nearly naked men in towels; "she thrust her camera before her face as if to take their picture, thanked them profusely, backed to the heavy door, and fled."
My problem with the book is the author's style. It is too wordy, with too many rhetorical flourishes for my taste. Geniesse relies heavily on one device that particularly grates on me -- what I will call "no-one-could-have-foreseen foreshadowing". For example: "She could have no idea how squalid her circumstances would turn out to be, nor especially could she know that her visit to Damascus would be the first step on the way to an astonishing career." Or: "Two young members during the war were Lieutenants Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat, but neither Freya nor anyone else could suspect the future roles they would play." (And there are other such instances.)
Geniesse quotes liberally from letters and books of Stark. (For what it's worth, Stark was a distinctly better writer.) There are nine pages of useful maps, although I wish that when cities or places were named in the text there were a cross-reference to the appropriate map on which the reader could locate them. There also are about sixty photographs, most of them intrinsically interesting but nearly all printed with exasperatingly inadequate resolution or clarity. (Several are so small and fuzzy as to be worthless.)
P.S. The sentence with which I have entitled this review is from Stark's "Letters from Syria". What it describes has been true for me my entire life.
Geniesee has done a spectacular job of keeping us, as readers, balanced in our views and Freya, as our "quarry" balanced as well. She shares with the reader the frustrations of people who did not understand Stark, and we read in a number of places about what a difficult travel companion she could be. The reader is also privy to Stark's somewhat bizarre social behavior in which she shuns close friends suddenly and for very (ostensibly) strange reasons. Geniesse, in other words, has done a good job of keeping her protagonist honest for us... something that biographers can sometimes find difficult to do (the urge to glorify or demonize may overtake). This is a monument to women everywhere who find great joy (I do, obviously) in reading about the women who blaze the trails, who reach beyond society's expectations for them, who go and do and learn because they want to, damn it. It was such a pleasure reading about this grand dame.