Journeys through Iraq
Freya Stark
(Tauris Parke Paperback)
She was another of those indomitable English women who came of age during the days when the sun never set on the colonial lands of Great Britain. She was certainly not interested in staying at home, getting married, tending a garden in Sussex.

Instead, she had became mesmerized with what we then called "The Orient." Starting in 1927, she traveled through the Middle East, often alone, often depending on the good will and kindness of strangers. Baghdad Sketches takes us into Iraq, with side trips to Najd, Yezidi, 'Ain Sifneh, Samarra, Tekrit, and finally Kuwait ... a country she adored.

The chapter "The Kuwait Journey" is one of the most winning in the book, with three typical Freya Stark touches. First, each chapter begins with a soupçon of philosophy. In this case, it's "People who live by a riverside have always two pleasures to command: they can look both upstream and down."

Then there is always, hidden in the text somewhere, what one can think of as a throwaway. Something that on its own would be alarming, disturbing, disgraceful. But because our narrator is singularly nonjudgmental, it can arrive with surprise, and it disappears as quickly. This on the pearl divers in Kuwait:

    The figures that move about are mostly clothed in white or black, with a touch of red for the head or the sleeve: and a black African face as often as not, since slavery flourishes, if not so much from new importations as from old slave families who multiply, and provide half the pearl divers.

Then, a tiny bomb at the very end of the paragraph: "In Kuwait one can buy a black baby for twenty rupees."

There are moments when she throws the spotlight on herself, often as a charming, aside: "My education has been neglected in matters like arithmetic and correct behaviours of many kinds, but I was properly brought up to worship fire."

    The fire burned into the night, almost as high as the tree which gave it birth: it tossed sparks like a horse its mane, up into the unlimited darkness: and the peasants, chanting and jogging round, with a sideways jerk at every step, gradually forgot our chilling presence."

Overall there is Stark's singular vision, the details that bring us with her, eighty years ago, into a Kuwait yet untouched by the dark hand of the petro-dollars. We arrive at the frontier of Iraq, "beside an oasis so small that the desert light washes through it like a sieve, is passed." After, the Persian Gulf:

    It is green in the twilight, with a salty smell: it is genuine sea. It throws up a dust of glistening shells for sand, and at its edge are tufts of rushes. It lives in an immense and happy loneliness.

An immense and happy loneliness.

Stark is such a haunting writer that we wish we could crawl back through time to be with her, to travel about in this mysterious Kuwait of the 1930s: to wander through the bazaars with her, to pass through previously unknown deserts and towns and reclusive corners that she so treasures.

§     §     §

Stark was famous for her unwillingness to be a shrinking violet, to travel alone through sites that the colonials had decided were altogether too beastly ... places, they thought, that no sane woman should visit either with others, or, worse, alone. I think she was able to get by in such solitary journeys because she had an extra sensitivity to the cultures she was visiting ... was careful not to jog the prejudices that prevailed then (that prevail now) in the Middle East: most certainly with regards to the solitary woman.

During her travels in and around certain holy sites, she would don the required costume, and, in the process, for the reader, turn it all into poetry. In the old city of Mansur, she dons "a small chiffon veil called a Pushi to tie over one's head, and an abba draped across the forehead and shoulders so that the empty sleeveholes fall like wings and the whole thing covers one up like a cape." Then this touch,

    I had taken the trouble to beautify my eyes with a thick black line of kohl, so that I could throw back the veil when men were not about, and, holding the cloak to my mouth, could look around me.

Stark was a proud woman, but, apparently, never foolish. It gave her the necessary tolerance for the cultures she came to love, gave her the ability to journey so far so freely, protecting herself by donning the costume of the oppressed.

There was also in her a tolerance for things that would gag your typical Western visitor. On her first days in Baghdad, she tells us of a "drainage problem" that "makes it so depressing for Officers of Health and so amusing for people who like to study microbes."

She experiences what the English liked to call The Great Stink: "I used to lie awake and wonder about it at night, and admire the malignity of a smell which could lie dormant all day when one might escape it by going out, and leaped upon one as soon as one was safely imprisoned in one's bedroom."

    It never appeared by day so that I was unable to prove its existence to my friends and neighbours: it never troubled Marie, who slept with her head in the very midst of it over our diminutive cistern-court: but it curled under or through my closed door, crept up to the corner where I lay trying to breathe the comparatively innocent air of the street, and had me at its mercy for the rest of the night.

--- Esther Sweeny
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