A Winter in Arabia
A Journey through Yemen
In our loving review of her first book, Baghdad Sketches, I wrote that "Freya Stark was famous for her unwillingness to be a shrinking violet, her willingness 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.
We suggested that she was sturdy, opinionated, fearless, and witty, though she was certainly not going to describe herself as that. She was traveling through one of the blighted areas of Arabia, in a time of world-wide depression, in an area filled with suspicion of the colonials.
She was certainly indefatigable, and in the present volume, we again come across a valiant but at the same time charming lady who must have seemed indestructible. If she was told that the only way to make it to her goal was by camel, she had them heist her up there and she was off. If it was by donkey, she dutifully mounted it, even if it was a sulky beast (one appears here that we would gladly have strangled; she didn't.)
But she was human, at the ends of the earth (Southern Yemen of eight decades ago). She got ill, came down with what she called "the Arabian microbe," despite her best effort not to do so: "pouring iodine on cuts, inhaling menthol before going to sleep, and swallowing things like kaolin and charcoal after a more than usually picturesque meal."
Her microbe hangs in there for so long that it is almost midway through Winter in Arabia before she can leave her bed there in Hureidha and take off (by camel) for the city of Bal Hal on the northern coast, and then on to Aden. So it is only partially a travel book. But Stark being a lively sort, and a great writer, even her time in convalescence engages us --- and those about her (the children refuse to leave her alone).
She speaks the language (ours too). She's willing to have her hands painted with henna (a local custom). She can gossip with all, can turn a simple encounter with one of the locals into a funny tale of dealing with customs, outlined with a crucial delicacy.
Once, Fatima came to visit, and she chances on an old issue of Vogue. Stark had not "had the time to tear out two naked ladies advertising bath salts:"
I hastened to say that it is a paper exclusively circulated in harems.
"Are they real?" said she.
"Oh no," I said with relative truth: they have the improbable silhouette invented by advertisers. "They are just Jinn."
"Fatima was overcome by the female beauty of Europe," Stark concludes. "She kissed her forefinger and pressed it on the prettiest of the mannequins and said, "May Allah shower good on them."
It is her ability to sketch out the situation for us, along with her affection and sensitivity to this distant culture --- so far from the Europe in which she grew up --- that makes her such an affecting companion on this new journey of hers. When she finally gets underway, she wonders why she is doing it at all. As we all do, especially when we go through the Badlands, the Travail of Travel, she wonders why we bother at all. But she explains it away by quoting a local prophet, Sayyid Abdulla, the watch-maker: "To leave one's troubles behind one; to earn a living; to acquire learning; to practice good manners; and to meet honorable men."
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One of Stark's greatest virtues --- at least to this reader --- is her ability with the language, her keen turn of phrase. This on meeting with a local dignitary: "The Mansab comes out from his carved doorway in a green turban and cloak, green jacket gold-buttoned beneath it, the men of his family behind him; he is so holy, people do not kiss his hand, they bend over and sniff at it audibly, so as to breathe up a whiff of the sanctity as if it were snuff."
She is obviously fearless. I don't know if that word is capable of conveying what she goes through (the purpose of her journey, we gather, is mostly with collecting plant species and searching out ancient inscriptions). She not only comes down with a pernicious sickness, she then passes through civil war, slave raids, destitution, shootings, and has always to deal with attempted blackmail and constant besiegings by crowds of the curious, "cheerful and determined to get money if they could."
The bodyguard of 'Azzan had turned out behind me, indistinguishable to all outward appearance from the enemies they were supposed to deal with: in these bedouin crowds it was always difficult to tell one's own protectors from one's foes.
She's tough, wily, resourceful, and well informed (she hopes) by her bedouin companions. But at one point, all seems in vain. Her guard 'Ali turns obtuse, leaves her just outside the village of Lamater. The crowds press in on her, cutting her off. She thinks of turning back, just getting out.
The thought of more trouble with him, and the fatigue of twenty-two hours of camel in two days with a saddle that rubbed, together with the nagging of the bedouin renewed by fresh reserves in an unending stream, all so acted, that I suddenly felt tears rolling down my cheeks, a spectacle which sobered 'Ali in one instant.
The one time in her journey when she shows her fear, a fear that would have haunted the rest of us nonstop, is the moment that saves her; it is the moment when she lets down her disguise of almost knight-like bravery.
Finally, when she arrives in her resting place for the night, she finds her friends waiting for her, "rejoicing over the success of our adventure at Kadur."
To them in their day-to-day fight, it was a victory over the bedouin; prestige, it appeared, had been maintained. "If you had turned back," they said, "no one in this country would have believed you when you said that you belong to the nation of the English."--- Nancy Willard