Fearless Freya

Although I quite love to travel, I've never made a habit of reading travelogues. But, given Sumeet's affection for Patrick Leigh Fermor, Eric Newby, and the like, we don't suffer from a lack of tales of interesting people going interesting places.

One of my grouses has long been the preponderance of male writers in the genre; nothing wrong with men writing about their meanderings, but I like to hear a different perspective from time to time. "Freya Stark?" he suggested, years ago, and I kept her name in the back of my mind but didn't get around to reading anything of hers until today, when I devoured The Journey's Echo: Selected Travel Writings in one sitting.

Stark, born in 1893, became fascinated with One Thousand and One Nights at a young age and learned Arabic and Persian. In World War I, she worked as a nurse in Italy, and then, in the late 1920s, she began the journeys about which she wrote around two dozen books: she ventured to Beirut, Lebanon, western Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. 

The Journey's Echo is her last book, and it's something of a mish-mash that pulls together all her earlier writing. It's disjointed, its vignettes akin almost to a highlight reel, and thus perhaps the book is not the best representative of her true talent. But much of it is quietly astonishing; her imagery is breathtaking, and I ended up dog-earing a good third of the pages, so that I can page back, reread, rejoice. She writes about travel, of course, but also about the value of solitude, and the fundamental similarities of people across cultures, and about language (and its uses and abuses).

From my little Queens flat, an extract that reminded me there is much more to be seen (or to marvel over not seeing):

It is lucky to live in a city on a hill and to be saved by the view at one's window from thinking of the world as flat, so that one may see at a glance how all we have in sight slips over some edge into the veils of space.

The BBC has a 30-minute piece on Stark's life, or Jane Fletcher Geniesse's Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark is said to be good.