FOR 200 YEARS, a whole class of clever, talented, and utterly intrepid Englishwomen have been traveling to the most dangerous parts of the world. Lady Hester Stanhope, who left England in 1810, and eventually settled in an abandoned convent in what was then a remote part of the Turkish empire and is now Lebanon, was a model of the type.
Freya Stark joined the procession of intrepid woman travelers somewhat over a century later. She came of a family quite as eccentric as Lady Hester's, though less socially grand. After learning first Arabic and then Persian, Miss Stark began in the late 1920s to make trips to what were still very wild places indeed. Some of them, like Yemen and the Hadhramaut, are not entirely tame even now.
She had many purposes: to explore places where few, or, in one or two cases, no other Europeans had ever been; to find historic sites, such as old battlegrounds of Alexander the Great; to make maps; to look for hidden treasures of various kinds; to climb mountains like Takht-i-Suleiman, the Throne of Solomon. Most of all, though, she wanted to lead the life of the country and to be in the middle of whatever danger or excitement there was to be in the middle of. She generally was.
Starting in 1934, she began to write a series of wonderful books about these trips. There are few better travel books than The Southern Gates of Arabia, and The Valleys of the Assassins, and A Winter in Arabia. Only "travel book" is too cozy and safe a name--these are books composed equally of adventure and fine observation. There was much to observe. Miss Stark was present in many places at the very last moment before ancient cultures gave way to cars and planes and radios, and this was no accident. Back in 1921, when a very great professor, a family friend, was urging her to learn Icelandic (so as to read the sagas), she chose Arabic instead. She foresaw the changes oil- drilling was likely to bring to the whole Middle East, and she wanted to watch them happen. "I thought the most interesting things in the world were likely to happen in the neighborhood of oil." Even then, as a very young woman, she knew she wanted to take part in current sagas more than she wanted to read old ones.
Of all her books, my favorite is The Valleys of the Assassins. It's an account of five different trips she took to Iran between 1930 and 1932. It takes its title from the two of those trips she devoted to exploring the sites of Assassin castles, of which Iran was once full. The Assassins were a heretical branch of the Isma'ili sect of Islam, very warlike, and in the 12th and 13th centuries they had a chain of 50-some castles across Persia. Nearly all of them were destroyed by Tartar invaders in the year 1256--which didn't keep Freya Stark from redisovering some of their sites in 1931. Among other things, she is a good if amateur archeologist and a highly professional geographer.
But it's neither for archeology nor for geography that I love The Valleys of the Assassins. It's for the details of the journeys, and for the character of Freya Stark herself.
Take the first trip, which was into Luristan in 1931. That Iranian province is now full of oil wells and technicians and modern debris. In 1931, the first motor road was just being built by order of the shah, but not yet in use. Ponies, donkeys, and black oxen were the transport; the newly introduced police made their occasional patrols on fast horses. The nomad Lurs were building houses, also by order of the shah, but not living in them. They preferred their tents, and their freedom to follow the flocks to summer and winter pasture. Just as they preferred their Lurish dress and hairstyle to the modern style the shah intended to force on them.
Freya Stark was there primarily to rob graves--but she also got to see the very last moment of pure Lurish life. A typical night would be the one she spent in the village of Beira, sleeping (with many other people) in the headman's tent. This structure in no way resembled what Boy Scouts use. "One side was open: a long line of black oxen with felt rugs on their backs blocked it and acted as a wind- screen: they chewed their feed gently through the night, while we slept as well as we could with rivulets of cold air creeping down our spines: now and then some tribesman, pirate- faced in the half-darkness, would rouse himself, heap an armful of thorns on the embers, and fill the tent with strange shadows and a fleeting warmth."
The next day she moves on to the valley of Gatchenah, "lined from end to end with graveyards of every date and description," and settles down to buy bronzes from the graves, and to offer a reward to any Lur who can find her a complete prehistoric skull. (All this was, of course, illegal; and Freya Stark tended to be in trouble with the police just as much as the Lurs themselves, which was one of the bonds between them. But before anyone concludes it was also wrong, I should mention that pre- Moslem relics tend to be roughly handled in Moslem countries. The shah's new road incorporated untold thousands of pagan gravestones as fill; one very early mountain castle she visited had had surviving rooms until just a few years before, when an unusually daring tribesman had climbed up to examine it. Then he demolished everything he could, "as having belonged to the infidels." Freya Stark can be regarded as preserver as much as thief. She got her skull, incidentally, and it is right now in a museum in Baghdad.)
Or take the second trip, which was a literal treasure hunt. A young Lurish exile in Baghdad came to her with a map. It had been made by a tribesman of his father's, who had found a cave "with twenty cases of gold ornaments, daggers, coins, and idols," and brought his chief as much as he could conceal in his clothing for proof. Freya and the young man are to find the cave, and get it all. Provided they can keep away both from the police and from the other person who knows about the treasure, an ex-vizier in Mosul, a man of power, quite prepared to imprison and even to murder anyone who stands in his way.
The story is too complicated to tell here, but it is very much worth reading in The Valleys of the Assassins. There is ploy and counter- ploy, plot and counter-plot, and all of it done in the high style of Persian courtesy. Some of Freya's devices for throwing the police off the trail would hold the respectful attention of James Bond. Hers have the advantage of having really happened.
If these adventures (and there are dozens I have no room to mention) are half of what makes the book enchanting, the other half is the author herself. First-person narratives are tricky, and trickiest of all when the author is a brilliant person doing brilliant things. Either he winds up sounding boastful, or he stuffs in a lot of mock-modesty and self-deprecation.
Freya Stark does neither, and yet she comes out utterly sympathetic. Partly that's because she is so good a reporter that she can report her own doings in the same detached way she tells anyone's story. Partly it's the humor with which the book gleams. Partly it's that she's a woman, traveling alone in places where custom and law give so many advantages to men that any gain she scores one can't help cheering for. Partly it's the complete absence in her of mean emotions like envy. One example: She herself is quite plain, and has minded being. In a volume of autobiography called The Coast of Incense, she once wrote, "The want of a regular education has never caused me any regret, but the absence of beauty has always been disappointing; I have managed without it, but even now (she was 60 when she wrote this) I cannot help thinking how much more fun to myself and others I might have procured, but for the absence of a few pigments, a millimeter here t toor there, a tiny tilt of chin or eyebrow, which those who possess them often scarcely know how to manipulate, hard which I felt I might have animated to very great advantage." Nevertheless, she takes open delight in the many forms that good looks take in different Kurdish or Lurish or Arab tribes, and never fails to mention a pretty wife or daughter. Unlike male travelers, of course, she sees them unveiled.
But most of all, it's because one is in the presence of a truly adventurous spirit. The reader can't help being roused, and becoming a little more alive himself or herself. In Baghdad Sketches, Freya Stark writes, "To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world." And in A Winter in Arabia, standing on a mountain ridge, looking down on the fortified oasis of Yeb'eth and the caravan routes beyond, she writes, "To travel from fortress to fortress, over the high jol, where men still walk with guns upon their shoulders, and at the end of days to see before you land that is yet unknown--what enchantment in this world, I should like to know, is comparable to this?"
I can think of one: to read Freya Stark's books.y NOEL PERRIN teaches at Dartmouth. Note on Availability: "The Valley of the Assassins" and "The Southern Gates of Arabia" have recently been reprinted in paperback by J.P. Tarcher for $9.95 each..