Summer in Europe might not seem a natural ally for winter in Arabia. But Freya Stark’s A Winter in Arabia is a book for all seasons and all continents. It recalls Freya Stark’s second journey through the Hadhramaut region of southern Arabia (nowadays part of Yemen). Freya Stark’s first Arabian foray, in the winter of 1934–1935, ended with measles and an ignominious rescue by the Royal Air Force. The publicity in Europe which attended that rescue helped establish Freya Stark’s reputation as an intrepid explorer.
Freya Stark revisited the Hadhramaut in the winter of 1937–1938. First port of call on the repeat visit was Al Mukalla, from where the adventurous explorer headed into the interior to remote mountain and desert communities ruled (to some degree) by the Kathiri and Qu’aiti sultans. Though the reader has a sense that the real power in the land was one Harold Ingrams, the British Resident Advisor based down on the coast at Al Mukalla. Ingrams, quite against the odds, had brokered peace between the various rival clans in the interior.
A Winter in Arabia is dedicated to Harold and Dorothy Ingrams, who emerge in the book as peculiarly insightful and sympathetic renderings of the colonial spirit. They are the shadows who hover over the valleys of the Hadhramaut.
Freya Stark is accompanied by two English women. Her companions are not identified in A Winter in Arabia. In fact, they were geologist Elinor Gardner (lightly disguised as Alinur in the book) and Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who is ridiculed so mercilessly in the book that perhaps it is no bad thing that she is referred to only as the Archaeologist. The evident tensions between Stark and her archaeologist-companion serve as a European counterpoint to the strained relations between the various tribes of the Hadhramaut.
A Winter in Arabia is a drama in two acts. Act One revolves around one remote valley where the three women spend three months. Alinur makes maps, the archaeologist digs holes and Freya observes the comings and goings of the natives. Freya Stark is the perfect ethnographer, unobtrusively commenting on the ways of the harims, local feuds and the impromptu nature of tribal justice.
But can any traveller, any ethnographer, really leave a land untouched? Freya Stark wishes that it were thus: “The hope that I cherish is that we may leave it uncorrupted,” she writes of the Hadhramaut in A Winter in Arabia. By the time the three move on, there is melancholy in all the harims as women snip all the stars and spangles from their dresses. The local men, it seems, prefer the more unadorned style of feminine dress favoured by their British guests.
During their mid-winter sojourn in the Hadhramaut interior, Freya Stark dispenses favours, Maria Theresa thalers and medicines. Next time I travel to southern Arabia, I shall remember to pack permanganate of potash, Epsom salts and oil of camphor — which, dispensed either in isolation or together, can evidently treat all ailments, from snake in the stomach to wind in the elbows. Illness plays a major role in A Winter in Arabia, with all three women frequently taking to their beds (with even, at one stage, the spectre of the RAF possibly staging a repeat rescue mission). And it is illness, probably malaria, which eventually defeats the archaeologist. She and the geologist return to Al Mukalla, leaving the stage free for Freya Stark who is the lone star in the second act of the drama.
Freya travels south across formidably barren terrain on a journey which develops into an epic — one that reveals Freya Stark at her most impressive, both as a writer and as a human being. Having spent her venom on the poor archaeologist, Freya is now free under the desert sky with the ageless stride of camels and her beloved Arabs for company. Here is a woman with incredible generosity of spirit. When cheated by one she trusted she says “we will look upon those dollars as alms given to the feeble-minded.”
I read this book in the slight warmth of a European summer as I journeyed around the Baltic. Just as Freya Stark mapped her way through the Hadhramaut with the poetry and prose of Andrew Marvell, AE Housman and Jane Austen, so I had Arabia as the backdrop to a journey from Holstein to Pomerania and beyond. The book maps Arabia’s uncomplicated virtues to perfection. It made me travel more virtuously. And made me feel like a better human being. It was a good book to read in these closing days of Ramadan.
No book is perfect. The edition I read was that released in 2010 by Tauris Parke Paperbacks. Southern Arabia is, if anything, even more foreign, even more remote from the modern imagination than when Freya Stark explored the region 70 or 80 years ago. Do we ever hear any good news from Yemen nowadays? And the Hadhramaut region is a real terra incognita. This book cries out for a good scholarly edition, well annotated and accompanied by a full glossary and some decent maps. The Tauris Parke edition is too raw for serious devotees of Freya Stark. Even a little proofreading would have helped.
But my grouse is a very European and modern folly. We complain for what we do not have, rather than counting our blessings. The Arab, Freya Stark suggests in A Winter in Arabia, is less conscious of alternatives. In that, she says, is a divine freedom that we have lost for ever in Europe. A Winter in Arabia breathed a little of that freedom into my own summer on the Baltic.
16 August 2012