“People who have gone through sorrow are more sympathetic…not so much because of what they know about sorrow, but because they know more about happiness.” ~Freya Stark
At the end of Part 1, Freya lay close to death after a horrific factory accident ripped away half her scalp. A young doctor performed an experimental surgery that took skin from her thighs and grafted it to her head—without anesthesia. (It was 1905, remember.)
She spent months recovering in the hospital at Turin. Friends sent gifts. The maps and travelogues cheered her most. But eventually she returned to Dronero.
At age 18, after years of drudgery as the factory’s bookkeeper, Freya finally escaped. Before emigrating to Canada, Robert Stark left both of his daughters some money. Freya used hers to enroll at Bedford College, London — her first experience of formal education.
Like Edith Wharton, she’d been home-schooled by nannies in the various countries and could speak several languages, but she considered England her home. She stayed at Bedford for two years, until World War I broke out. During the war, she trained as a nurse and took a post on the Italian front.
While Freya was at Bedford, her sister Vera had married Count Mario — a fate Freya had escaped by fleeing to England. From their correspondence, it seems Vera felt she had no choice. They owed him too much.
A Mad Dream
“Some day I must make a list of the reasons for which I have been thought mad…it would make an amusing medley.”
Freya had made a few good investments. She bought a small farm away from Mario and took her mother with her. They barely subsisted without Mario’s patronage. Freya turned to flower farming and saved enough to finally put her dream in motion. She started studying Arabic with an Capuchin monk who lived in Beirut for 30 years before his retirement to the monastery. Everyone called it her “lunatic obsession.”
In November 1927, at age 35, Freya embarked for Lebanon to continue her language studies. She also spent time in Damascus. Then, with a friend and native guide, she ventured to Jabal Druze, or Mountain of the Druze, then under French martial law.
The Druze were a heretical branch of a heretical branch of Shia Islam. They didn’t like strangers. But Freya carried an introduction from her Lebanese tutor. His childhood nurse had been a servant to the Druze chieftain.
The French came upon them and detained them for several days, certain Freya and her party were spies for someone. Of the experience, Freya later wrote:
“The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.”
They were finally released. The Druze, on finding they were actually hereditary enemies of the French, welcomed them.
Distance, History and Danger
“I wanted space, distance, history and danger, and I was interested in the living world.”
Two years later, Freya returned to the Middle East, this time journeying into Luristan, a remote part of Iran famous for its black market bronzes. She was the first European woman to venture there. Her biographer, Jane Fletcher Geniesse, says:
“Enduring hunger, gale winds, nights on rocky terrain, and a guide who appropriated her Burberry coat and fell to praying when dinner had to be got, Freya encountered dervishes, idol worshipers, and armed tribesmen; attended both weddings and dyings; and attempted to scamper with ibex on the side of a nine-thousand-foot-high mountain.”
In 1933, now 40, Freya returned to Italy a different woman. She’d slept with nomads and wandered with shepherds. She pondered colonial rule and concluded that most people, given the chance, would prefer to govern themselves. She’d found her calling. If she had to sell flowers for the rest of her life to finance her trips, so be it.
But then everything changed. Freya’s mother met her at the station. A letter had arrived from the Royal Geographic Society. They wanted her in London to receive a prize for her travels in Luristan: “We have profited greatly by your literary talent and the attention you have paid to getting accurate transcript of the names along your routes, contributing to the correctness of our maps…”
During her RGS acceptance speech, Freya discovered a new talent as an electrifying public speaker. The BBC invited to lecture and four publishers wanted her to write a book. She went with John Murray, who’d published all the legends, including Byron, Darwin and Sir Walter Scott.
In 1934, The Valley of the Assassins came out and made Freya an instant celebrity. Her writing style is self-effacing, conversational, almost spiritual. The RGS continued to back her explorations and John Murray published them.
In her 60s, Freya followed Alexander the Great’s footsteps and wrote three books about her journeys: The Lycian Shore, Ionia: A Quest and Alexander’s Path.
At age 82, Freya was knighted. She decided to publish her letters, all sixty years’ worth. John Murray balked. Freya sold some Yemeni silver jewelry and a few paintings and published them herself, eight beautiful leather-bound volumes.
At 85, her driver’s license was revoked. No matter, she retired to her Italian hill town and did errands by horse back.
Freya died in 1993, at age 100. Once, when asked how she felt about death, she replied,
“I feel about it as about the first ball, or the first meet of hounds, anxious as to whether one will get it right, and timid and inexperienced — all the feelings of youth.”
A Personal Epilogue
Several people remarked on the vividness of my opening story in Part 1. Freya’s recognition by the Royal Geographic Society turned her life around. I likened it to my love of National Geographic magazine. But why that particular memory and year?
In August 1967, I was playing at a construction site with some friends. I fell from a cinder block wall and was impaled on a 4-foot tall iron rebar. It went through the fleshy part of my inner thigh. Cutting it out would leave me paralyzed or worse. The hospital found an U.S. Army shrapnel specialist 200 miles away and helicoptered him in. In an experimental 8-hour surgery, he saved me.
During my first week of recovery, uncle Bob arrived at my bedside with all his National Geographic back issues. He solemnly informed me that he’d started a subscription in my name. He renewed it every year until his death a decade later.
Passionate Nomad: A Life of Freya Stark by Jane Fletcher Geniesse.