Freya Stark winters in Yemen
First published in The Times Literary Supplement, 21 May 2010
‘A Winter in Arabia: A journey through Yemen’, by Freya Stark, I.B. Tauris, 2010.
As jihadist cells threaten an increasingly embattled Yemeni government, a reissue of Freya Stark’s A Winter in Arabia: A journey through Yemen seems timely. First published in 1940, this is Stark’s third account of her adventures in the Hadhramaut, after her previous mission in 1934 was cut short by measles. This time, arriving in 1937, Stark spends a winter on an archeological dig in (then called) British South Arabia, before journeying from Hureidha to the sea.
Surrounded by pre-Islamic potsherds, Stark is far happier sketching the Arab society around her, in flinty, lyrical prose. Fluent in Arabic and a natural diplomat, she glides effortlessly between souq and harem, enjoying the company of bell-draped dancers, jugglers, camel-drivers and slaves, with all the access that the “third sex” (ie the Western woman in the Middle East) can afford. As ever, illness stalks her pages. Bedridden with sciatica and stomach upsets, Stark is not just her own doctor but everyone else’s too. Dishing out Epsom salts and camphor from her Edwardian medical cabinet, she gets it amusingly wrong with one patient: “I tried to nourish him with a sandwich of marmite, of which he took one bite and was sick.”
Pertinently, this is a portrait of a culture with almost no contact with the West. Despite the mention of the lone American oilman, hinting at things to come, Stark meets rural children who burst into tears at the sight of this unfamiliar looking woman. Contact with the British is restricted almost entirely to the RAF, which attempts to restore order by bombing the Bedouin. Skilfully, though, she manages to get on their good side. Once, when surrounded by hostile tribesmen in the kingdom of Azzam, she entertains them for over an hour before they release her with smiles, insisting “it is we who should be paying you!” Without self-congratulation, she simply shrugs that “to be cross in Arabia wastes more energy with less result than any other form of self-indulgence”. Part memoir, part travel account, A Winter in Arabia provides a brilliant insight into pre-war south Arabia. But for an area that remains as mysterious now as it was in 1940, this edition is badly in need of an introduction.