A Stark Reality
On her ninth birthday, a sickly homebound child received a gift that would chart the course for the rest of her life. It was a very large book that was—by all measures—not a children’s book. But, unlike most children, she loved to read, and did so voraciously and particularly enjoyed stories that let her explore beyond the confines of her home. Most children her age preferred to play outside and explore creeks and rivers and capture frogs and insects. She could not do those things. Because of her frailty, reading was the only chance at adventure that she had. On the cover was a title that had established a myth of the East, maybe the myth of the East. Beyond the cover were stories of sorcerers and magic lamps, bands of rogue thieves, and sailors who visited mythical lands. At the heart of the book was the story of a man who was responsible for astonishing brutality and heartache, unforgiveable hubris, bloodshed, and agony. It was also a story about a woman’s cleverness in survival. The young girl could not wait to pore through her new treasure One Thousand and One Nights. Freya lost herself in the reading of adventures.
Unfortunately, the book only offered her adventures of the mind. As she slowly grew out of her childhood sickliness, she experienced a terrible accident in which her hair became entangled in a factory machine, disfiguring slightly her face and further relegating her to the confines of her family’s home. Freya’s childhood was difficult and lonesome. But Freya continued to read of adventures.
Freya entered into young adulthood in pursuit of marriage and the stability of family life and homemaking. She fell in love with an Italian doctor and became engaged. The engagement did not last, and the doctor left with her with a broken heart. And Freya continued to read of adventures.
More than anything else, Freya continued to read the book that originally sparked her interest in distant lands and exotic cultures. Except now, the stories within One Thousand and One Nights seemed not as distant, almost accessible. Home seemed to have little appeal for her and she became restless. At the age of 33, Freya Stark left her home and her lonely, common life for Lebanon. She would never look back.
Freya had a gift for reading and language and threw herself into learning Arabic. She also became enamored of the many cultures that she found there. However, it was not enough for her to merely live in the Middle East, she wanted to explore and see places that no other European had ever seen. Freya dedicated herself to exploring the most remote possible areas of the Middle East. It would be a journey every bit as epic as One Thousand and One Nights. She traveled by sputtering car, loping camel, and stagger-stepped mule. She clambered up mountains, and plodded across deserts. She made contact with secret religious societies and studied sacred holy books. Her greatest feat during this journey was reaching the fabled valley that was once the home of the Cult of the Assassins.
Freya Stark spent the rest of her life exploring and writing about the Middle East. I recommend her first book The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels.