A Winter in Arabia by Freya Stark (Overlook): $18.95; 326 pp.)

August 23, 1987|David Burns | Burns has traveled in the Arab world since 1948. and

This is a wonderful book--the very model of travel literature--with compelling portraits of exotic people and places, all enriched by a warm sympathy and a poetic knack for telling detail.

It recounts an improbable archeological expedition--three women wandering about South Yemen 50 years ago.

But the fascination of this book, long out of print in the United States, lies not in the adventures, but in the affection for and understanding of a remote land, its nakedness "clothed with the shreds of departed splendor."

Today, much of the way of life described here has utterly vanished, or is sadly corrupted by roads and oil wealth.

From Mukalla, 300 miles east of Aden--the author and the archeologist (never named or described) and an assistant--set off by ancient Rugby sedan (and later by donkeys) into the interior of southern Arabia. It is one of the harshest environments on Earth--a waterless steppe broken by rivers of gravel, with an occasional oasis of date palms.

They pass the winter of 1937-'38 in Hureidha, where the author transcribes historic documents, photographs inscriptions and catalogues the plants and animals.

Mainly, she is liaison with the tribal chiefs--a job for which she is ideally suited, becoming confidante, physician and, on occasion, even rendering judgment over disputes. They called her "the Beloved of Government" and honored her as sherifa, as though she were a descendant of the Prophet.

As an Arabic-speaking Ferangi , she was an object of perpetual curiosity, and thus denied privacy even when ill, the children "calling my name with an implacable soft persistence for hours on end. . . . I sometimes feel that my bedroom is more like a railway station than anything else in Asia."

The scientists were digging for remnants of pre-Islamic glory. From South Arabia by caravan and dhow, the fabled incense trade brought aromatic woods whose smoke perfumed the temples of the East. Was this "the land of Punt," whence came frankincense and myrrh for the Pharaohs and Magi?

But the author's love is not for the dust of the past but for the people of the present.

Like most British Arabists, she sees the Bedouin herders as charming and noble--much superior to the Arab of city and town--and is seduced by their shameless guile and innocent joy. "The expression of their faces is amiable; hatred is common, but bad temper is scarcely known. . . . Better than self-control, they have that true serenity that begins at the very source, eliminating those feelings for which self-control is required.

"The Orient does not get much done: It looks upon work as a part only--and not too important a part at that--of its varied existence, but enjoys with a free mind whatever happens besides. . . . Meanwhile, I have just found Qasim straining the soup through an ancient turban that has seen better days. He says he washed it first."

In the town, the women pass like black wraiths, kohl-rimmed eyes anonymous through the veil's thin slit. The author leads us into the harim, a shadow-world of whispering and gaiety: "Every color is splashed on the women's faces: One lip green and one lip red is the most arresting" and experiences for herself the ritual of elaborate henna tattooed on hands and feet.

As they prepare to leave, the muezzin calls to prayer; the camels utter half-human groans as the goatskins of water are loaded. An old man says, " 'I would have liked to go with you.' 'Have you friends there that you wish to see?' 'No,' said he, 'I have no reason to go except that I have never been, and knowledge is better than ignorance.' What better reason could there be for traveling?"

Freya Stark, born in 1893, is the last of the Victorian lady travelers. They were fully as determined as the male adventurers--T. E. Lawrence, Sir Richard Burton, Charles Doughty and Wilfrid Thesiger--to fill in the blank spaces on the map or be "the first Westerner" to venture into some unknown corner, and their diaries and tales enlivened a century of exploration and Empire.

Dame Freya's travels through Greece, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan have resulted in 20 volumes--including letters, essays and autobiography. Lawrence Durrell called her "one of the most remarkable women of our age."

"If I had to write a decalogue for journeys," she observes, "eight out of the ten virtues should be moral, and I should put first of all a temper as serene at the end as at the beginning of the day. Then would come the capacity to accept values and to judge by standards other than our own. . . . A knowledge of local history and language. A leisurely and uncensorious mind."

This is a book by a traveler: not a tourist but a participant--more friend than observer, as much inside the daily life of Arabia "as a thread is inside the necklace it strings."

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