Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark
by Jane Fletcher Geniesse

Book Review

Tales of adventurous women abound and the subject is experiencing a revival these days, as memoir and biography. For the most part, the regular civilian probably reads about the Middle East. For many, the idea of traveling there seems hardly possible. The rich historical record of Iran, Iraq and Syria, for example, is a worthy subject, which makes the travels of British writer Freya Stark are the more important. This prolific author who was active from the late 1920s through the 1960s. She eschewed a permanent home and chose, instead, a life of travel and writing based on meticulous observation of other peoples and cultures. An ardent British nationalist, she was honest about her own point of view and her critiques of other imperial presences in the Middle East.

Stark’s boldness garnered headlines and notoriety, especially when she published The Valley of the Assassins in 1934 about an isolated group in Persia that split from Sunni Islam in the medieval period. The more remote and secretive, the better.

One thing she knew about herself was she could endure privation. No problem to go without a bath for a few weeks or eat unfamiliar food. Illness was something that she accepted as what one must endure to engage the world. Out of a restlessness, ambition and insatiably intellectual curiosity, she returned to Iran, Iraq, Turkey for decades. She spoke Arabic and Turkish, and learned several other dialects, which opened doors for her. She did not want a permanent home; that was the world itself. A residence was a place to reflect, write and prepare for the next trip.

Passionate Nomad reminds readers that a woman planned and executed these travels. Stark insisted she would not be deterred because others thought women should travel abroad unchaperoned. Stark, no feminist, was empowered by her own grit and appetite for understanding the different cultures. She thought it best that her writings represent her views. Ultimately, movement meant living for Freya Stark. In between journeys, there were only pauses among family and friends to write and prepare for the next test of endurance and understanding.

Written by Jane Fletcher Geniesse