Travel writing classics: A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark
A Winter in Arabia, by Freya Stark (1940)
Freya Stark, or Dame Freya Madeline Stark, as she would later become, was one of the very first Westerners, and certainly the first woman, to cross the southern Arabian Deserts; and that's just one of her many remarkable achievements.
A favourite of Stanford Dolman judge Sara Wheeler, A Winter in Arabia is the final part of Stark's trilogy of titles which tell the story of her time travelling the Hadhramaut - the remote province at the very tip of the Arabian penninsula. In fact, it's hard to choose between the three books, but this volume which deals with her travels in what we might now refer to as Yemen, in search of the ancient city of Shabwa, is a distillation of what makes her work some of the best to have been written about the region even to this day.
Aside from some remarkable descriptive passages - with tiny details of custom, costume and character delivered in crisp, measured prose - Stark's ability to mingle with the tribes allowed her to understand their structures in a way few had ever taken the time to do before.
"One can only really travel," she said, "if one lets oneself go and takes what every place brings without trying to turn it into a healthy private pattern of one's own and I suppose that is the difference between travel and tourism." As a philosophy for travellers, and most certainly travel writers, it's a pretty perfect one to live by.