MANY years ago, when most of the Middle East was still the playground of warring Bedouin tribes, and under the troubled overlordship of the Ottomans, when parts of it was still unknown to the Western world, a succession of women ranging from middle to upper-class British backgrounds courted social censure when they answered the call of adventure and the unknown and ventured into the yet unexplored parts of the Arab world. In the process, these women became explorers, researchers, writers and ambassadors who not only bridged cultures but also in a way became the eyes of the so-called ‘civilized’ world into civilizations and people who until then had aroused scepticism, and a bit of wonder.
The fearlessness and zest for living of these colonial women such as Gertrude Bell, Violet Dickson, Fanny Parkes, Maria Graham and more so Freya Stark is intriguing. Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark in particular were born towards the end of the Victorian Age and therefore belonged to a time when social codes, moral codes were still rigid, and yet almost everything they did was against the norms. In fact, Freya Stark was one of the last colonial women to travel through Arabia sometimes on foot, sometimes on camel or on donkey back and towards the end of her travel on an automobile.
What makes Dame Freya Stark special for us is that her travels through the Middle East also included visits to Kuwait. At that time, which was in the thirties, Stark lived and worked in Baghdad as a sub-editor on the Baghdad Times and her visits to Kuwait resulted in a splendid photographic record of pre-oil Kuwait, as it was in the twentieth century. In her book ‘Freya Stark in Iraq and Kuwait’ Malise Ruthven notes, “ On her (Stark’s) various expeditions to Kuwait she again visited the Marsh Arabs and also witnessed the bustle of fishing fleets and pearl divers boats. She enjoyed the bazaars of Kuwait City and left us with a photographic record from before the oil boom which replaced much of the city’s architecture and way of life.”
On April 19, TAQA Productions led by renowned Kuwaiti writer and playwright Hood Shawa will showcase the life of this extraordinary woman in ‘Freya: Letters from Kuwait’. This original monodrama has been chosen to take part in the International Monodrama Festival as part of ‘Kuwait: Capital of Islamic Culture 2016’ celebrations. The monodrama festival will present 12 productions from across the world from April 16-23. Directed by international actor and director Abdulaziz al-Haddad, the role of the British explorer and author in ‘Freya: Letters from Kuwait’ will be portrayed by the irrepressible Alison Shan Price.
It was while taking travel literature classes at Kuwait University as part of her requirements for the MA program in Comparative and Cultural Studies that Hooda Shawa encountered the writings of Freya Stark. “One of the most adventurous and courageous women travellers of her generation, Freya Stark travelled extensively through Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Southern Arabia where she became the first Western woman to travel through the Hadhramut,” shares Hooda, Founder, and Managing Director of TAQA (Toward Achieving Quality in Art), a Kuwait- based company that produces and promotes independent cultural and artistic initiatives in the performing and creative domain. “I had not realized that the extensive journeys of this indefatigable traveller had included two visits to Kuwait, in 1932 and 1937.” Inspired and intrigued, years later, Hooda Shawa penned a play based on Freya’s original letters, photographs, and books. She adopted Stark’s style of writing while crafting her script that promises to fascinate. Apart from the books, letters, and memoirs of Stark, for more information, Hooda Shawa sought help from the Centre for Research and Studies on Kuwait (CRSK), an organization that provided her with books and DVDS on Kuwait in the 1930s and 1940s.
Alison Shan Price, Founder and CEO of One World Actors Centre, and one of Kuwait’s most prolific theatre personalities is looking forward to portraying Freya Stark on stage. “I was delighted to be asked by producer and playwright Hooda Shawa to perform the role of Freya Stark and I am privileged to work with award-winning Monodrama Master Abdulaziz al Haddad of Kuwait who has given to the project his international experience. To present such an icon as Freya Stark to the public is an exciting challenge. To portray the magnitude of her personality, intelligence, courage, drive and sense of fun is vital,” says Alison, an actor, and director with qualifications from LAMDA London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. In 2000, Alison introduced accredited LAMDA examinations into Kuwait for Acting and Speech, training thousands of students from introductory to Diploma level.
Freya Stark was no ordinary traveller. While sharing her observations on Stark’s skills as a writer and observer, Claudia Roth Pierpont mentions in her article in ‘The New Yorker’, “her acute observations and her surveying skills had earned her professional respect, and for cartographic contributions, a Royal Geographical Society award. She has located unmarked villages and unsuspected mountains, taken compass bearings and photographs…She was a vivid describer of scenes and landscapes. More, she was a connoisseur of people – she knew how to draw them out and listened closely when they spoke.” Hooda Shawa agrees. “Her impressions on Kuwait were striking. In her beautiful prose, Freya captured the sights, smells, and sounds of a pre-oil Kuwait and painted a portrait of its people, its politics and its landscape. She also visited Failaka Island and wrote about the importance of its archaeological heritage. But what stands out in her immaculate and crisp travel narratives is an uncanny ability to capture the machinations of human interactions; with her keen eye for observing the human condition and conveying the ultimate universality of human behaviour and emotions.” In his book, ‘Not So Innocent Abroad: The Politics of Travel and Travel Writing,’ Ulrike Brisson writes, “When she visited the deserts of Kuwait at the end of the 1930s, the country seemed to her like an ‘untried bridegroom.’ But instead of lingering over the untried beauties of the land, Starks imagination was captured by the exciting spectacle of oil drilling, and she saw in the drilling machine, .. an Idea stronger than the elemental matter around it.”
Who was Freya Stark? She was born in 1883 to nonconformist artist parents who traversed Europe. “She was a Victorian lady which in itself is a title for a particular breed of unmarried, well-educated and well-connected British women,” says Alison. “She was a product of landed gentry and artists who had experienced luxury and opportunity, had fallen on hard times and was a survivor. As a baby, she was carried by her parents over the Alps in a basket and continued travelling by donkey through rocky terrain into her late eighties. Freya loved fun, people, and the Middle East. She preferred talking to locals than digging for artefacts and documented her travels in geographical magazines and letters to her mother and friends which formed the information for her many popular books.”
Fluent in several languages including Arabic, Stark studied history at the School of Oriental Studies London before she travelled extensively through the Middle East, Turkey, Greece and Italy. She lived through two World Wars and in one of them she was actively involved in the resistance and served as a mouthpiece for British propaganda. “This doyenne of travel wore many hats; flying the flag for Britain was at the forefront of her quests,” observes Hooda Shawa, who has several very successful productions to her credit. “Stark was a staunch Imperialist all her life; and serving the interests of the British government was paramount to her travels. In Iraq she established the Brotherhood of Freedom, an anti-Axis organization formed during World War Two,” says Hooda. Not an academician per se, she was able to look at people and events with a certain wondrous curiosity, which gave her letters and books a sense of empathy. “She often immersed herself in the lives of nomads, Bedouins and ordinary people she encountered in her travels; sharing meals, medicines, and anecdotes,” the playwright continues. “She was a great listener, and as an ethnologist/ anthropologist, she was more interested in the lives of people than in finding fossils and artefacts.”
The upcoming monodrama, ‘Freya: Letters from Kuwait’ produced by TAQA Productions, has taken almost two years to reach its final stage. “Study began eighteen months ago and still continues as Freya not only wrote 30 published and widely read books but letters, journals, speeches, and papers. To analyse these takes time to recreate her persona,” shares Alison, who received an invitation to the Middle East Archives at St Anthony’s College, Oxford and spent an afternoon reading Stark’s original letters from the period to Gerald du Gaury, a dear friend and British political agent in Kuwait in 1937. “Freya Stark: Letters from Kuwait” will shed light on the life of this doyenne of travel. Hooda Shawa explains, “What we want to explore in this play is the passion that drove this fearless traveller in her lifelong quest for exploring new horizons. The play questions whether her travels were a form of refuge? Was her life of continuous journeying an escape mechanism that masked an inner anguish?”
The premier of the show will take place on April 19 at 8:30 pm at Dasma Theatre during the International Monodrama Festival. A bigger production is scheduled at the Dar al Athar Al Islamiyya at the end of May. Both productions shall be in English with Alison Shan Price in the lead role of Freya Stark. The monodrama will feature a special musical score by Harriet Bushman, an acclaimed classical pianist and composer and the set design is by award-winning duo Faisal al-Obaid and Mohamed Rabbah.
Freya Stark was a remarkable free soul. During her adventures, she doubled and tripled as a geographer, tourist, propagandist, an Arabist and even as an Arab and a Muslim. In a way, her life and attitude seem to symbolize that colonial spirit of adventure and courage that strove to conquer insurmountable obstacles and dangers. Join TAQA Productions, Hooda Shawa, and Alison Shan Price as they take you through the life of this extraordinary woman whose ‘ultimate goal’ in the words of Ulrike Brisson, was an “ever receding horizon, always in sight but never reached.”
By Chaitali B. Roy – Special to the Arab Times