In ‘Stepping Over the Horizon’, a fascinating lecture on the life of Dame Freya Stark, Alison Shan Price MBE detailed the explorer’s feats, at the weekly lecture at Yarmouk Cultural Center as part of Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season.
In the lecture, Shan Price described how standing at only 5ft 1inch tall in stocking feet, Freya Madeline Stark was a giant amongst 20th Century explorers who did not allow the small problems of lack of money or warring tribes to stop her plans for exploring places no European had gone before. Poverty, typhoid, kidnapping, or boundaries could not deter her from her goals, and she delighted in ‘going native’.
Founder and director of One World Actors Centre UK and Creative Director of TAQA Productions, Kuwait, Shan Price has lived in Kuwait for 33 years working with multi-national artists to bring cross-cultural history alive through the medium of original performance. Later this season Shan Price will portray Dame Freya Stark in a new mono drama ‘Freya: Letters from Kuwait’. In 2017, she was awarded the MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in the New Year’s Honours List for Services to Dramatic Arts in Kuwait and the Middle East.
Two years ago, Shan Price was approached by Hooda Shawa, author of “Freya: Letters from Kuwait”, to play the role of Freya Stark at the time of the pre-oil era in 1932 and 1937. She admits that she knew very little about Stark apart from the fact that she had a canon of 24 books, 4 autobiographies, 8 volumes of letters and 5,000 photographs. She began to research the explorer with The Middle East Centre of St Anthony’s College, Oxford providing her access to Stark’s letters along with those of her contemporaries. “In finding Freya I have been taken on a journey of self discovery into a labyrinth of learning”, she expressed.
“What is tremendous is that when a man travels he writes about his observations, the people he meets and his actions and sometimes his objections, but a woman, she writes about her external and her internal journeys, her hopes, her fears, her dreams and all about everybody else. The subject of life appears all the way through Freya’s writings and her photographs”, she remarked.
She set a scene with a dramatic reading of Freya Stark’s words at 85 years of age, when she was asked by a BBC reporter why she travels, “I believe that there is something given to every living creature that has eyes, whether it is a mosquito or an elephant, and that is the horizon. Now, the horizon is something where there are two types of people. The people to whom the horizon is something that they must get over and see beyond because there is another horizon and the people to whom the horizon is safety and protection. I am one of those people who must see over the horizon because there is another horizon, and another horizon, and another horizon… and that is what life is all about.”
In speaking of her early life, Shan Price pointed out that Freya had an enchanted life. Her parents Robert and Flora Stark were artists who travelled all over Europe. She lived a fairytale life with her sister Vera until their circumstances changed. When she was 10, her mother ran off with Count Mario, two decades her junior to open a carpet factory. Robert refused to send them more money, throwing the girls into poverty. Shan Price informs that it was a great scandal at the time.
The second tragedy to occur in Stark’s life happened when she was thirteen. In an accident at the factory, her hair got caught up in a wheel of a new machine and she suffered injuries. In a neighbouring Italian town, was a doctor who knew a little bit about skin grafting and who without anaesthetic, grafted skin on to her missing ear and part of her scalp. For the rest of her life, Stark covered her face with her hair and very elaborate hats.
In order to calm her down, she was read to from her favourite book, a 1,001 nights, that piqued her interest for Arabia and travel. Her father and the Count agreed to send her to London for an education and thus began her new life.
She went into Bedford Girls College, associated with the University of London, the first university to put women into them, 1,000 years after Arabic universities had admitted the first female scholar. She learnt history and stayed with a lady who was wife of the sub editor of The Standard and who introduced her to society. “Therefore Freya was able to get her contacts to use later on in life. In the Victorian era you had to have your letter of introduction”, Shan Price noted.
In the classroom, her teacher of Medieval History, taught Freya that if you want to learn a language you have to live in the country. He wanted her to learn Icelandic but she was obsessed with learning Arabic. She learned all about Mesopotamia, the Silk Road, Alexander’s Path.
When the First World War commenced, she learned all about T. E. Lawrence and what he did in Arabia and enlisted as a nurse in Italy. She loved and she lost but her sister Vera married the Count at 18 years old. Their mother stayed in the house with the Count and therefore Freya had to take her mother out. Her father’s support was limited to funds to buy a tiny little cottage and there Freya started to try and find ways to get money to support them.
All the time, she tried to learn Arabic. Shan Price highlighted her determination by informing that she walked miles to visit a monk who had lived in Lebanon for thirty years. In 1927, she took the cargo ship to Lebanon. Stark had arranged everything herself with no one to look after her, and stayed with a missionary. Here she learnt Arabic with an Arabic schoolmaster and fell in love with Lebanon. But she found that Lebanon did not give her what she desired, to learn about the real Arab and not the cosmopolitan one. She decided to go to Damascus where she started to find out different things that happened in Arabia than was told in the West.
Shan Price revealed that the most exciting thing that happened to her was that she decided to join up with her friend and visit the Druze. The French garrison who had just put down the Druze didn’t want them to go there but the girls escaped early in the morning on their donkeys with a guide. They went in to see a wedding and they were feted by everybody there. When they came out, the garrison caught them, they were arrested and put in the barracks but soon they were taken out for dances and rides. On her return home, Freya realized that she had to learn everything she could about Arabia.
She wrote an article on the Druze that was published by the Cornhill magazine. She learned about cartography with the Royal Geographical Society, she learned to draw and she met the Iraqi ambassador who told her so much about Iraq that she ran to get her visa. This time she arrived in Arabia and took a car in a journey across the desert that cost her nine pounds.
When she arrived in Baghdad it was a time of change. “The Baghdad sketches is my favourite book, it had different chapters for every single thing that happened to her”, Shan Price remarked. It was a beautiful country but she found out that there was now a bridge over the Tigris, there were hotels, new roads, and if she went down a street she would find merchants where she found many artefacts of the bronze age. She stayed in the ancient Arab quarter in a house so small that as she walked down the stairs, she could touch both sides. She lived in their quarters, talked to the women, and was willing to learn. With her windows overlooking the Tigris, she felt she was part of Iraq. She decided to go to school with girls who were twelve years old to learn her Arabic.
The next part that Freya went through is to learn Farsi. She loved the old idea of Persia, and as a student of history she loved the stories about Darius and Cyrus and wanted to know more. She believed Mesopotamia and the areas around were the cradle of civilisation. Shan Price stresses, Freya wasn’t a spy, she travelled for fun, she drew, she learnt about people and she gave away information freely.
During her travels, Stark wore the garb of local people so she was safe and was known as the lady that travelled with medicines and was often asked for help by villagers and others. Having being a nurse in the First World War, she did as much as she could. Shan Price showed several maps of Stark and described her journeys of scaling mountains, visiting castles, the challenges of ailments like malaria and dysentery that afflicted her, her entry to Luristan by charming the police, and her journey to Kuwait.
Freya fell in love with the country, went with Herbert Young and his wife to meet Colonel Dickson who looked after British affairs in Kuwait and his wife Dame Violet. Shan Price shared photos of the camp of the Dicksons with the audience and alluded to the story of Colonel Dickson and the dream tree briefly. She described Stark’s interactions with the locals, her love for the dhows, the pearl industry and trading port thriving in Kuwait. The air was so beautiful, she felt safe and healthy for the first time, Stark described.
Shan Price detailed Stark’s desire to visit the Hadramaut and the hidden city of Shabwa which was unsuccessful due to a bout of illness. She expounded on her return to Kuwait in 1937 where she witnessed a total change in Kuwait with a slump in the pearl industry and found the dhows were stationary but oil was being seen on the horizon. On her trip to Failaka Island, she visited the temples, followed the path of Alexander the Great and described it as being idyllic and hoped it would not change. Kuwait to her was perfect, Shan Price reveals.
During the Second World War, Freya signed up with the British Ministry of Information as a translator and worked between Aden, Cairo and Baghdad and helped with the interrogation of the Italian POWs. Shan Price highlighted Stark’s method of empathy and persuasion in dealing with them and highlighted her saying, “The 2nd World War brought about a change as drastic as Bronze Age changed to Iron Age. Nuclear Science meant Persuasion or Annihilation”.
Price shared how she was part of the siege of Baghdad and arrived at the Embassy gates just before it closed. After the war, Freya went home to find unexploded bombs in her rose bed. She took in guests, and took people around to many places. She married Stewart Perowne in 1947 at the age of 54 but the marriage did not last.
At 80 years old, she was still travelling on a horse in Spain, at 83 she travelled with the BBC down the Euphrates on a raft showing them places that she visited, at 93 to Nepal and she passed away at the age of hundred. Shan Price concluded her lecture with Stark’s words, “One life is an absurdly short space of time”.
Freya: Letters from Kuwait by TAQA Productions will be performed on 17 and 18 November as part of DAI’s 23rd cultural Season. It was first performed as part of the International Monodrama Festival 2016 in the original version directed by revered Kuwaiti actor Abdulaziz Al Haddad with photographs by Freya Stark of Kuwait with permission from The Middle East Centre, St Anthony’s College, Oxford.