Grand tours: A landscape left over from the days of fear

Writers' adventures in literature: Defying convention, Freya Stark seeks to explore Yemen alone. She is given an armed escort


Freya Stark was born in 1893 in Paris, where her parents were studying art, and started to travel from the age of two. After studying Arabic at university in the 1920s, she spent the next decade travelling on her own in Luristan, Iran and the Hadhramaut. Her intrepid nature and knowledge of classic Arabic and Greek literature provided substance to her many travel books; 'The Southern Gates of Arabia', an extract of which follows, was published in 1936 and is one of her best known. She married the writer Stewart Perowne in 1947, was made a DBE in 1972 and died at the age of 100 in 1993.

Freya Stark was born in 1893 in Paris, where her parents were studying art, and started to travel from the age of two. After studying Arabic at university in the 1920s, she spent the next decade travelling on her own in Luristan, Iran and the Hadhramaut. Her intrepid nature and knowledge of classic Arabic and Greek literature provided substance to her many travel books; 'The Southern Gates of Arabia', an extract of which follows, was published in 1936 and is one of her best known. She married the writer Stewart Perowne in 1947, was made a DBE in 1972 and died at the age of 100 in 1993.

* * *

The Makalla government was pained by my desire to travel without either a servant or an escort. The reason I gave, that peace and happiness with the beduin depend on being alone with them, carried no conviction. I was the third European woman to visit the interior, and the first to go there alone - any eccentricity was possible and even probable, but, because of a lack of precedent, difficult to deal with. In the matter of the escort, however, I was not to have my way: they handed me over to a black Nizami slave soldier, whom they made responsible for my life, safety and general comfort.

He was just as dubious about this task as I was and more fussy. He had small eyes, shallow, and red at the corners, and high cheekbones in a flat face: he appeared at the moment of departure, dressed in a magenta cotton futah, a vest, and a red turban, which, on formal occasions, he used to replace by a white knitted cap of the kind used for winter sports. The only military thing about him was his cartridge belt, which hung well filled and loose about his hips. He settled himself and his rifle on the step of the car which already contained me and 'Ali Hakim, and two other friends, who were to come as far as the road would carry. This was 10 miles or so to the village of Thile, at the back of the mountain of Makalla, round whose wind-eaten curves we jolted, north and then east among the desolate valleys where the citizens go in summer to sit in patches of rock-bound palms. We passed below the Sultan's garden, away on the left, and the two earth-coloured forts that hold the road, and Harshiyat, a green thread in a hollow - and other forts, square towers "left over'', said 'Ali Hakim, "from the days of Fear'', but still used by the 'Askar. The landscape was all stone, with samr trees in its clefts. If one looks closely, green shoots of leaf appear behind the mist of thorns by which their branches try, vainly, to protect themselves against the enveloping lips of the camel; but at a distance the grey skeleton trees scarcely show; one can see them on the hills only if one looks at the skyline, where their rigid forms stand ready to rush into greenness after rain.

We passed a track on the left which leads to Do'an and a string of camels loaded with reeds from that country; then we rounded the block of the mountain, came out into the low wavelike landscape of Shihr, left the Shihr road and the marks of wheels, and reached a low ridge whence the mud houses of Thile overlook their lake of palms.

The three good houses of Thile stand together above the rest of the village in a strategic position, and belong to the Mansab and his family. They are not whitewashed like the wealthy houses of Makalla, but are solidly built of mud, five storeys high. On the roof of the nearest, a woman stood and watched our coming; her arms and face were black as her gown, and she had a Byzantine dignity in the straight lines that draped her. I noticed how much was added to the grace of that figure by the darkness of face and arms, as if it were some statue carved completely out of a single piece of ebony, a thing one and indivisible in its beauty, instead of appearing, as most of us do, in bits here and there through our coverings. What is less harmonious than half a leg showing in contrasting colour beneath a modern skirt? - or an arm, which our dressmakers cut off at the shoulder, and leave to hang as an independent object outside the general design of their creations? This woman had no such incongruities: she was all one, and stood against the sky like the Madonna of Torcello against the gold mosaic of her dome: until she saw us and screamed, fluttering those dark arms in an abandoned way, unbecoming to Byzantine mosaics.

Readers of 'The Independent on Sunday' can obtain a copy of 'The Southern Gates of Arabia', published by John Murray, for the special price of £8.75 inc p&p (normal rrp £9.99), by calling 0870-121 0009 and quoting offer code BSH 033

Follow in the footsteps

Treasure trail

At the crossroads between Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Yemen occupied a central position in the spice and gold routes for much of its 3,000-year history. Yemen offers an incredible diversity of landscapes, from the arid areas of the southern coast and eastern deserts, to the greener West of farmlands and mountains.

Getting there

The Foreign Office warns against travel to Yemen and extreme caution is advised. Consult the Foreign Office (0870 6060290; www.fco.gov.uk;) before you go. Steppes East (01285 651010; www.steppeseast.co.uk) offers an 11-night escorted trip from £1,485. The trips are independent with tailor-made itineraries beginning in the capital Sania and visiting any number of destinations including mountainous Shibam, the coast at Hodeidah the desert town of Tarim in the east.

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