Baghdad Sketches – Freya Stark

It was surprisingly difficult to find a backdrop of freaking sand where I live. That is all I have to say about this photo.

I am so sick of starting off with some variation of “this week’s book is…”

First, I read it last week.

Second, I’m reading one travel book every two weeks, so it should really be like, “This half of the month’s book is…”

Third, it’s so damn trite.

Fourth, I read like three other books in the last two weeks (for those interested, Irving Stone’s 1938 biography of John London, Sailor on Horseback, Developmental Editing, and The Editor’s Companion, and I’m a little more than midway through Stross’s The Rhesus Chart) and phrasing it the way I have been makes me sound like I’ve been sitting on my literary ass. Which I have not.

Anyway, this half of the month’s travel book is Freya Stark’s Baghdad Sketches.

I’m going to supply the Wikipedia link for Freya Stark here so you can read all about her because I’m lazy and it seems silly to summarize a Wikipedia article that you can just read for yourself.

Now that all of the administrative business is out of the way, let’s dive in.

Baghdad Sketches is a collection of Stark’s writings from the late 1920s while she was wandering around the Middle East for the very first time (she would, of course, return and write more). What stands out very (cough) starkly is the dividing line within this collection.

See, some of the writings were from letters to friends. They’re imbued with personality, a strong voice, humor, and an odd sort of lightness. They’re very personal, self-disclosing, and you feel as though you are there with her, dealing with her random happenings. It’s engagingly delightful.

Maybe two-fifths of the way through the book, it shifts to her other writings.

These pieces were written for the Baghdad Times and are distant. The humor, while still there, is rare and very hidden. The voice changes, becomes more professional, analytical, and far less personal. It was as though her entire personality was yanked out in order to provide pieces written in a journalistic voice.

(Side note: this makes sense, as the second wave of New Journalism hit in the 1960s and 70s and so Stark was likely writing under rigid constraints.)

Mind you, the latter half of the book isn’t bad writing. It’s just different. Oddly masculine. Baghdad Sketches may be, thus far, the most obvious example of the content and voice differences I’ve been finding between male and female travel writers, except that BS (unfortunate acronym here) was totally written by a woman.

So there you go. The first part is a lovely, engaging read. The second part is good writing, but informatively toneless.

From the first half:

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it.”

“True happiness, we consider, is incompatible with an inefficient drainage system. It is one of those points on which we differ most fundamentally from the East, where happiness and sanitation are not held to have any particular connection.” (From a chapter titled, “Concerning Smells” in which our author tells the story of how she had to move because of horrible smells in her yard that may or may not have been emanating from a (or several) dead body(ies?). It’s wonderful.)

From the latter half:

“Salim Beg is a restless young effendi, nearly dressed, very full of opinions which have not given him much trouble to come by, and with manners whose off-handed curtness he has cultivated with care under the impression that this is the last thing in Western behavior. He, and the thousands like him in every Eastern city, are perhaps the most interesting people one can meet to-day, since they represent the immediate future.”

See, there’s nothing wrong with the passage above. In fact, as I was typing it, I could hear NPR in my mind, introducing this hour’s guest. This eighty-year-old text hasn’t aged, save for certain spellings of locations and punctuation preferences.

But it’s distant. Removed. It doesn’t engage. I don’t care about Salim Beg and I don’t care about the writer. So jarring after all those personal missives earlier in the book. If Baghdad Sketches had been all of one or the other, it wouldn’t have been so painful to read the latter half. It would have been slow and plodding, but it wouldn’t have felt like such a loss, like a friend leaving.

I’m going to be picking up more work by Stark once this project is over. I suggest you make a new friend in Freya do the same.