It’s a poor world where we are impartial through ignorance, prudent through impotence, and equal through mediocrity. – Freya Stark, Dust in the Lion’s Paw (271)
I came across an old newspaper article recently in which my father’s art was being reviewed. In the article he spoke about the conceptual aspects of his work and related it to the sort of literature which is something of a travel guide in the vein of Lawrence Durrell or Freya Stark. I have written about Durrell and his wonderful Alexandria Quartet, but I had not heard of Freya Stark, so I sought out her books and settled on Dust in the Lion’s Paw.
The fascists are bringing all their guns to bear against me. Nagi says ‘their hearts are boiling’ – long may they boil. But, dear Stewart, I do dislike this job. (28)
“This job” was her work as a propagandist for the English government throughout World War II in the Middle East. Stark was fluent in Arabic and slightly less so in Persian and so, despite her sex, was very easily employed in the seemingly unsavory line of work.
“A main obstacle was the unfortunate word propaganda itself. (64)
That’s probably more true now then it was at the time, but Stark makes an eloquent and impassioned defense of what she really considered to be persuasion. She had three rules of thumb she lived by:
1) To believe one’s own sermon.
2) To see that it must be advantageous not only to one’s own side but to that of the listeners also.
3) To influence indirectly, making one’s friends among the people of the country distribute and interpret one’s words. (65)
Number 3, was “not quite as vital,” (although led to a wonderful manifesto on words, translations, and humanity: Perhaps it is language, more than any other shackle, that circumscribes our freedom in the family of men? (48)) and barely merits a direct mention again, but 1 and 2 are rules to live by. Again and again in her dealings in Yemen, Egypt, Palestine and India she is true to her philosophy- the simplicity of which is profound and as far as I can tell, unarguable. Admittedly she and I have both been accused of naivete.
A woman asked if I didn’t think it time for us to give up using our lipsticks but I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order. (102)
Stark is a marvelous writer. Punto. Her sentences are gorgeous, with perfect clarity. While her oeuvre was by and large travel books, this was an autobiography full of letters and diary entries concerning the period between 1939-46.
The subtitle: The personal story of an extraordinary woman whose gift with words became a tactical weapon of war, struck me odd at first- I wondered a) who wrote it, and b) how true it would play out in the book. Still not sure about a, but on point b I can say, it’s all true. An old school humanitarian, her forthright English charm at once makes one sit up straighter in the chair, while her intellect and respect for the intellect of others disarms absolutely.
‘Most of my life is in the Man’s world,’ I find written in a rather morose note of my diary at this time. ‘Women are apt to think of it as the real one, but it is not so to me- filled with jealousies and now bloodshed. If women live more in the spirit, theirs is the real world-but I don’t know that they do.’ (51)
The heart of her book is not her struggles as a woman in unfriendly times and places. She doesn’t hesitate to mention the attempts to minimize and dismiss based on her sex, (unequal pay was a constant bother she never deigned to knowingly accept) but one feels through her words and view of the world all that is or could be good. All that really matters.
Art in objects or words- these are the markers that guide us through each other’s hearts, exciting us with fresh views in the familiar terrain of our humanity.
We have debased our words and pay for it by seeing nothing but counterfeit coins. They are forcing me to become a Press Attaché here in the north.[…] I hope to get out of it and sit quietly and move softly and love mercy and forget the atom bomb and all- and perhaps write a book or two about non-controversial matters such as the human heart. (260)
*Punto is Italian for period. Stark lived in Asolo, Italy before and after the war.