Freya Stark: Intrepid Arabian Adventurer, Ardent Jew Hater


On the one hand, I am a hopeless Anglophile. I speak and write in English; the first poems and novels I ever read were in English too. I was often among the first in Manhattan to see each new film which depicted British upper class life in the Victorian or Edwardian countryside, in sunny Italy, or in steaming, teeming, India during the days of the British Raj.

I am an American. Perhaps my behavior is similar to others who have also been formerly colonized. It is no accident that filmmaker Ismail Merchant is a Muslim from India and that his script writer, German-born Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is Jewish. (Her husband is a Zoroastrian from India). Together with Protestant-American, James Ivory, their many film ventures have satisfied the world’s need for British-based romantic nostalgia e.g. Room With a View, Howard’s End, The Remains of the Day,  The Europeans, Maurice.

I may be just another ex-colonial lapdog. Nevertheless, I still love the great British actresses: Flora Robson, Cate Blanchett, Glenda Jackson, Judi Densch, and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I and I love Helen Mirren as the current monarch who bears her name. For that matter, I love Colin Firth as George VI, Elizabeth’s father, in The King’s Speech, whose performance is quite wonderful. I love all the British grande dames of the theatre especially Brenda Blethyn, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton, and Emma Thompson.

Yes, I love the great male actors as well: Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Ralph Fiennes, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson, Lawrence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, and Robert Shaw.

I could go on and on about the British theatre, its playwrights, its many poets and novelists, but allow me to stand on my Anglophilia or “love” of British culture to make the following point:

Damn Britain! It is a Jew-hating culture through and through, class-bound, snobbish, Arab-loving, and, even today, impervious to the threat of Arab and Islamic jihad both from within and externally. Britain has been in the forefront of the 21st century movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel. Academics, journalists, intellectuals, activists, politicians, and now business people have not only blood libeled Israel but are now dropping Israeli products, such as the Ahava beauty line from their shelves.

Tiny Jewish Israel, struggling to be born, not only had Hitler and his henchmen with whom to contend; she also had the hostile Arabs and the equally hostile Brits who consistently sided with the Arabs. Others have written about this in a far more learned way than I ever could. Dr. Anthony Julius immediately comes to mind. His most recent title is on this very subject and, since there is not much to say, the book is only a mere 864 pages long.

But here’s where I can add a little something to the pot of common knowledge. Dame Freya Stark is a well-known British traveler and adventurer (1893-1993) whose work about Arab and Muslim countries was and still is very popular. Reviews of a recent biography about her have described Stark as “a complex figure—heroic, lonely, and entirely human;” as “the last of the great romantic travelers,” a “remarkable” and “fascinating” woman.” Travel and Leisure describes Stark as “one of the most intrepid adventurers of all time.”

Thus, there I was, happily reading one of Stark’s books in connection to another project entirely, (East is West, which was published in 1945), when I unexpectedly and unhappily came across an ugly strain of British Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism. In the middle of World War Two, the British Foreign Office had sent the greatly esteemed and Arabic-speaking Stark back into the Middle East in order to help Britain maintain its privileged relationships with the young “effendis” whom she mostly adored.