Travel literature review: Baghdad Sketches

Baghdad Sketches by Freya Stark

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Matty Soccio

Much of the English-created romanticism of the Middle East faded away after WWII, with successive wars in Israel, Palestine, followed by the Iranian Revolution. While travel to the region in the modern era has become problematic, there are those who contest there is still much to be gained by following the old spice trails and trade routes around the Middle East…but it's a place far removed from the utopic Eden of history that Freya Stark extrapolates in her series of journals, that culminates in the book, Baghdad Sketches.

Stark, probably one of the most adventurous women of her era, spent much of the early 20th century sojourning alone from Syria to Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon, in a period of history when many would have expected her to have settled down in a quiet town in Surrey. As the title suggests, Baghdad Sketches is an insight into the ground-level world of Iraq during the British-mandated occupation; a world of fruit sellers and beggars, imams and Bedouin tribes. Stark spends little time describing her fellow Englishfolk (in most cases finding time to criticise their 'Englishness', while ignoring her own) and more on the people and places she encounters; car trips, a novel thing in the 1920s, become a wondrous experience; a gondola ride on the Tigris River is a tutorial on the poorest of the Iraqi class system.

At times her 'Englishness' seeps through her descriptions of people and, in particular, places, such as her first home in one of Baghdad's poorest areas ('True happiness, we consider, is compatible with an inefficient drainage system. It is one of those points on which we differ most fundamentally from the East…'). This makes her experience all the more believable; Stark doesn't attempt to shy away from 'unseemly' subjects as wide-ranging as the highly-charged nationalist debate to sewerage. Instead, she dives head-first into meetings with difficult Sheiks, pompous local officials and kindly neighbours.

Melded in with this 'citzen journalist' honesty is a poetic fluidity that brings to life the ancient and mysterious Middle Eastern splendours to the English masses safe in their cottage homes. While Baghdad Sketches can be a little dry in parts (long-winded descriptions of the local political system will help insomniacs) and her landscape comparisons with Britain tiresome ('The gardens of Damascus are not so lovely as an English countryside'), Stark truly aims to draw the reader into her own excitement and love for the Middle East.

Matty Soccio is an editor at Lonely Planet and has written travel pieces for various print and online publications since discovering Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. When not looking for the next best fishing spot in Australia and the Americas, Matty is conducting ground-level research of the local drinking establishments in the various places he visits.

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