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Genuine Heroines - Freya Stark

I’m a writer of honest fantasy, genuine heroines and wellness wisdom.

Genuine heroines are women who are tough, yet kind, who can rescue themselves, yet welcome the support of friends. They don’t wear bikini armour and they don’t fight hordes of baddies after three days of no sleep and no food. Inspired by genuine heroines throughout history, I write female characters with depth, complexity and passion

Therefore, I’m continuing this series of blog posts about historical female characters who I have found inspirational. There are explorers, adventurers, healers, rights activists and world changers. These are real world characters with exceptional stories that I’m excited to share with you.

This month it's Freya Stark – travel writer.

Freya Stark was born in 1893 in Paris. Her mother was of English, French, German and Polish descent and her father was an English painter. Freya spent much of her childhood in northern Italy. When she was thirteen, her hair was caught in a factory machine, ripping off her right ear and part of her scalp. Months of skin grafts left her with scars which she often covered with her hair or a hat.

When she was nine years old, she was given a copy of One Thousand and One Nights which started her interest in the Orient. Later, she studied Arabic and Persian languages at the University of London.

During World War I, Frey served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, providing nursing care in northern Italy.

In 1927, Freya travelled to Beirut in Lebanon, then on to Baghdad in Iraq. She travelled in secret, as at that time, Lebanon and Syria were under French control with a repressive government. Despite travelling on remote roads at night, Freya and her guide were caught by French soldiers. They were released after three days of imprisonment. Freya later wrote in an English magazine about the harsh conditions for citizens in Syria.

By 1931, Freya had made three expeditions to western Iran and located the Valleys of the Assassins (Hashshashins). This was an unforgiving wilderness which no Westerner had been to before. She wrote a book about her journey and was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Back Award.

In 1934, Freya sailed down the Red Sea, following the legendary frankincense route to the ancient city of Shabwa. However, she fell ill on route, contracting measles and dysentery, and had to be flown to a British hospital in Aden. Once she had recovered, she continued exploring the region and wrote three books about her travels, for which she received the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. She was a woman travelling alone in a region under strict religious control. A place where very few Europeans had visited, yet despite hardships, she persevered and wrote about this exotic culture with compassion and curiosity.

During the Second World War, Freya worked in Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and Palestine for the British Ministry of Information. She spread British propaganda to persuade the Arabs to support the Allies; showing films, giving speeches, arranging meetings and setting up support networks.

After the war, Freya published a volume of essays and three autobiographical volumes. In the 1950’s, she travelled around Turkey and wrote four books about her explorations. In the 1960’s, she published another autobiography, a book about the history of Rome and another collection of essays.

In 1968, aged 75, she travelled to Afghanistan, visiting the Minaret of Djam in a remote and nearly inaccessible part of the country.

When she returned to northern Italy, she continued writing about her travels. She died in 1993, aged one hundred.

Freya Stark was an inspirational woman, travelling extensively around the Middle East, facing dangerous situations and difficult conditions with bravery and aplomb. She approached her adventures with an open mind, observing without judgement and learning about new languages and cultures with enthusiasm. She inspires me to write characters who are adventurous, unafraid of stepping outside their comfort zones and being open to life’s challenges.

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