Over the past year, my boyfriend and I have been reading Homer's Odyssey out loud together, a project initially introduced over the phone in an effort to soften the distance between coasts, and now, as we are both in Boston, continued for the sheer joy of a mutual read. But we've brought lonely Odysseus home now, and are searching the shelves for our next literary adventure.
Our attention has recently focused on the Arabian Nights. We are now facing the difficult task of choosing a translator and a cover, both essential factors when selecting a read-aloud, the former for obvious reasons of cadence and tone, the latter because the listener needs something nice to look at. If anyone can point us to the ideal edition, please let me know.
Until we've located that treasure trove of stories, I've decided to embark on a different kind of Arabian adventure. I picked up a copy of Freya Stark's Valleys of the Assassins from the Middle East shelf of Destination Literature. In these pages, I found a modern day Scheherazade whose tales are as imaginative and beautifully wrought as those of the heroine storyteller of 1001 Nights.
Born in Italy in 1892, Stark spent the following century that her life encompassed on daunting adventures in the Middle East. In the 1930s, Stark traveled into the then-uncharted territory of Luristan, which lies between Iraq and present-day Iran. Her travels take her deep into country where, though no one will charge you for a meal or bed, they may without compunction, rob you while you sleep. Theft is, Stark reports, "the country's natural past time, with rules of its own: and who are we, after all, to demand consistency in morals?" On one of her first nights, Stark's hosts thoughtfully tuck her shoes beneath her mattress. In this country, she quickly learns, you sleep on your belongings.
As she is guided by various tribesmen through dangerous terrain, Stark's deft language allows the reader to travel effortlessly along with them. She describes the sound of a refrain sung by her guide across one stretch of plain as "very like the yodeling of the Alps but fiercer, as a purring tiger is like a cat."
Stark paints her landscapes with equal charm: "Like a human being, the mountain is a composite creature, only to be known after many a view from many a different point, and repaying this lovely study, if it is anything of a mountain at all, by gradual revelation of personality...you will know it ever after from the plains, though from there it is but one small blue flame among the sister ranges that press their delicate teeth into the evening sky."
She introduces characters that seem to be drawn from a book of illustrated fairytales, such as Alidad, a guide who, as he leads her harnessed mule through treacherous mountain passes, is described as always keeping "one sinister eye shut."
While I would most likely have no trouble discovering such a character in 1001 Nights, Stark's stories have the added pleasure and sometimes stomach-clenching thrill of having actually occurred. The reader has the benefit of knowing that these wonders of the world exist in the one that we inhabit.
Sometimes Stark is on the hunt for Bronze Age skeletons for the sake of archeology, sometimes we see her charting--from the top of a precipice to which she has somehow convinced her grumbling guides to escort her--lands never seen by European eyes. For awhile she is actually on the trail of a cave of treasure, following a tattered map brought to her by an adolescent tribesman. But usually, she seems to be simply traveling, often at the risk of her life, for the sheer joy of it.
For those who wonder at the motivations behind such an audacious traveler, in her preface, Stark lets the reader in on what started it all: "An imaginative aunt who, for my ninth birthday, sent a copy of the Arabian Nights, was, I suppose, the original cause of the trouble."