A Traveler’s Guide to The Male Harem

 “The chief thing the traveller carries about with him is himself.”

Freya Stark, Perseus in the Wind, 1948

On the road.

On the road.

As with any expedition, venturing into The Male Harem requires mental preparedness, pluck, and a degree of madness. Also a willingness to throw out the map for the uncharted and open-ended – the weekend in Provence that bids au revoir at the JFK baggage claim, the heightened conversation left dangling until another day.

So why abandon the beaten path that leads to a committed one for the less-traveled road to an unaccountable many? For inspiration, The Sultanette offers Freya Stark, a British explorer who lived to see her one-hundredth birthday. Called by Lawrence Durrell the “poet of travel” she could also be anointed Sultanette on Steroids.

Born 1893 in Paris, she grew up in the Italian countryside. When she was twelve an accident ripped off a portion of her scalp requiring a skin graft from her thigh before the days of anesthesia. The trauma left her with a lifelong insecurity about her looks and a fire to discover a world outside herself.

She was a nurse on the Italian front in WWI, became proficient in Arabic, and began venturing into places in the Middle East where no Western woman had set foot. Along the way, Sayyid Abdullah the watchmaker gave her the Five Reasons for Travel. The Sultanette now proposes the watchmaker’s timeless advice for embarking on a 21st century male harem …

 “To leave one’s troubles behind one; To earn a living; To acquire learning; To practice good manners; And to meet honorable men.”

Freya Stark, A Winter in Arabia, 1940

If the above lacks the tidy promise of finding lasting romance it offers an unembroidered alternative. The exhilaration of living fully and freely with like-minded souls. The Male Harem has only a few years to vouch for the above but Freya Stark’s one-hundred years can speak for the rest.

imgres-1Her early forays were concocted and financed by sheer guile and resourcefulness. In 1928 with a woman friend she’d bamboozled, a local guide, and a dubious letter of introduction to a rebel chieftain, she penetrated one of the most remote and dangerous territories of Persia. Commandeered by French officials who were policing the region and suspected they were British spies, she coached her friend to behave “as if we were guests at a garden party.” They had skittered sixty miles off track by donkey due to that infuriatingly unreliable Thomas Cook guidebook. “You really should get it brought up-to-date!” she reproached the officer.

“The great and almost only comfort in being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised.”

Freya Stark at 77, 1970

With the earnings from her travel books, BBC lectures, and funding from the Royal Geographic Society she began to accessorize her free-wheeling lifestyle in satin, fur and diamonds, alternately lurching across the desert by donkey or camel and careening along the Italian countryside in a second-hand Vespa.

cropped-01_intro_pic-newDuring World War II she finessed her way to Cairo, an atmosphere “as heady as the perfume of jasmine climbing the wall of King Farouk’s palace,” according to her biographer, Jane Fletcher Geniesse, in Passionate Nomad, “where England’s best and brightest converged to wage the battle for Western civilization.” She mixed easily with the habitués of the Kit Kat Club where pashas and nabobs mingled with prime ministers and merchants, diplomats, spies, military brass, and two exiled kings.

At fifty-four she married a diplomat of forty-six but the claustrophobic role of a British administrator’s wife would never placate her wanderlust and they separated after five years. Though she longed all her life for a singular passionate partnership her travels remained her most seductive companion.

Map-heart-054Among the mourners at her funeral in 1993 were lords and viscounts, Oxford and Cambridge dons, journalists, ex-foreign officers, members of the Royal Geographical Society, and the devoted friends who had cared for her when she no longer could. A congregation worthy of any male harem.

 “One is so apt to think of people’s affection as a fixed quantity, instead of a sort of moving sea with the tide always going out or coming in but still fundamentally there …”

Freya Stark, Letter, May 20,1934

I was introduced to Dame Freya by The Impresario at John Sandoe (Books) Ltd. in London. Down a Chelsea side street of cheek-by-jowl shops, the store managed to reserve a narrow space for people between books crammed along every surface. The search for a title on its unlabeled shelves (in the spirit of English manners, if you need to have the system spelled out, you really oughtn’t bother) resulted in leaving with a handful more than you’d set out for.

A trip to London was hardly a trek across the desert but it was a brave new world for me. My previous involvement with The Impresario had amounted to polite conversation at a midtown Italian eatery where we’d exchanged cards, a few heady afternoon teas, and a drink at the socialite slumming bar, Bemelmans, where he’d suggested we meet in London and I’d accepted.

images-2Reckless decision? It seemed less detrimental to my well-being than the previous two years with One and Only spent sucking the last air out of the deflated life raft of our relationship. I took no photos – this trip was about the ephemeral present – but images luxuriate in my memory: the highest tea I’ll ever have at the most exclusive hotel I’ll never find again; champagne on the Thames at the National Theatre after Hamlet’s soliloquy; the creaking staircase of a drowsy men’s club; sardines on toast at The Ivy in the West End and a Middle Eastern smorgasbord off the beaten track; channeling Carlyle, Dickens, George Eliot and T.S. at The London Library; the endless entrails of the Tube with its mellifluous recording announcing each stop.

And the rest of it? Waking under the insanely crisp white sheets of a discreet Kensington hotel, glancing over the morning paper at a man I almost knew who had just invaded every corner of me, the delicious shock of a touch on the knee while spreading clotted cream on a crumpet in the immutably pastel tea room at Fortnum and Mason, watching the drips from a brass faucet fall into a mass of bubbles while soaking in a deep-sided tub to a Mozart sonata playing in the other room. What else is on The Impresario’s iPod? From what lives did he collect it? In what other lives does it play?

If Sayyid the watchmaker were here I’d add that the best kind of travel might be exploring an unknown person and being explored in return. Do we see ourselves better through the intimates in our long lives or the strangers we encounter along the way? Do we unwittingly or compliantly conform to the expectations and criticisms of those who claim they know us best, until we’ve lost our own divining rod? Does bumping up against a foreign place or person arouse us to know ourselves again?

I’ll never be the adventurer Freya was. I save the used aluminum foil like my mother did, until it’s too wrinkled to reuse. I rearrange the clothes in my closets every Spring and Fall, and make lists of lists. I believed in logical outcomes until I couldn’t. The Male Harem was a last resort and now it’s my best revenge. This intense, exquisite, erotic expedition is not a sentimental journey but a singular one.

imagesAt eight-two, Freya Stark was knighted. At eight-four, she was filmed by BBC on a raft in the Euphrates. When her driver’s license was revoked at eighty-five, she did errands on horseback. At eighty-eight she rode a mule into the Himalayas. On her 91st birthday, the Queen Mother sent the Royal Household Cavalry. And though she was no longer entirely present for the ceremony, I’ll wager she was on another adventure – in search of the place where she could lose, and then find herself again.

“The beckoning counts, and not the clicking latch behind you.”

Freya Stark, Traveller’s Prelude,1950