Skirts on Camels: Early Women Travel Writers

The skirts on camels writers inspire us that perhaps we could exchange our everyday gray for sunshine and surprise around each corner.
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Amelia Edwards, Gertrude Bell, Lilias Trotter,
Freya Stark, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

These were some of the intrepid heroines who wore skirts on camels. Coming from different centuries and backgrounds, travel writers explored the Middle East and North Africa to discover new high and low ground - both socially and geographically. Some of them were women.

The time has come to rediscover
this fascinating group of authors.

Skirts on Camels is the name of the book within a book I invented for my just-released novel The Topkapi Secret. With one exception the remarkable women in the hypothetical book were real. Being a sideline in the novel I did not flesh them out: everything nonessential had to be cut to keep the pace of the action moving.

Controversy has always followed in the wake of these authors' skirts. Sporting Indiana-Jones like qualities, they ranged from spies to saints, but held three things in common: lust for the journey, love for the destination, and skill with a pen.

In their own day they were criticized for being unladylike. It seemed unaccountable that they left behind privileged lives, and sometimes the morality that went along with it. The skirts on camels pushed ahead, often alone, into rough settings even men considered daunting.

When published, because they were women their writings were not always taken seriously. Then in the 20th century their skirts were tarnished by the broad brush that painted all Westerners in the East as pompous "Orientalists". So to a large degree their accomplishments have gone unrecognized.

Every writer's perspective is influenced by their personality and experience. Although the skirts' perspective may be different than ours, there is much to be drawn from their writings.

In some regards, being women gave them advantage. The skirts had access to both streets of men and the harems of women. They were not primarily concerned with women's issues, but their Jane Austen-like power of social observation, and practical compassion gave valuable insight into a period when Eastern women had little recourse to writing their own stories.

Let's start with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the English Ambassador to Turkey, 1716-1718. Generally open and flattering of the people and their customs, her published Letters During the Embassy to Constantinople were however critical of the Ottoman government. Lady Mary's revelation of life in Turkish harems was the first eyewitness account in the West, and led to a Turkish fashion craze in London.

I like traveling extremely, and have had no reason to complain of having had too little of it... This country is certainly one of the finest in the world; hitherto all I see is so new to me, it is like a fresh scene of an opera every day... The Turkish ladies have at least as much wit and civility, nay, liberty, as ladies among us. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Letters During the Embassy to Constantinople

London society then censured Lady Mary as an unnatural mother for following the Turkish trend in smallpox inoculation: but her determination escorted a breakthrough into Western medicine. With clear literary style and sense of humor, Lady Mary's writings are classic, pleasurable reading even today.

Published in the following century, Amelia Edwards' 1877, A Thousand Miles up the Nile also broke new ground in travel writing as the first general archaeological survey of Egypt. Amelia's book includes not only cold measurements of monuments and their vicinities, but warm descriptions of lives of expatriates and locals alike, including men and women of all ranks.

For example, Amelia sympathetically contrasts the stifled lives of women in middle class harems with that of the poor farm workers, the wives of the fellahin. One day she was saddened when "a bird in a cage" refused to go out with her. Amelia felt the woman's walled-in existence, which was "even without the resources of taking air and exercise," had left her "absolutely without mental resources" and "incapable of curiosity."

Her interpretation was backed up in the twentieth century by women's rights advocate Nawal El Saadawy who similarly cites lack of intellectual stimulation as the cause for the limited thinking she observed in Egyptian country women.

Ironically, in contrast to the pent-up middle class women, Amelia saw the poor farm women as freer.

It seemed to us that the wives of the fellahin were in truth the happiest women in Egypt. They work hard and are bitterly poor, but have the free use of their limbs, and they at least know the fresh air, the sunshine, and the open fields. Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile

Lawrence of Arabia was not the only one lured by the sterile beauty of the desert. Women from the green north with the courage to leave it frequently fell under the desert's spell.

Oh the desert is lovely in its restfulness. The great brooding stillness over and through everything... Lilias Trotter, Journal 1885

Lilias Trotter was told by John Ruskin, the preeminent Victorian trend-setter and art critic, that if she trained with him she could be the premier artist of her day. But she gave up the chance in order to explore, live, and serve in Algeria.

What Lilias retained throughout life however was the artist soul which connected her deeply to the earth and people of her adopted land. Her published books like Between the Desert and the Sea and her private journals are filled with poetic thoughts and analogies, punctuated by charming watercolors, through which Lilias records the spiritual messages she absorbed from almost everything she saw.

The chief desert lesson of these last days has been a choked well... A young camel had fallen down it last year and they could not get him up, and in a day or two the well was poisoned beyond hope of restoration. There was noting for it but to fill it with stones and sand and leave it - a standing memory of lost possibilities. Lilias Trotter, Journal 1885

Passion for the desert carried a cost. Lilias frequently went north to Europe in broken health, but always returned to her beloved Algeria where she had a long, productive life.

Isabelle Eberhardt was not so lucky. Enchanted by her first visit to North Africa, she cast aside her inheritance in Geneva and ran back to Algeria as soon as possible.

I bless God and my destiny for having brought me to this desert... The way I see it, there is no greater spiritual beauty than fanaticism, of a sort so sincere it can only end in martyrdom. Isabelle Eberhardt's diary, The Passionate Nomad

Isabelle converted to Islam, dressed as a man, and became a homeless drug addict. She died in a flash flood 1908, at age 28, an outcast from two cultures, memorialized by her moving diary.

In contrast, although her personal life held sorrow, Gertrude Bell had career success. She became the sole British woman of leadership in the Middle East by gaining the exalted position of Oriental Secretary. During two decades in the Middle East she pursued her passions for travel, sociology and archaeology, and started a museum.

To those bred under an elaborate social order few such moments of exhilaration can come as that which stands at the threshold of wild travel. The gates of the enclosed garden are thrown open... and behold! the immeasurable world. Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown, 1907

Later in life Gertrude was challenged with the impossible task of helping establish a unified Iraq out of warring factions still ill at ease today.

Last but not least, we can't overlook Freya Stark. Freya was such a character, so quotable and notable, that several biographies have been written about her. In The Topkapi Secret, Angela takes Freya's advice to heart when she remembers

The great and almost only comfort about being a woman is that one can always pretend to be more stupid than one is and no one is surprised. Freya Stark, letter in 1932

In 1940, at the outbreak of World War II, Freya spied for England. Both the Allies and the Axis wanted access to Yemen for its strategic air location. Yemen had favorable relations with the Italians, but nearly none with England. Using innovative tact, Freya was able not only to uncover important information on the Yemenis and Italians, but to keep the country from aligning with the Axis.

Freya could only meet with such leaders as who would receive her, a mere woman in an Arab man's world. But she had other ways of gaining information which compensated for her humbling lack of a Y chromosome: her cook could go where women dare not tred.

You might say Freya's cleverest scheme was in toilet - literally - yet it worked. Trusting that a lady's portable commode would escape close scrutiny, she used it to smuggle a projector into the Yemeni harem and won the hearts of the women with films of England's green and pleasant land. Freya lived up to her admonition that

The art of smuggling should not be despised. It is less expensive than war and... has a spice of danger all its own. Freya Stark in Traveler's Prelude

Most of us like stories of iconoclasts and reckless adventurers, especially when they can turn a phrase and capture our imaginations with visions of exotic and distant lands. The skirts on camels writers inspire us that perhaps we could exchange our everyday gray for sunshine and surprise around each corner. As Stewart Perowne wrote to Freya Stark when he asked her to marry him,

I feel that without you, the future is drab, but with you I think it might be the kind of adventure at which you are so outstanding an artist.

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