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“…that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered…”

The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian TravelsThe Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels by Freya Stark

In 1930 and 1932 Freya Stark, a British woman in her 30s, traveled into Persia (Iran) as far as the rock of Alamut, the stronghold of that madman who seduced his followers with hashish into carrying out for-hire assassinations from Jerusalem to Marseilles. She went alone, on the proverbial shoestring, hiring guides as she went. Everyone thought she was mad as well, but when she came back from her second trip she wrote this book, which was an instant sensation and deservedly so. “In the wastes of civilization,” Stark, begins

Luristan is still an enchanted name. Its streams are dotted blue lines on the map and the position of its hills a matter of taste…I spent a fortnight in that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered…

From every page wafts up the rich aroma of that delightful, understated humor the British are known for, as in

He himself had never done so illegal a thing as to open a grave, said ‘Abdul Khan, picking at his opium pipe with a bronze bodkin two or three thousand years old, and looking at me with the calm innocence of a Persian telling lies.

and

…there is a certain advantage in traveling with someone who has a reputation for shooting rather than being shot: as Keram said, in a self-satisfied way, they might kill me, but they would know that, if I was with him, there would be unpleasantness afterwards.

and

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

Which gets Stark through many a tight situation with the local authorities, who also think she is mad but who think she might be a spy, too.

Stark has a tremendous gift for describing the beauty of her mountain surroundings

As we left our sleeping-place, a fine ibex stood above us on a crag, its horns lit by the sun…We now rode easily, in a country where trees began to appear. They showed at first on the high skylines on either side of us, and gradually, descended to where, through white and crumbly limestone soil, our path went along with small ups and downs. There was broom and tamarisk, thorn and oak, a small-leaved tree called keikum, and the wan or terebinth with broad leaves, aromatically scented, and peacock blue berries good to eat.

With each turn of the page Stark introduces us to a new scene and new people in a new village and a life lived that probably no longer exists. It’s a mesmerizing read.

On her return Stark reported back to British Intelligence and forwarded her maps to the Royal Geographical Society, which rewarded her with a grant. In 1934 she published this account of her travels, which became an international bestseller. She continued her travels into her eighties, writing twenty more books and eventually being knighted as a Dame of the British Empire.

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