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Image source: Lad Media

5 Female Travel Writers Who Went to the Middle East: Braving Hostile Environments

Emma Dovener itcherThe Middle East is famously a hard terrain to navigate for women. From women who masqueraded as honeymooners, to those who became part of the furniture in Middle Eastern countries, these memoirs by female travel writers are all written by brave women who encountered the difficulty of travelling as a female in the Middle East, and confronted it head-on. ~ Emma Dovener

What Is Different about These Women Travel Writers Compared to Others?

No one singular female travel writer is the same, and those that write about their experiences in Kurdistan vary hugely from those who write about their summers spent in Italy, but that doesn’t mean that either of those stories would be any less worthwhile.

Travel memoirs, no matter the writer, the destination or the challenge, are inspiring, wanderlust-creating stories that not only make us want to pick up and follow the authors around the globe, but also give us a deep respect for those that have made the journeys.

The women travel authors that pluck up the courage to tour around countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Kazakhstan are, according to Newsweek and so many other critics, still to this day pioneering, triumphant and fierce: a force to be reckoned with, if you ask me.

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Queen Noor Al-Hussein

Image Source: Goodreads

One might be surprised to look at the cover of her book and see that Queen Noor Al-Hussein is a white woman with honey blonde hair, but the story of this remarkable woman stems from that very fact.

Born Lisa Halaby in an Arab-American family, one with a lot of clout in the community and privilege throughout its dealings, Queen Noor grew up as an upper-class American. It wasn’t until she visited her father in Jordan, many years after completing her degree at Princeton University in the first freshman class to accept women; that she discovered an Arab world that was completely unlike that in which she had grown up.

Meeting King Hussein on the runway with her father, little did she know that she would shortly be married to him, and everything she had grown used to would soon be changing, forever.

Book Recommendation: ‘Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life’ (2003)

Suddenly, Lisa Halaby became Noor Al Hussein, Queen of Jordan, and with it she faced trials and tribulations, laughter and strife, and good time and bad. As a young bride in a royal court unlike anything she had ever known, Queen Noor talks of her struggles to keep her husband happy while rebelling against the smothering realities of life in the Middle East.

The stories that this female travel writer tells provide a compelling and inspiring portrait of what it was like for an American woman to be transported to the life on an Arab monarch, as well as painting a picture of King Hussein himself, and his tireless efforts to bring peace to Jordan.

 
Queen Noor writes from the heart, she gives the reader an insider’s view of life in an Arab country, but most of all she paints the picture of a love story, one that many Westerners would think impossible.

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Alison Wearing

Image Source: Goodreads

Alison Wearing has been travelling the world since she was seventeen years old. From her home in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada she has travelled to and lived in some of the most obscure, and unobscured, places you could imagine, from Israel to the former Soviet Union, from Thailand to the Amazonian regions of Peru, and from mainland Europe to central Mexico, where she spent most of the last ten years, before returning to Ontario with her family.

Her first published work, ‘Honeymoon in Purdah – an Iranian Journey’ was published in 2000 by Picador, and since then it has been translated into German, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese. Alison Wearing has since published another memoir, ‘Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter’, which is based on her childhood memories of growing up in a small Ontario town with a gay father during the 1980s.

Book Recommendation: ‘Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey’ (2000)

‘Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey’ takes readers on a voyage of Iran that not many others get to experience. During her many years of travel, Alison Wearing journeyed with a male friend with whom she pretended to be celebrating her honeymoon in order to enjoy what the Middle Eastern country had to offer during the 1990s.

Taking every opportunity that came to her to get out and explore on her own, Wearing’s memoirs are raw, unforgettable and truly awe-inspiring as she discovers an Iran that is entirely unlike that which was represented in the media at the time, and even today. Wearing’s Iran is made up of entertaining, warm-hearted and empathetic men and women, all of whom welcome her into their country and break past the stereotypes that had been forced upon them.

Her drive and courage allow the reader to see an Iran that the media perhaps did not want you to see, and that only makes this female travel writer’s story more captivating, inspirational and overall breath-taking.

Alison Wearing went to Iran with an open mind and an open heart, and with that she managed to produce a memoir that encourages others to do the same thing.

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Freya Stark

Image Source: Goodreads

Freya Stark is one of the most important women travellers in history. Not only was she one of the first Western women to travel through the Arabian deserts, but she was also a solo traveller, taking in places around the world where few Westerners, let alone Western women, had ever been.

Born in Paris in 1893, Stark grew up in Italy and was a bookworm from an early age, spending much of her adolescence buried in her books, thanks in part to a poor immune system and a factory accident which occurred when she was 13 and led her to receive skin grafts in hospital.

Stark spoke Arabic and Persian, worked as a nurse during the First World War and for the British Ministry of Information during the second. Her travels in the East took up much of her lifetime, and served as the basis for almost all of her writing for which she remained famous until she died in 1993, aged 100.

Book Recommendation: ‘The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels’ (1934)

One of many books written by this explorer about her time in the Middle East, ‘The Valleys of the Assassins’ was published in 1934 and served as the book which really put Freya Stark on the map. Recounting her travels in Luristan, now a province of modern day Iran, this female travel writer paints a picture of the mountainous region. She shows us the place she spend months exploring, getting to know the locals, and living among the people with only a single guide and little budget to speak of.

The stories that she tells are engaging, and she makes the reader feel as if they really know the nomadic people with whom Stark spent so much of her time in the valleys of Luristan. Encompassing the history of the Kingdoms of the Middle East, Stark’s memoirs are rich in detail, both empathetic and informative, and one finds her able to tell the story of strangers from their very own viewpoint; full of sympathy, gumption and admiration for their tales.

The compelling collection of incredibly descriptive writing doesn’t only show Freya Stark’s ability to relate to the people who she encounters, but also shows how fearless, savvy and remarkable she was throughout her life.

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Deborah Rodriguez

Image Source: Rusoff Agency

Deborah Rodriguez describes herself as a hairdresser first, and a traveller and travel writer second. Working as a hairdresser in her mother’s salon, she found herself divorced and a single mother to two children at age 26, which prompted a big change in her life.

First, she began working as a prison guard in the local medium-security prison, and soon began travelling around the world to work on humanitarian projects. In May 2002, she left for Afghanistan and two years later she was still there having built a beauty school for women, and was living a life of her own amongst the war against the Taliban.

In 2007 she published her memoirs of her time in Afghanistan with Random House, and she currently lives in Mexico.

Book Recommendation: ‘Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil’ (2007)

‘The Kabul Beauty School’ is the story of how Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a humanitarian aid group and ended up beginning a beauty school with the support of other westerners and Afghan women whom, after befriending her, implored her to help them to open their own beauty salons. After just a year, she began teaching her first classes, and so was born the basis for this book.

Rodriguez’ stories of her students make it clear that to these women she was not just their teacher, instead she became a friend who would listen to their stories of joy and sorrow, terror and delight while they poured their hearts out to her.

The contents of this book are full of raw emotion and detailed descriptions of her surroundings and is sure to astound, fascinate and shock those that read it. The information displayed by Rodriguez is, at times, trying to one’s emotions, and it is that level of unique writing that one could only find from a book about such a supposed juxtaposition.

Rodriguez’ frankness makes us learn of new and terrifying realities.

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Honourable Mention: Not Quite the Middle East, but Still a Story worth Telling.

Sarah Macdonald: ‘Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure’ (2004)

Image Source: Book Space

Sarah MacDonald did not travel to the Middle East, but she did travel to the East.

As a journalist, she travelled around India and returned home vowing never to return. Therefore, more than a decade later, when her partner is posted on a job in India, she quit her job with a heavy heart and returned to the one place she had sworn to avoid thanks to the pollution, poverty and overbearing heat.

‘Holy Cow’ is therefore the story of MacDonald’s search for peace and happiness in New Delhi, making the ultimate sacrifice for the love of her life, one which does, ultimately, almost kill her as she becomes sick with double pneumonia.

The stories of her adventures in India take the reader along the journey of encounters with people from all walks of life: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Sufis, Parsis and Christians, amongst others, as well as through a variation of situations in nightclubs, on yoga retreats and monasteries.

 
“I must find peace in the only place possible in India; within,” she concludes in the end, and through a chronicle of hysterical, emotional and compelling stories, the reader does the same thing.

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Journeys of Discovery, Exploration and Wanderlust

The women of travel writing are brave, inspirational women who compel all to follow in their footsteps, but these women who have travelled to some of the least feminist friendly countries in the world, and survived not only to tell the tale, but to tell the tale from the point of view of a woman in control of her own experiences, should only convince one further that gumption, fearlessness and confidence are all one needs to do anything one wants.

Journeys of discovery, journeys of exploration, of wanderlust and of helping others, all of these stories should do nothing less than convince you that, thanks to these female travel writers, if you want to travel to the Middle East as a female by herself, you can.

Is there anyone missing on this list of brave, inspiring writers?

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