Desert Women

Many famous female travelers who wrote in the past were rich and single. Some were bored of their marriage, others might have been so of their family constrains. I am neither.

I am, however, obsessed with traveling as a way of unraveling. I believe this is why women travel. We unravel our paths, choices we made and look into the future with a fleecy anticipation when we arrive at a new destination. Maybe this place will tell us a secret or two about life.

I am fascinated by a group of women who traveled to the desert seeking the secrets of the sand and eventually settled in the East having found a way to live that reflected their fascination with the Bedouins, the wonderers, perhaps for reasons of self-constraint they could no longer contain.

I consider those who are drawn to the desert for more reasons than of curiosity or exoticism my tribe. Some of us have made it our profession to be ponderers who find the desert calmness the most fertile ground for seeking secrets of the universe.

The power of pondering as much as intuition are connected through the golden sand; grains of truth that continue to trickle into our lives as we slip our feet into the soft sand.

Some of these female travel aficionadas  had no choice but be dressed as a man to get through places where men rules and women were barred. Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt (1877-1904) from an aristocratic family in Geneva, converted to Islam and dressed as a man, called herself Si Mahmoud. (Sarah Hobson did the same in Iran when she visited the Qum shrine). Eberhardt’s story, the Passionate Nomad is about her short, intense and drug-fuelled life in Algeria, where she died alone at the age of 28. However hard her life was, her passion for finding descriptions for the soul, more than for the landscape she traveled through gave ways to the rest of us. In her words, “the human body is nothing, the human soul is all” and I believe this is what we are placed here to unearth- the soul and its mysteries. The whispers of our hearts that speaks of God, the universe and all we dream of. She showed us that we can live the reality of existence by following our soul. Her spirit is contagious, although I will certainly skip the drug.

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), often called the Queen of the Desert, was the first European woman who crossed it and conducted archaeology research in the Holy Land. Margaret Mead was often named the Queen of Observations, Mary Morris (1947-) traveled alone on rail to write about inner journeys instead of checking out the landscape. Some braved the African landscape alone, like Christina Dodwell, who circumnavigated the globe like Jeane Baret or go around the world in 72 days like Nellie Bly (1864-1922). Mabel Sharman Crawford’s writing (1830-1860) contributed to one great thing in the literary scene, highlighted the work to be done about shame, guilt and ridicule solo female travelers experience.Some were inherently or gradually became  prominent political influencers like Gertrud Bell or Freya Stark, the latter who also wrote twenty four travel books, drew the first reliable maps of the desert regions of Syria and the Middle East. I want neither, I am just really curious. What will I find this time? Who will I be through this journey? What will I change when I return?

Isabel Burton embodies this more than any other. Her docile, sedate upbringing prepped her for a life of crocheting, letter writing and playing music on Sunday afternoons. Her fiery spirit was kept alive through her dreaming of lands she has never visited, talking to Bedouins she never met and a fortune teller who read in her palms she would marry an exotic man. She met Richard Burton and knew immediately it was the turn of her life. Endless travels to the sand dunes, editing and publishing her and his  journals became her prime occupation. Through her husband she lived a life of adventure, often on the road with him spiritually.

Every travel is deeply personal, no matter how we label it. We seek, chase and hustle our lives through journey not always planned. Travel calls for companions and when we set foot on the road, we fill our lives with things we hardly have in our own homes. Solitude is a savior as at home our being is filled with other people’s lives.

In solitude we resurrect in ways we could not imagine in the bustle of our daily grind. For this, some of us develop a longing.

In the words of David Whyte- “Longing is the transfiguration of aloneness … like a comet’s passing tail, glimpsed only for a moment but making us willing to give up our perfect house, our paid for home and our accumulated belongings.”

For this passing moment women are willing to give up comfort, the organized life and embrace the chaos.