From the Sahara to Samarkand
Rosita Forbes and editor Margaret Bald
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Buy *From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes 1919-1937* by Rosita Forbes and editor Margaret Bald online

From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes 1919-1937
Rosita Forbes and editor Margaret Bald
Axios Press
369 pages
September 2010
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Rosita Forbes was the kind of character movies are made of – bold, brilliant, beautiful, and a world traveler at a time when few women ventured very far from home. With her soldier husband, and sometimes on her own, she went where few men, in fact, dared to go, sometimes absurdly risking danger, apparently for the pure fun of it. This is a newly edited version of some of her copious writings, highlighting her amazing adventures in the Middle East, especially relevant because of her forays into the wild and uncharted place known as Afghanistan. She went through vast expanses of unmapped wasteland and visited the tents and palaces of great leaders and great criminals.

Here are excerpts from one of her journeys, in 1925:

“At each village, perforce, we took a new guide, for the old one, having lost his head, or the track, or both abruptly left us…” “At the large village of Talla, we were assured that we were now on the main road, but, unfortunately people had been inconsiderate enough to plant cotton or grain across it, so we were never able to verify the statement!” “The only things we could buy were the local mixture of coffee and strong spices, honey, onions, and bitter native flour. To pay for these, when our salts and bullets were finished Woldo Gorgis offered me some mysterious little bundles which he kept tied up in his pocket. They contained fragments of incense, a square inch of kebol, and a few dozen large seeds from which women grind oil for their hair, but their purchasing power was immense.”
Rosita often disguised herself as both native and male, but being a woman, she was able to talk to women and offered many insights into the private lives of Muslim females, both hopeful and, more often, unpleasant. Like most great adventurers, she traveled for the sport of it and was no stranger to hunger, fear and danger. Her books and lectures were a happy byproduct, but the trip was the thing for Rosita. The book contains photos of Rosita in everything from hat and furs, coming from an audience at Buckingham Palace, to Rosita in full Arab garb, perched atop a camel. She spoke Arabic and bits of other languages, yet she was frail in appearance and played on her frivolous femininity when it suited her purpose. In all, she had created herself as something of a humbug. Still, her exploits were real. Her romantic stories of life among the Bedouins became the basis for the “sheik” movies that enjoyed such a vogue in the 1920s. Her portrait of the renowned - some would say notorious - desert godfather known as the Raisuli (and the possible intriguing relationship she shared with him) became the model for Sean Connery’s sherif in The Wind and the Lion.

Her prose was descriptive, frank and romantic without being florid:

“Outside the towns, people are wild and savage – primitive creatures, half nude, with shocks of coarse hair…” “Somewhere far beyond the pale mauve line of the horizon lay the secret of the Sahara, the oasis which had become the goal of every explorer…” And this unforgettable vignette: “A crackling, scented fire, criminally large in the circumstances, threw a wavering golden circle in the midst of flat, shadowed sand, interminable, bourneless. Against the brilliant stars a tall, white-robed figure was silhouetted, hands raised to haven, intoning the dawn prayers.”
Rosita lived well into the 20th century, and one wonders what she made of the socio-cultural changes, especially in women’s rights, over the course of her lifetime. Though the editor of this collection does not seek to make the point directly, this remarkable adventuress could justifiably have considered herself a great pioneer in the realm of feminism.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2010

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