From the Sahara to Samarkand
Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes, 1919-1937
Edited with an Introduction by Margaret Bald
Q & A with Margaret Bald, editor of From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes, 1919–1937
How did Rosita Forbes become famous?
Rosita Forbes first made headlines in 1921, when she survived a four-month expedition by camel to the oasis of Kufara in the Libyan desert disguised as an Egyptian Muslim. For generations, explorers had been tantalized by the idea of reaching Kufara, and the last one who had tried, in 1878–79, had barely escaped with his life. The success of the expedition and the book she wrote about it (The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara)—and the fact that she was young, beautiful, and photogenic—turned her into an instant celebrity. But Kufara was just the beginning for Forbes. She went on to travel the world. She was a widely published journalist and a popular lecturer, and wrote some 30 books between 1919 and 1949.
What inspired her to become an explorer, traveler, and author?
Forbes, who was born Joan Rosita (Sita) Torr in 1890, grew up in a family of landed gentry in Lincolnshire, England. She collected maps and later recalled always longing for adventure, feeling “beset by the need of a destiny,” and inspired by the tales of her Scottish-Spanish grandmother who had crossed the Andes on horseback as a child. Sita Torr’s first opportunity to travel outside Europe came in 1911, when she married a Scottish army officer, Col. Ronald Forbes, and went with him to India, Australia, and South Africa.
When her husband was recalled to London, she pawned her wedding ring and set off alone on horseback to travel among the Zulus. During World War I, having divorced, she volunteered as an ambulance driver in France. After the war, she took to the road again and began to write about her experiences. She said that exploration and travel gave her a sense of purpose and meant liberation from rigid societal conventions and expectations—“no fences, laws or inhibitions,” as she put it.
How did you become interested in assembling a collection of Forbes’s travel writings?
Years ago, when I first began traveling to Morocco, I had read Forbes’s biography of the Moroccan brigand Raisuli in the library and had found aspects of it fascinating. I had seen John Milius’s 1975 film, The Wind and the Lion, with Sean Connery as the Raisuli, which owed a lot to Forbes’s portrait of the Raisuli and her relationship with him. But at the time, I had not realized that she had been an explorer, had traveled so extensively, and had written so many other books.
I enjoy reading travel literature, and looking around on the Internet a few years ago for information on women travel writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, came across mention of Forbes. I did some research, ferreted out copies of her books in antiquarian bookstores, and was astonished by the extent of her accomplishments, the fascinating person she was, and how little known she is today. I was also struck by how insanely intrepid some of her trips were, the splendid style and eloquence of the best of her writing, her sense of humor and zest for life, her insightful reporting, her interest in the lives of women—and particularly in her books about Turkey, Iraq, Persia, and Afghanistan in the 1930s—how relevant her experiences and observations remain today.
Why is Rosita Forbes not as well known today as a travel writer?
The Norton Book of Travel, a massive volume published in 1987, which claimed to collect the best travel writing of the past 2,000 years, included excerpts from the work of 55 writers. Only four were women. Since that time, there has been a revival of the books and the life stories of many women travelers and explorers, particularly those of the 19th century. It has taken even longer to focus on the women of the 1920s and 1930s.
Also, Forbes was multifaceted and prolific, perhaps too much so. In addition to her books, which included novels, history, biography, and memoirs as well as travel, she churned out hundreds of articles of varying quality for U.S. and British newspapers and magazines until the late 1950s, everything from think pieces on international affairs to features on beauty and cooking. Later in her life, she was writing mostly about the Caribbean and the Bahamas, where she had moved, and her greatest adventures had been forgotten. In addition, I think that the glamorous socialite “adventuress” reputation that was born in 1921 lingered on and obscured how serious, courageous, and talented she really was.
What was your biggest surprise in researching Rosita?
I was amazed by how physically arduous many of her journeys were. You can get an idea when you consider the many ways she traveled: crouched on the floor of a Chinese troop train dodging bullets; on a decrepit houseboat poled down a river; by motor car, sedan chair, and pony cart; on foot and on a camel for months in the Sahara and on muleback for months in Abyssinia. She rode half-broken Arabian stallions and horses of every description. She sailed on an overcrowded and sinking Egyptian felucca, on a leaking dhow camped under a piece of canvas for two weeks on the Red Sea, and on the deck of a vermin-infested cargo boat. She rode with the cargo in disintegrating trucks on hair-raising roads in Persia and Afghanistan. She slept on “anything or nothing”—on desert sands, on the ground, in huts, stables, and caves, on tables, rocks, and boat decks, and had to go for months without a bath. A far cry from Eat, Pray, Love.
She epitomized the modern woman of the post-World War I era. Was she considered to be eccentric?
Forbes was always independent and iconoclastic and defied convention in her personal and professional life. She caused a family scandal by divorcing her first husband, whom she said was bad-tempered and unfaithful. She courted gossip by traveling extensively first as an unattached “divorcee” and then without her second husband, Col. Arthur McGrath, to whom she was married for 40 years. (At her wedding to McGrath in 1921, she made headlines when she wore a black wedding dress and carried a walking stick instead of a bouquet.) She was neither a “spinster” nor a mother. She invaded the male preserve of exploration and was a thorn in the side of British colonial administrators, using charm, chutzpah, and her extensive network of establishment connections to get where she wanted to go. And she resisted being pigeonholed and confined by preconceived notions of how she should think and behave.
There was a contradiction between her serious purpose and her celebrity image. How did these two aspects work together?
As much as Forbes benefited in her career from the publicity that chronicled and exaggerated her exploits and focused on her looks—which sold books and tickets to her lectures—she felt frustrated by it. At a time when books and films such as Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik, featuring lecherous Arabs, were all the rage, she said she wanted to correct false Western notions of Arabs. Yet the publicity about her adventures reflected some of the very same “desert sheikh” stereotypes she hoped to debunk. When she lectured about North Africa and the Middle East in 1921, the press was more interested in her black wedding dress than what she had to say about political developments. Although when she was on the road, she often traveled rough, unwashed, with her clothes in tatters, for her public appearances she dressed in Parisian couture, furs, or dramatic hats and was impeccably made up. So she became known as the explorer who traveled with lipstick in place, when nothing could have been further from the truth.
Was it difficult making the selections for the anthology from among so many books—and long ones at that?
The challenge was to select chapters that were interesting and enjoyable to read, would give some of the flavor of her writing, and would stand alone such that readers wouldn’t feel they were missing something. I ended up including excerpts from eight of her books, including her sojourns in Java, Sumatra, and southern China as a naive ingenue from her first book in 1919; the expedition to Kufara; the attempted pilgrimage to Mecca and her trip across the Red Sea to little-known Asir in Arabia and Yemen; travels in Morocco in 1924 and 1928, her thousand-mile expedition in Abyssinia in 1925 to make a documentary film, and the two books from the 1930s on the Middle East and Afghanistan and Soviet Central Asia. What was left out? Her books about South America, the princely kingdoms of India, and the Caribbean. Also the semifictionalized and sensationalized incidents from her travels written for popular magazines, collected in Women Called Wild and These Are Real People, which do not wear well today.
What are your favorite tales of adventure among her books?
The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara is a classic account of desert exploration—of privation, exhaustion, and boredom mixed with moments of terror, elation, and exhilaration. The 1922 story of her abortive pilgrimage from Egypt to Mecca disguised as a Muslim from Adventure, in which she loses her veils while almost drowning in an overturned felucca, is quintessential Forbes. Conflict: Angora to Afghanistan (1931) is a tour de force of reporting and observation at a pivotal time in the development of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, and Forbidden Road: Kabul to Samarkand (1937) is especially moving in its description of Afghanistan before it was devastated by the decades of war that were to come.