Review: Improbable Women by William Woods Cotterman

Improbable Women by William Woods Cotterman
Improbable Women

Improbable Women by William Woods Cotterman will be published by Syracuse University Press on 15th-October-2013. 

Improbable Women, published by Syracuse University Press, has been written by William Woods Cotterman. He has travelled and lived in many Middle Eastern countries in the last 50 years. His rich experiences propelled him to learn more about women who have travelled in Middle East in the past. He starts with Augusta Zenobia as the one who has inspired hundreds if not more women to take courageous journeys in unknown lands reigned over by exotic tribes and fierce warriors. He considers Zenobia as an epitome for others and writes about the lives of five gallant women: Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope, Lady Jane Elizabeth Digby El Mesrab, Isabel Arundell Burton, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell and Freya Madeline Stark.
I wouldn’t want to write in much detail about each woman’s life as it would be a giveaway; however certain observations need to be made. Zenobia was born in the Syrian desert and "came to power as the regent of Palmyra after her husband, the king, was murdered”. Zenobia’s story is of courage and valor which defies the times she was living in. She was born 241 A.D and died in 275 A.D at the young age of 34. That she commanded her own men against the Roman Empire is no less a sign of her brave outlook and high acumen in military affairs. Lucy Stanhope, born in 1776, traversed “Palmyra through a desert inhabited by warring tribes of Bedouin, bandits, and animals, both domesticated and wild”. Her incursions in the dried up lands are a nothing short of a legend. Jane Digby, born 1807, “a slender, ethereally beautifully noblewoman”, moved to Syria later in her life and became a Bedouin wife and her love affairs were both a source of scandalous gossip and many romantic novels.

Isabel Arundell, born 1831, married Richard Burton and traveled with him and on her own too in the parched deserts. She was not only dedicated to Burton, but also acted as “his secretary, business manager, agent, and apologist”. Gertrude Bell, born 1868, I think, the most intelligent of the five women: a graduate from Oxford University and “circled the globe twice and became a celebrated mountaineer” and in 1921, “she drew the lines on the map that became the boundaries of Iraq and then drafted its constitution”. Freya Stark, born 1893, was also an interesting woman in herself: she had mastered Arabic and wrote many books about her travels and experiences in Middle East.

Each woman’s story presents forth the exemplary boldness they displayed in the face of societal norms and personal setbacks to travel in difficult times and the efforts they undertook to mingle with the locals and their own adaptation of the Arab culture. Each section begins with an image depicting the subject. The book however may not interest many because of lack of any other pictures or even graphical representations of cities, deserts and tents. Moreover the writing style in the first three chapters transposes you to the beautiful world of Bedouins but doesn’t sustain in the last chapters. As each woman brings in new characters from her life into the book, it becomes difficult to keep track of so many lovers, parents, relatives, friends and enemies.

I would recommend this one to seasoned history fans and especially those with interests in the Middle Eastern one; casual history readers may avoid this one.

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