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Author explores allure of Middle East for western women

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VANCOUVER (CP) - What is it about the Middle East and surrounding areas that has historically held such an exotic allure for western women?

That is the question at the heart of Vancouver author Barbara Hodgson's new book Dreaming of East. It focuses on "a group of very special women" who went to the eastern Ottoman Empire - Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Turkey - from 1717 until 1930.

These were women who were raised to do anything but travel in distant lands, Hodgson writes. "They should have been wives of peers, writers of gentle novels, painters of flowers, and mothers of happy families. Instead they hopped aboard boats and made their way to Alexandria, Beirut, Constantinople."

The question is why. "Travel to the East offered a woman escape from convention and filled gaps in her education," the author says.

There was also the matter of the sex appeal associated with, for example, observing scantily clad Nubian sailors on the Nile.

One Dutch traveller, Alexine Tinne, in the Libyan desert in 1869, wrote that men in robes and riding camels made a "blood-stirring scene, and if they came to Europe so in full glory I am sure the heart of many a young girl would beat for the handsome Tuareg, barbarians as they are."

Fashion was also a factor. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu enjoyed wearing "the sumptuous, corsetless Turkish clothing," Hodgson writes. By today's standards her outfit may seem constrictive, "but in comparison with early 18th-century European corsets, petticoats and extravagant headdresses, she was simply clad."

Dreaming of East is published by Greystone Books.

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