Guest Column: Valerie Trueblood
Hardly anybody who met the writer Isabelle Eberhardt at the turn of the last century thought she was an Arab man. But all of her physical and mental powers went into making believe she was one: she dressed like one, she rode and camped like one, she lived hand to mouth in the Algerian desert as a nomad and disciple of Sufism. At the same time, she wrote for the French newspapers and even sought to embed herself with the troops expanding French “protection,” having vague ideas of a fusion of Islamic and French culture in her adopted country. For herself, she chose firmly against European life in any form. The French in Algiers—other than officials who kept an eye on her movements—shunned her, despite their intense interest in her disguise and her exploits. As for the undeceived Algerians, they courteously received her as a man.
Isabelle Eberhardt was born in 1877, the year that gave the world Isadora Duncan, the psychic Edgar Cayce, Brigham Young, Hermann Hesse, the pacifist Rosika Schwimmer—the list starts to make one think some star of the rebel, romantic, obsessed imagination shone on the births of that year. Some of those who admired her stories and took an interest in the life she led became obsessed themselves: in the next century, the critic and biographer Cecily Mackworth traveled to the Sahara to follow the paths she had taken.
Eberhardt’s mother was a German-Russian aristocrat, and her father an Armenian ex-priest, anarchist, and tutor; the two were never married. Eberhardt studied Arabic and the Qur’an with her father, and traveled to North Africa with her mother. In Algeria, the mother died suddenly and the bereft daughter (“the world has lost its smile for me”) began the life of a wanderer in men’s clothing. She rode the desert on horseback, slept in the dunes, habitually smoked kif, involved herself in sexual liaisons and political intrigue, even for a time took a job with the spahis (North African soldiers in service to the French) in Tunisia collecting the poll tax. She left a painful account of the burden the tax was to Bedouins in rags, and of her feeling of having committed a crime.
Such ambiguity ruled her short life. She has been accused both of aiding French colonialism and of being its dogged and potent enemy. Certainly she began by seeing herself as its enemy, though danger and poverty often reduced her to begging favors of officials, and she welcomed the friendship of the powerful French General Lyautey despite his mandate to shape the future of Algeria and make a “pacific penetration” into Morocco.
Some of the contradictions lie simply in her youth. She was barely into her twenties, a young woman at once hiding, masking, and desperately in search of herself, a half-suicidal nature juggling poverty, the writing of books, exhausting compulsions, membership in a tribal religious brotherhood, enemies in government, and diplomatic assignments.
She was a drinker, defying the precepts of her beloved religion; she ignored the constrained lives of women around her—Algerians and wives of colonial administrators alike—while insisting on an extreme of freedom for herself. She wished to be seen as a man, but loved and desired men. Her sensuality left her with what may have been syphilis, but she turned her back on “people who exude decay.” She was capable of a sudden and rather bitter narrow-mindedness, calling the residents of one village “a race weakened by ancient inbreeding and sedentary lives,” yet her “intensely sad” love for mystical Islam and for the people and landscape of the North African desert—“Perhaps it is the Predestined Land from which the light that will regenerate the world will one day emerge”—was undying. She had a boundless compassion for other outsiders, even the assassin who tried to kill her.
In her character, dissipation was united with an unusual self-control. She welcomed rough travel and physical ordeal, yet gave in at times to numb depression. Poverty dogged her, though servants and guides lurk in the background of her adventures. She broke every rule of society, but took pains to enter into legal marriage with a spahi (her story “Blue Jacket” tells of the tribal scorn for men who left their villages to become soldiers). Finally, with her affinity and reverence for the sands and salt, the baked towns of the desert, she drowned when a flash flood roared down a dry riverbed. She was twenty-seven years old.
We have to remember, reading her stories and journals, that they are those of an artist little more than a girl. It is useless to speculate about what she would have produced. These mixtures of hers—adolescent joy with pessimism, soaring fantasy with stern ambition and readiness to work, cool nerve with the conviction of being despised, ecstasy with blind longing (“nostalgia for an elsewhere”), give her diaries and stories a quality missing in more mature work. The girlishness—discredited word; I use it on purpose—and exhilaration of Marie Bashkirtseff’s journals come to mind, the passion of Emily Bronte’s poems.
In English we have Mackworth’s biography noted above and another equally good one by Annette Kobak, Isabelle (Virago, London, 1998), as well as two translations from the journals, In the Shadow of Islam, by Sharon Bangert (Peter Owen, London, 1993), and The Passionate Nomad, by Nina de Voogd (Beacon Press, Boston, 1987). Writing twenty years ago in the New York Review of Books about The Passionate Nomad, Gabriele Annan gave Eberhardt little quarter (“she might have come from the Me generation”), perhaps because of the book’s skeptical introduction by the scholar Rana Kabbani. Kabbani has done much to unmask literary orientalism, and sees in Eberhardt the imperial traveler’s sins of pride and self-absorption (in particular contrast to the delicate workings of Arab courtesy), as well as of chasing, in both her life and her work, the exotic and erotic in some eastern Other.
Nevertheless the writing holds its own today, in its painter’s fidelity to the Sahara, its gusts of feeling and bitter recoil from feeling. In the 1970’s Paul Bowles published a fine translation of some of the stories and journal passages, The Oblivion Seekers, for which he wrote a sympathetic preface: “Her life seems haphazard, at the mercy of caprice, but her writings prove otherwise.” Yes, to foreign readers the stories are exotic, but they are lean and fierce and bring the desert near.
At last, more is on the way. I know I join many other admirers of Isabelle Eberhardt’s work in my delight at learning that Robert Bononno will be bringing out a translation of her journals. There is a beautiful passage from his translation of Sept Années Dans La Vie d’Une Femme here. “My soul was calm:” not a statement we run across much now. It brings a passage of unusual grace to a close, the violets and greens and milk-whites of the Tunisian Sahel seen by a painter.
Such an unanchored life–but contained and brought into focus when she picked up a pen. Then she got away from the addictions, the “prodigious changeability” that drove her to sleep in courtyards and oases and kif-rooms, the whole shaky contraption of her assumed life, and described what haunted her: a place and a people. She knew they were not hers and she was not theirs. She saw the end coming and seems to have known it would be death rather than departure. Again and again in her journals and stories something ridden-after, hunted, longed-for, is relinquished. Something that has consumed her comes–or almost come–to rest, in a state she called “fearless, patient expectation of eternity.”
“Once more astounded by all that has captured me and all I have left, I tell myself that love is a worry and what’s necessary is to love to leave–persons and things being loveliest when left behind.”