"A compelling narrative and an ideal starting point from which to discover more about Isabelle Eberhardt's picaresque life." —Times Literary Supplement
"Her writings, and her sheer modernity, stand up to modern scrutiny." —Daily Telegraph
An extraordinary evocation of the desert and its people by a woman who dressed as a man in order to travel alone and unimpeded throughout North Africa
In 1897 Isabelle Eberhardt, at the age of 20, left an already unconventional life in Geneva for the Morroccan frontier. Gripped by spiritual restlessness and the desire to break free from the confinements of her society she traveled into the desert, and into the heart of Islam. Her experiences inspired a profound self-examination, and a book that today is regarded as one of the true classics of travel writing. In the current political climate, it is also a book uncannily current in its treatment of the culture of Islam in North Africa. One of the most astonishing travel documents of all time, this book is also a feminist classic in its own right.
"Her writings, and her sheer modernity, stand up to modern scrutiny." —Daily Telegraph
Departure Ain Sefra, May 1904
Last year I left this place to the gusts of winter. The town was numbed with cold, and great shrill winds scoured it, bending the fragile nakedness of the trees. Today I see it quite differently, become itself again, in the dismal gleam of summer: very Saharan, very sleepy, with its tawny ksar at the foot of the golden dune, its holy koubbas and its blue-green gardens.
It is so much the little capital of the Oranian desert, solitary in its sandy valley, between the monotonous immensity of the high plateaux and the southern furnace.
Then, it seemed to me morose, without charm, because the magical sun wasn't there to wrap it in a luminous atmosphere, the chief luxury of African towns. But now that I regard it as a temporary home, I begin to love it. What's more, I vow not to leave it again for some tedious return to the banal Tell, and this enables me to see the town with new eyes. When I leave, it will only be to descend further, towards the great South, where the gravelled plain of the hamada sleeps under the eternal sun.
Among the white-trunked poplars, following footpaths along the first undulations of the dune, smelling again the scent of sap and resin, I feel myself lost in a forest. This scent, so sweet and pure, combines sensuously with the distant aroma of flowering acacias. How I love the exuberant greenness, and the trunks, wrinkled as an elephant's skin, and these fig trees swollen with bitter milk, surrounded by buzzing swarms of golden flies! In this garden, so unexpected among all the aridity, I have passed long hours on my back, drunk on warm breezes and the hypnotic oscillation of branches – like a ship's riggings – against the sky.
Beyond the last of the poplars, now grown spindly and stunted, the track of sand climbs, ending abruptly at the foot of the immaculate dune, which seems to be of fine golden powder. There the wind plays freely, building up the hills, hollowing the valleys, opening precipices, creating ephemeral landscapes according to its whim.
At the summit, only slightly more stable with arrises of black stone, a reddish 'blockhaus' watches over the valley; a sentinel with empty eyes that, having witnessed the passage of armies and robbers, looks out now on silence and the peace of vague horizons.
The scorching dune rises stark against the unrelenting blue of Mount Mektar. The day ends gently over Ain Sefra, drowned in soft vapours and fragrant scents. I experience a delicious melancholy, yet am strangely revitalized by my impending departure. All the cares, the heavy malaise of the last months spent in irksome and nerve-wracking Algiers, all that sorrow, my 'blues', is left behind.
In the city, I was forced to scorn things and people when I would have liked to understand everything, excuse everything. To have to defend yourself against stupidity when you have nothing to argue about, nothing to do with it! I don't know anymore ... I'm not interested ... The sun is still mine, and the beckoning road. This could be, for a while, an entire philosophy.
Once in my life, in a soul that I thought was free, I watched a pure, strong passion grow, and I said to my friend: 'Be careful, when we're happy we cease to understand another's suffering ...' He set off for happiness, or so he believed, and I toward my destiny. Now I have drawn apart, and I feel my soul regain its health, innocently open to all joys, to all the delicate sensualities of the eyes and of dreams.
I rediscover in the village's only Arab street calm impressions of 'home', which date from the month of Ramadan last year. Many familiar folks, on benches and on mats in front of the coffeehouses. Many friendly greetings to exchange.
And all the time the secret joy of knowing that I will leave tomorrow at dawn, leave all these things which are still pleasing and dear to me this evening. Who except a nomad, a vagabond, could understand this double rejoicing?
Once more astounded by all that has captured me and all I have left, I tell myself that love is a worry and that what's necessary is to love to leave – persons and things being loveliest when left behind.
Before the iron bars and pots of basil in the window of a Moorish café, a crowd begins to form. Pipes are playing there so I go in; this droning, sad music puts an end to my reverie and, more importantly, will excuse me from talking ...CHAPTER 2
Musicians of the West
A square room painted pale blue, with pink panels. To the right, in back, the vaulted oven's smoky plaster, and on wooden shelves, the cups, glasses and plates. A few wooden benches and common tables of rusty iron crowd the café. A captive bird sleeps in its cage.
Strange little Saharan café, frequented by Moroccans and nomads. The audience is packed in. Among the Arabs, in burnous and dirty haiks, a few spahis and mokhazni, native horsemen. Fists on their knees, all wait silently, watching the back of the room where the musicians take their seats on a bench.
These are the Beni Guil of Chott Tigri. With their tatters dyed red, and their sandals, they hardly resemble the singers and musicians of the Algerian high plateaux, who wear pretentious, 'proper' clothes and, affecting an Arab flair, sport embroidered vests and silk turban cords. These musicians of the West are perfect specimens of their rough race, a collar of black ugly beard giving their faces an almost Hindu air.
However, on one of them the coarse veil hanging from his white, flared turban frames a handsome, regular face with an aquiline nose, sensitive nostrils, sad eyes. The other, a flute player, is blind. He puts all his soul into the shrieks and whistles of his pipe. As if he were speaking to it, he rolls the dull globes of his dead eyes, and his torso sways in rhythm to the beat. There's also an old drummer in the troupe, and near him a strange singer, his eyes closed, head sagging as if drunk.
The only luxury these paupers have consists of two flutes. They are ringed with leather and polished copper; blue silk strands and fine silver chains hung with Moroccan coins decorate them.
Symphony of the forbidding hamada!
The tambourine's ceaseless, muffled syncope is a human heartbeat now moved, now angered, weakening, tiring, and voluptuously dying. Embellishing this arterial pulse, the harsh flutes ring at times with war marches in which long, mysterious notes are held, seeming to soar, then hum with the murmur of tranquil water or a soothing breeze.
The Beni Guil from around the village invade the room – gauche intruders, desert people amazed by benches and tables. But they smile; they are proud of their brothers' success among the northern renegades. Money clanks into a platter placed on the floor. At each offering, the tambourine player rewards the generosity of the giver with a crescendo.
But the Beni Guil are content to encourage the musicians by their attention and exclamations of approval. The rare one resigns himself to throwing a sou on the platter after rummaging a while in his zaboula, a kind of moneybag of red leather the nomads carry. But there now – one of them, quite young, rises suddenly and sketches a rhythmic dance, slowly, the end of his knotty stick leaning against his chest. They laugh at his rustic shepherd's movements.
The café owner, his loins girt with a red and green fouta, makes the rounds, presenting his steaming beverages on a tray, and each time, at the top of his voice, he names the one who has ordered the tea, calling down on him the blessing of Allah.CHAPTER 3
Death of a Muslim
The first light of morning spreads on the horizon like a great purple flower. The sand dune, studded with tufts of alfa, glows around the little koubba of Sidi Bou Djemaa, which overlooks the road to Beni Yaho and Sfissifa. Pink touches the tops of black fig trees, and large willows weep glistening silver.
All around the koubba, Arabs awaken, pilgrims who've come a long way to ask protection of the great saint. They line up, all facing the dawn, praying their long prayers. The beautiful, grave gestures of the Muslim rite exalt even the humblest of them.
Behind the little enclosing wall, women are already chatting around a fire of dead wood – nomads accompanying the men of their tribe. They hardly bother to veil their faces.
Under a tree a madman in rags, leaning on a stick, chants the Koran, getting the verses out of order. He is handsome with his emaciated face, his black hair pressed to his forehead by a shred of white linen. His large eyes, ardent and troubled, are transfixed on a point in space.
From time to time the group of women whoop and yell as for a feast day.
But then at the crest of the dune a cortège appears. A few Arabs advance slowly, to the accompaniment of a grave and rhythmic song. Behind this group, four men carry on their shoulders a stretcher draped in white, and at the apparition of this unknown believer setting off toward eternity in the glory of morning, all the shouting ceases.
The men enter the unwalled cemetery. Among the tombs scattered across the sand, among the nameless, dateless gravestones, a hole is dug rapidly, so rapidly in the light sand! And on the edge of this little pit they place the dead man, his face to the sun.
Now, in a semicircle, the Muslims pray their last prayer in a low voice, without prostrations. Quickly, with a simple row of bricks, they bank the grave and plant three green palms in the mounded sand already dispersing in the fresh breeze. Everyone leaves.
How simple it is to die!
Beside me, Si Abdelali, an educated man from Marrakesh, starts softly singing an old dirge of the kind that is all but forgotten.
Here I am, dead, soul and body divided.
They have wept over me the ceremonial tears.
Four men have carried me on their shoulders,
Attesting their faith in the one God.
They have carried me to the cemetery,
They have prayed over me, without prostrating,
The last of the prayers of this world.
They've thrown earth on top of me.
My friends walk away as if they've never known me.
And I rest alone in the darkness of the tomb,
Where there's no joy nor sorrow, no sun nor moon,
My only companion the blind worm.
The tears have dried on my loved ones' cheeks,
And the dry thorns have grown on my grave.
My son has said, 'God have mercy on him!'
He who is gone toward the mercy of God
Is likewise gone from the fellowship of men.
There's no rescue, no reprieve in the land of the dead.
O you who stand before my tomb, don't shake your head at my fate.
Once I was just like you;
Someday you'll be just like me.
The air of this complaint is melancholy and sweet, the taleb's voice resonant. I gaze at the small mound abandoned there forever, in the emptiness of the sandy desert.
We headed for Sfissifa, a little Muslim town without a single European, without even a Jew. Again the dark rocks typical of this region and, inside the ksar, a shabby life, crumbling clay walls, veiled faces of mummies. Everything fallen to ruins. But we enjoy sound sleep under a spreading pomegranate tree, in the dazzling late-morning sun.
It was there my curiosity recognized you, sickly villagers – pale, whinging, and effeminately dressed – a race weakened by ancient inbreeding and sedentary lives. I saw you again, villages crumbling in the shade of delightful gardens, invaded by desert little by little, being devoured. And I realized then, there are people, too, who exude decay.
Returning from Sfissifa we see the sun disappear, but its great red light still bathes the valley. We pass again before Sidi Bou Djemaa. A profound silence, a silence one feels, almost an anguish, weighs down the koubba and the cemetery. There, among the little anonymous stones are raised a few marabouts' tombs, rectangles encrusted with dry earth.
The door to the koubba is closed, and before it is seated an old beggar, his stick leaning against the wall. Softly, from the shadow of his blindness, he murmurs words without accent, reciting to himself.
On the height, two mokhazni in black burnous have dismounted from their horses and pray, all alone, in the last light of day.
A chained dog offers to the sky his wolf's muzzle and narrow, red eyes, and howls his lamentation, as if from an infinite sadness.CHAPTER 4
On the Road
After a short, moonlit night spent on a mat in front of the Moorish café in Beni Ounif, I awoke happy, with the euphoria that takes me when I have slept outdoors under the great sky, and when I'm about to set off on a journey.
Seated on a stone at the side of the road, I wait for Djilali ould Bahti, the mokhazni who will accompany me on the road to Bechar.
To go to Bechar! Finally to cross the fateful boundary marked by Beni Ounif is enough to make me feel calm and joyful, free of the worry I suffered at Ain Sefra.
Time passes, and this Djilali is late in coming.
The day lengthens, a splendid summer day, without clouds or mist. A fresh breeze since yesterday evening has chased away all dust and haze. The sky opens, infinite, profound, with the green transparency of a tranquil ocean.
At the horizon, in all this golden green, a yellower, brighter gleam increases, soon becoming orange, then red. Ahead, in the dark west, the moon descends, livid. Like the face of a dying man.
Nearby, the great white koubba of Sidi Slimane is outlined in gold, on the tarnished-copper colour of the sky. Orange rays bathe the dark earth, the tombs, and the cracked houses.
Finally Djilali arrives and we leave, turning our horses towards the fading moon.
This mokhazni is a big brown boy, one of the good, honest Trafi tribe of nomads from Geryville. He is friendly and quick-witted, and will make a good companion for the road.
We make our way through the valley of black rock, between the Grouz highlands, still shining, and the low burning hills of Gara. On the right we pass the lovely little palm grove of Melias, drowsing at the entrance of a deep gorge in the Grouz mountains. Last year, bands of outlaws made this their watering-stop, these desert gardens so peaceable and welcoming today.
The farther behind we leave sterile Beni Ounif, the more grass appears on the sandy soil. Wadis deepen, full of increasingly verdant bushes. Some large mastic trees – so providential in the scorching wilderness – cast their shadows on the red soil, marking the course of empty hours.
A dust cloud comes on us from the west, with the wind. It is a legionnaire company of blond, deeply tanned men covered with dust, returning from the South singing German lieder or Italian canzone.
The sick are bedded on the baggage carts. Perched very high, they regard the monotonous landscape with the indifference born of fever, silently calculating the probable hour of arrival at Beni Ounif from where, tomorrow, they'll be transported by train to the hospital at Ain Sefra.
An hour passes. We join up with a small convoy of wagons escorted by riflemen. The men have removed their bags and their rifles and loaded them on to the carts; they march nonchalantly, with the small steps of mules, as if out for a stroll.
They pass. We fall back into the silence of the road.
From time to time Djilali begins a song, which he never finishes.
There's little wind; we turn our backs to the sun. The heat is not overwhelming. We are well, without need of talk.
So it is on the desert roads of the south; long hours without sadness, without worry; vague and restful, where one may live in silence. I have never regretted a single one of these 'lost' hours.CHAPTER 5
The Drama of Hours
To travel is not to think, but to see things in succession, with one's life sensed in the measure of space. The monotony of landscapes slowly unrolling soothes our cares, infuses us with lightness and quiet, which the fevered traveller could never know on his full-speed excursions. At the unhurried pace of horses stunned by the heat, the smallest accidents of the journey preserve their startling beauty. These are not fretful predicaments; rather, a calm and vital state of mind rules, which once belonged to all human races and is still preserved among us in the blood of nomads.
In Algiers, seeing all the Europeans flocking at the same times to the same side of the arcades, to feel as if they belong, or promenading around the music-filled square, I sense the herd mentality. But not here. I feel it's better to herd sheep than to be part of a crowd, and there's neither arrogance nor romanticism in that statement.
Excerpted from In the Shadow of Islam by Isabelle Eberhardt, Sharon Bangert. Copyright © 1993 Sharon Bangert. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) was an explorer and writer who lived and traveled extensively in North Africa. Her writings were collected in The Nomad and The Oblivion Seekers.
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