Friday, February 17, 2017

The magnificent Sahara

‘Now that the torrid heat of summer has suddenly come again, now that Algiers lies in a glaring daze once more by day, the notion that I am back in Africa is slowly sinking in. Soon I will feel completely at home, especially if my plan to go to Bou Saada comes off. . . Oh, that journey! It will mean a brief return, not to the magnificent Sahara itself, but to a place nearby that has all the palm trees and sunshine one could want!’ This is from the diary of Isabelle Eberhardt, born in Switzerland 140 years ago today, but who only found peace when living in North Africa, wearing men’s clothes, and having converted to Islam.

Eberhardt was born on 17 February 1877 in Geneva, Switzerland, to an odd couple: her father, Alexandre Trophimowsky, was an atheist, anarchist and former Orthodox priest who had been hired as a tutor for the children of the widower General Pavel de Moerder. His aristocratic mother, Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt) was Moerder’s wife, some 40 years his junior. Eventually, Nathalie and Trophimowsky, who was also married, left their families, and had two children, one, Augustin, was accepted by de Moerder as his own, but, a few years later, Isabelle was registered as Nathalie’s illegitimate daughter. She grew up well tutored by Trophimowsky, and speaking several languages, including Arabic. Biographers say she disguised herself as a boy from an early age so as to enjoy more freedom, a trait not discouraged by her father.

From around 1895, Eberhardt began publishing short stories, some inspired by the letters from Augustin who had joined the French Foreign Legion and from Eugène Letord, a French officer stationed in the Sahara, who had advertised for a pen pal. Aged but 20, she traveled to North Africa with her mother, where they both converted to Islam. Soon after, her mother died, her father died also, and then a half-brother committed suicide. With family ties severed, Eberhardt called herself Si Mahmoud Saadi, began to wear Arab male attire all the time, and assumed a male personality. Residing in Paris, trying to pursue a writing career, she was offered money to return to the Sahara region and investigate the death of a friend’s husband.

By mid-1900, Eberhardt had settled in the oasis town of El Oued, some 650 miles southeast of Algiers, close to the border with Tunisia, but she made little headway with the investigation. However, she fell in love with an Algerian soldier, Slimène Ehnni, and they were soon living together openly. The French authorities began to suspect Eberhardt of being a spy or an agitator, and Ehnni was posted away, some 300km north. Eberhardt also became involved with a Sufi order, the Qadiriyya, and, in early 1901, at one of its meetings was attacked by a man with a sabre. She suspected her attacker had been hired by the French authorities, who, eventually expelled her from North Africa. In June the same year, she was allowed to return to Algeria briefly to give evidence against her attacker, who, she said, she forgave.

Back in France, Eberhardt lived with her brother Augustin and his wife, worked alongside him as a dock labourer, and continued writing. Ehnni, meanwhile, was reposted, this time to near Marseilles, where he was free to marry Eberhart (earlier, in Algeria, they had been denied permission to marry). In early 1902, Ehnni completed his military service, and the couple returned to Bône, Algeria, to live with Ehnni’s family, at first, and then in Algiers. There Eberhardt worked for the newspaper Al-Akhbar, publishing stories, including serialised chapters of her novel Trimardeur. In mid-1903, she was sent to report on the aftermath of the Battle of El-Moungar, and became friendly with a French officer, for whom she may have engaged in some kind of spying activity. She fell ill with fever, and travelled to Aïn Sefra to recuperate. Ehnni joined her there, and they rented a mud hut. When a flash flood struck, 
Ehnni escaped, but Eberhardt was killed - only 27 years old. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Pathos, Rejected Princesses, Atlas Obscura or from a biography review at The New York Times.

Eberhardt’s diaries - three cardboard notebooks and a small linen volume - were first translated by Nina de Voogd and published in English by Virago in 1987 as The Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt. More recently, in 2002, Summersdale has reissued the translation, as edited by Elizabeth Kershaw, under the title The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt. The book’s introduction can be read online here; and for a short review see The Guardian. According to Kershaw, Eberhardt used her diaries ‘for observation and introspection; to record literary ideas; as a ledger and as a portable library of copied material from her favourite writers’. Here are several extracts.

27 May 1900
‘Geneva. Back to this gloomy diary of mine in this evil city in which I have suffered so much. I have hardly been here a week and once again I feel as morbid and oppressed as I used to in the old days. All I want to do is get out for good.

I went to have a look at our poor house, with the sky low and sunless; the place was boarded up, mute and lost amongst the weeds. I saw the road, white as ever, white like a silvery river, straight as an arrow, heading between those tall, velvet trees for the Jura’s great mountaintops.

I saw the two graves in that faithless cemetery, set in a land of exile, so very far away from that sacred place devoted to eternal repose and everlasting silence . . . I feel that I have now become a total stranger in this land, and tonight I feel an unfathomable and indescribable sadness, and increasingly resigned before my fate . . . What dreams, what enchantments and what raptures does the future still hold in store for me? What dubious satisfactions, and what sorrows?

And when will the clock strike the hour of deliverance at long last, the hour of eternal rest?’

8 June 1900
‘Over there in Africa, above the great blue gulf of unforgettable Annaba, the graveyard on the hill is asleep under the blazing sky of a summer day’s sunset. The white marble tombs and those made of glazed and multicoloured tiles must look like bright flowers among the tall, black cypresses, creepers and geraniums the colour of blood or pale flesh, and fig trees from the Barbary Coast. . .

At that same moment, I was sitting in the low grass of another graveyard. As I sat facing the two grey tombs set among the spring weeds, I thought of that other grave, the White Spirit’s resting place . . . And in the midst of all that indestructible nature, my thoughts turned once again to the mystery of the end of people’s lives.

Birds sang their innocent, peaceful song above the untold amount of human dust accumulated there . .

So far, this diary can be summed up as follows: an endless record of the unfathomable sadness there is at the bottom of my life, it consists of increasingly vague allusions, not to people I have met or to facts that I have observed, but to the invariably melancholy effect these facts and people have upon me.

How useless and funereal are these notes of mine, and how despairingly monotonous, without even the slightest hint of lightness or of hope. The only consolation they contain is their increasing Islamic resignation.

At long last I do find that my soul is beginning to show signs of indifference to pedestrian things and people, which means that my strength is on the increase. I find it contemptible and unworthy of myself that for so long I have put so much store by pitiful things and by futile, meaningless encounters. At long last, the realisation that I am utterly incapable of joining any coterie whatsoever, and of feeling at ease with people whose only reason for being together is no mere happenstance but rather the fact that they share their lives.

For the time being at least I know what I want: I would like it if Archivir understood the things I said and wrote to him. I would like him to smile at me as only he can, to hear him tell me in that tone of voice of his, the way he did the day I came so close to baring my soul: “Go Mahmoud, and do great, magnificent deeds . . . Be a hero . . .”

It is true that of all the men I have come across, this one, whose beloved picture I have in front of me, is the most bewitching of all, and that his charm is of the most elevated and noble sort: he speaks to the spirit rather than to the senses, he exalts whatever is sublime and stifles the base and lowly. No one has ever had such a truly beneficial effect upon my soul. No one has ever understood and bolstered those blessed manifestations that, since the White Spirit’s death, have slowly but surely begun to take root in my heart: faith, repentance, the desire for moral perfection, the longing for a reputation based on noble merit, a sensuality that makes a mockery of my suffering and abnegation, a thirst for great and magnificent deeds. I judge and love him for what I have seen of him so far.

Time will tell whether I have been perceptive, whether I have seen him as he really is, or whether I have made another mistake. I will not swear to anything, but nothing has so far given me reason for suspicion, even though I have become terribly, incurably wary. If he is but another dissembler and a sham . . . that will be the end of it once and for all, for if what I hold to be pure turns out to have a hidden blemish, if what looks to me like true beauty masks the usual horror, if the light I take to be a beneficial star showing me the way or a beacon in life’s black maze is but a trick meant to lead wayfarers astray - if so, what can I expect after that? Yet, once again, nothing, absolutely nothing has so far suggested there might be anything to such unthinkable conjecture ... if he is the way I think he is, he may well put me through terrible but magnificent paces . . . he may well turn out to be responsible for sending me off to die, but spare me the worst of fates, namely disillusionment.’

1 December 1900
‘El Oued, at the house of Salah ben Taliba. The beginning of this month of December is curiously reminiscent of the same time in that deadly year of 1897. Same weather, same violent wind lashing against my face. In those days, though, I had the vast, grey Mediterranean for a horizon, breaking furiously against the black rocks with a deafening, cataclysmic sound. I was still so young, and even though recently bereaved, I still had a full measure of joie de vivre.

Since then, however, everything has changed, everything; I have aged and matured thanks to this strange destiny of mine.

Yes, everything has changed indeed. Augustin has found his haven at long last, and it does look as if he is meant never to leave it again. After all those ups and downs and twists of fate have settled down at last, however oddly.

I could never be content with the genteel pleasures of city life in Europe. My idea of heading for the desert to satisfy my need for both adventure and peace required courage, but was inspired. I’ve found domestic happiness, and far from diminishing, it seems to grow stronger every day.

Only politics threatens it . . . But alas! Allah alone knows what is hidden in the sky and the earth! and no one can predict the future.

Barely two weeks ago I went to meet my beloved in the night, as far as the area south of Kouïnine. I rode Souf in a darkness so dense it made my head spin.

Lost my way several times. Had strange impressions down in those plains, where the horizon seems to rise in the shape of dunes, and villages look like hedges made of djerid.

I was thinking about the passage in Aziyade about Istanbul graves lit by dim and solitary lights, when I suddenly spotted the gate to the Teksebet cemetery’s dome.

Every afternoon for several days in a row I have been along the road to Debila, either with Khalifa Taher or by myself. One day, as I was on a solitary outing, I had a strange feeling of familiarity [i], of a return to a past that was dead and buried. Going through the shott I stopped my horse beneath the palm trees. I closed my eyes, and listening to the sound of the wind rustling in the foliage, I was off in a dream. I felt as if I were back in the big woods along the Rhone and in the Parc Sarrazin on a mellow summer evening. The illusion was almost perfect. It was not long before a sudden movement of Souf’s brought me back to reality, though. I opened my eyes . . . an endless succession of grey dunes rolled out before me, and above my head the foliage rustled on the tough djerids.

At the foot of the dune behind our house, next to an enclosure containing three low palm trees, stands a small African-looking mosque built of ochre-coloured plaster that looks like mud. It only has a tiny, fortified dome, a koubba, ovoid in shape. Behind it stands a splendid date palm which, seen from our rooftop, seems to grow out of the koubba itself.

Yesterday, I went up there at maghreb time. In the blaze of the setting sun I could see grey silhouettes drenched in scarlet light move by the post office in the distance. While the little dome seemed to be on fire and the muezzin’s slow and languorous voice recited the evening prayer in the direction of every corner in the sky, men came down the dune on my right-hand side in the splendour of that melancholy hour.

Poignant memories of the end of the White Spirit’s life have come to haunt me these last few days.’

9 February 1901
‘Around five o’clock this afternoon, Abdallah ben Mohammed [her attacker] was put in a prison cell. I saw him arrive and studied him while he was being searched by soldiers . . . I had a profound feeling of pity for this man, the blind instrument of a destiny whose meaning he does not understand. And seeing that grey silhouette, standing with his head bowed, flanked by the two blue uniforms, I had perhaps the strangest and deepest impression I have ever experienced of mystery.

Much as I search my heart for hatred towards this man, I cannot find any. Even less contempt. What I do feel for him is curious: it seems to me that I am close to an abyss, in the presence of a mystery whose last word - or rather whose first word - hasn’t yet been spoken, and which would contain the whole meaning of my life. As long as I do not know the key to this enigma - and shall I ever know it! God alone knows - I shall not know who I am, or what is the reason or explanation of my destiny, one of the most incredible there has been. Yet, it seems to me that I am not meant to disappear without having plumbed the depths of this enigma, from its strange beginnings to the present.

“Madness,” sceptics will say, who like easy solutions and have no patience with mystery. They are wrong, because to see the chasms that life conceals and that three-quarters of the population don’t even suspect exist cannot be treated as folly, in the same way that an artist’s descriptions of sunset or of a stormy night would seem ridiculous to a man born blind.

If the strangeness of my life were the result of snobbery of a pose, yes, then people could say, “She brought those events on herself”, but no! No one has ever lived more from day to day and by chance as I have, and it is very much the events themselves, inexorably linked to one another, which have brought me to where I am and absolutely not me who has created them. Perhaps the strange side of my nature can be summed up in a single trait: the need to keep searching, come what may, for new events, and flee inertia and stagnation.’

8 June 1902
‘Life goes on, monotonous as ever, yet there is the hint of some future direction in the midst of all this dreadful emotional turmoil. I am going through another slow period of gestation, which can be quite painful at times. I am beginning to understand the character of the two people, Barrucand and Mme ben Aben, who have helped us here, both of them good people and very tactful. Barrucand, a dilettante in matters of thought and in particular of sensations, and a moral nihilist, is, however, a man who is very positive, and knows how to live. Mme ben Aben is the second woman I have known after my mother who is good to the core, and enamoured with ideals. Yet in real life, how ignorant the two women are! Even I, as someone intimately convinced that I do not know how to live, even I know more than they do.

Augustin is now gone from my life. As far as I am concerned the brother I used to love so much is dead. That shadow of him in Marseilles who is married to ‘Jenny the work-horse’ does not exist for me, and I very rarely think of him.

Now that the torrid heat of summer has suddenly come again, now that Algiers lies in a glaring daze once more by day, the notion that I am back in Africa is slowly sinking in. Soon I will feel completely at home, especially if my plan to go to Bou Saada comes off. . . Oh, that journey! It will mean a brief return, not to the magnificent Sahara itself, but to a place nearby that has all the palm trees and sunshine one could want!’

31 January 1903 [the last entry]
‘Bou Saada. We arrived here from El Hamel yesterday at three in the afternoon.

Every time I see Lella Zeyneb I feel rejuvenated, happy for no tangible reason and reassured. I saw her twice yesterday in the course of the morning. She was very good and very kind to me, and was happy to see me again.

Visited the tomb of Sidi Muhammad Belkassem, small and simple in that large mosque, and which will be very beautiful by the time it is finished. I then went on to pray on the hillside facing the grave of El Hamel’s pilgrim founders.

I did some galloping along the road, together with Si bel Abbes, under the paternal gaze of Si Ahmed Mokrani. Some women from the brothel were on their way back from El Hamel. Painted and bedecked, they were rather pretty, and came to have a cigarette with us. Did fantasias in their honour all along the way. Laughed a lot. . .

The legend of El Hamel’s pilgrims appeals to my imagination. It must be one of Algeria’s most biblical stories . . .

I began this diary over in that hated land of exile, during one of the blackest and most painfully uncertain periods in my life, a time fraught with suffering of every sort. Today it is coming to an end.

Everything is radically different now, myself included.

For a year now I have been on the blessed soil of Africa, which I never want to leave again. In spite of my poverty, I have still been able to travel and explore unknown regions of my adoptive country. My Ouïha is alive and we are relatively happy materially.

This diary, begun a year and a half ago in horrible Marseilles, comes to an end today, while the weather is grey and transparent, soft and almost dream-like here in Bou Saada, another Southern spot I used to yearn for over there!

I am getting used to this tiny room of mine at the Moorish bath; it is so much like me and the way I live. I will be staying here for a few more days before setting off on my journey to Boghar, through areas I have never seen; living in this poorly whitewashed rectangle, a tiny window giving out on the mountains and the street, two mats on the floor, a line on which to hang my laundry, and the small torn mattress I am sitting on as I write. In one corner lie straw baskets; in the opposite one is the fireplace; my papers lie scattered about . . . And that is all. For me that will do.

There is no more than a vague echo in these pages of all that has happened these last eighteen months; I have filled them at random, whenever I have felt the need to articulate. . . For the uninitiated reader, these pages would hardly make much sense. For myself they are a vestige of my earlier cult of the past. The day may come, perhaps, when I will no longer record the odd thought and impression in order to make them last a while. For the moment, I sometimes find great solace in rereading these words about days gone by.

I shall start another diary. What shall I record there, and where shall I be, the day in the distant future when I close it, the way I am closing this one today?

Allah knows what is hidden and the measure of people’s sincerity!” ’

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