The Bright Horizon Beckons: Discovering Isabelle Eberhardt

It’s a joy to discover a writer I’ve never heard of, especially a woman who lived, adventured, and wrote over 100 years ago, whose voice speaks today with the immediacy of a living breathing person.  Browsing in a used bookstore over the weekend, my eye was caught by a slim, battered volume published by City Lights in 1972: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt, translated from French by Paul Bowles.  The cover image is a black-and-white photo of an Arab man and woman walking down an old street in North Africa.  A quick glance at the preface told me that Eberhardt was a Russian Moslem born (1877) and raised in Switzerland, who spent her adult life traveling through North Africa in male garb and writing stories and articles about what she saw.  She was killed in a flash flood in 1904.  And Paul Bowles had translated this volume?  I was sold.

I have to admit that I don’t read many texts written before the 20th century, and most things I read were written post-1920′s.  So I wasn’t sure that Eberhardt’s writing would be my cup of tea.  But I plunged into the small book and ate it up within two days, transported to another world seen through eyes whose gaze felt contemporary.  The collected stories in The Oblivion Seekers are short and have a modernist flavor that seems ahead of its time.  Some of that may be Bowles’ translation, but I suspect that a lot of it is Eberhardt’s original style: spare, tight sentences that deliver lush descriptions reminiscent of Hemingway (I couldn’t help but recall the opening line of A Moveable Feast – “And then the rains came” – when I read the opening sentence of Eberhardt’s story The Rival: “One morning the melancholy rain ceased to fall,”) but with a decidedly female weight to them: “The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains,” she writes in the opening story of the volume, Outside.  The precision and economy of Eberhardt’s language lend these stories a timeless, almost fabular feel, while transporting the reader to another world in vivid detail.

I love fiction’s ability to engage the reader in historical or current events in a way that critical writing can’t.  This small collection of stories tells us more about French colonial Algeria than a lengthy history would, because it transports us directly into the skins and lives of people – both Arab and European – navigating its shifting sands.  The story “The Criminal,” only a few pages long, can be read as an analysis of the still-present tension between a colonizing power and the native culture.  The tensions between European and Arab are portrayed simply but subtly and one feels, reading these stories and having lived in France for years, that not much has been overcome in the last century.

Eberhardt was a Moslem and loved the Arab cultures in which she made her home, but her perspective is not uncritical of her adopted land.  The writer’s stance itself is problematic, because she traveled through Algeria and Tunisia dressed as a man, thus gaining access to places and experiences that were denied the women in their own culture; for example, she became initiated into the Sufi cult of the Qadriya, reserved for men.  Eberhardt’s gender bending also makes her interesting from a contemporary standpoint; while passing as a man allowed her the life of freedom and adventure she longed for, it was her father who imposed boy’s clothing on her from a young age and had her pass as male in public.  Whether her adoption of male garb and mannerisms is read as simply another oppressive role imposed upon her by the patriarchy, or as a liberating choice made by Eberhardt herself (and the reality was probably a little bit of both), her position as an outsider – or rather, as a dweller of the liminal space between definitions – man and woman, European and Arab – allows Eberhardt a critical distance from both the European and Arab cultures that infuses her writing with the tension that makes good fiction.

While Eberhardt’s heart seems firmly grounded in her adopted Arab culture and religion, she is critical of its gender roles; the short story “Achoura” tells a tragic tale of an Algerian woman who refuses to conform to her society’s expectations.  Eberhardt takes a matter-of-fact tone about the social oppression of her female character that resonates with the contemporary reader: “Locked into the house, and bored with an existence she should never have had to undergo, Achoura suffered the pain that comes with longing for freedom,” she writes of her character’s life after she is married off, according to custom, at a young age to an older man.  Achoura goes on to seek freedom on her own, and suffers for it, but ultimately remains free.

The theme of freedom and self-liberation is the one that comes through most in these stories, and it is undoubtedly why I love them.  Eberhardt, a wanderer who traveled alone in the desert and visited war zones, writes about the intellectual and emotional freedom that can be achieved when one un-tethers herself from society’s expectations.  Her staunch resistance to the shackles of either of her societies, her need to see and describe the world for herself, her insistence on total freedom, prefigures writers like Virginia Woolf and Hélène Cixous, who have carved out rooms in which we may dwell, and openings in the ceiling through which we may fly to our freedom.  As a contemporary read, Eberhardt’s writings can be seen as a manifesto for personal freedom, whether from the shackles of sexism, colonialism, or internalized oppression.

Her voice comes to me through the years, beckons me to the adventure of free thought and imagination: “Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off blue places, toward the bright edges of the earth.”  And I set my feet to that road to walk another day, with one more traveling companion in my book bag.

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