|Maxime Noiré Les marchands arabes à Biskra|
I was also intrigued by her as a person because her life is definitely a case of reality being more fascinating than fiction. Like Alexandra David-Neel who travelled to Tibet and converted to Buddhism, Odette du Puigaudeau in Mauritania, or again Ella Maillart in Asia, Isabelle was one of the very first Twentieth century women who travelled alone - and relished the adventure and the solitude.
'For those who know the value of and exquisite taste of solitary freedom (for one is only free when alone), the act of leaving is the bravest and most beautiful of all.'
Isabelle Eberhardt: 'A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places.'
Isabelle was born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of Natalia, the widow of a former aide de camp to the Russian tsar Alexander II, and a Ukrainian scholar - an anarchist, according to some. Although her family was shunned by Geneva's polite society, Isabelle was well educated and spoke French, Russian, Italian, German as well as Greek, Latin and Arabic.
From a young age she dreamt of adventure in far away lands, North Africa especially, where two of her brothers joined the Foreign Legion. She was twenty when she travelled to Bône in Algeria, where she lived with her mother and converted to Islam. After her mother's death, she started travelling extensively across Algeria, alone, dressed as a man and under the name Si Mahmoud Saadi.
'Je suis seul, et je rêve' (I am alone, and I dream).
It's interesting to see that she writes about herself as a man (by using the masculine form of 'seul'). Dressing up and living as a man allowed her freedoms which would have been denied to her as a woman - the freedom to travel or have access to zouaias (islamic religious schools), taverns and brothels.
In 1901 she married Slimane Ehnni, a spahi - a soldier from the French colonial army's light cavalry regiments, but her life was cut tragically short by a flash flood in Ain Sefra in October 1904. She was only 27 when she died.
|'Oued dans une oasis' by Maxime Noiré, to whom Isabelle dedicated her story 'Pleurs d'Amandiers' 1903 ('Weeping Almond Trees')|
And what about this extract of one of her short stories set in Bou Saada - the Saharan oasis nicknamed 'the city of happiness' which was well-known to Hugo and Lucas Saintclair, the heroes of my historical romances ANGEL HEART and THE LION'S EMBRACE.
'Bou-Saada, la reine fauve vêtue de ses jardins obscurs et gardée par ses collines violettes, dort, voluptueuse, au bord escarpé de l'oued où l'eau bruisse sur les cailloux blancs et roses.' Isabelle Eberhardt, Pleurs d'amandiers, 1903
I won't even attempt to translate this into English!
North Africa and my mother's childhood stories also inspired me to write short stories, one of them was published in Accent Press' SHIVER anthology last October. I find the mix of cultures and popular beliefs fascinating. Berber, Arab, Spanish, Italian, French - brought their own superstitions. But that will be for another post....
What about you? Who was the writer who influenced you the most and made you dream?