In the Shadow of Islam – Isabelle Eberhardt

Shhhhhh. This is a secret tip. When I was gifted this book about ten years ago, it was on the condition that I not mention the author’s name to anyone. The person who gifted it to me was a journalist and photographer, and I believe he intended to write about her. I think the moratorium has lifted, but just in case, what I’m about to share with you stays between us.

This book is slightly mind-blowing, in that it’s about a white, European woman, who traveled from Sufi teacher to Sufi teacher through the Sahara during a time of French occupation, before colonial lines were drawn dividing Algeria from Morocco. In order to travel freely, she dressed as a young man. Her observations about local life, the European invaders, the Divine, and the banal are so articulate it’s both effortless and elevating.

WARNING: she is not without prejudice. Although her observations of North Africans are not quite as offensive as some of the male orientalists writing at the time, her views on black Africans are thoroughly revolting. Pages 45-48 may make you want to toss the book across the room. Perhaps, tear them out and burn them so that you can enjoy the rest of the book in peace.

Below are some brief excerpts.

On her wanderlust:
“I have always preferred simplicity, finding in it vibrant pleasures which I don’t hope to explain. When I sleep under the starry skies of this region, religious in their vastness, I feel penetrated by the earth’s energies.” ( P 25)

“For me it seems that by advancing into unknown territories, I enter my life.” ( P34)

On her disguise:
“I’m able to pass everywhere completely unobserved, an excellent position to be in for observing. If women are not good at this, it’s because their costume attracts attention. Women have always been made to be looked at and they aren’t yet much bothered by the fact. This attitude, I think, gives far too much advantage to men… I’ve always been astonished to see that a fashionable hat, the right bustline, a pair of stiff boots, a little suite of cumbersome little furniture, some silverware and porcelain is enough to quench in so many ways the thirst for well-being . While very young I was seized by the world’s existence and I wanted to know its limits. (p38-39)”

On arriving at the zawiya or Sufi lodge:
“I am a guest of these men. I will live in the silence of their house…I will delve into the secrets of my tumultuous psyche. The burning issues of the intellect and the emotions will be reduced to cinders…The thought of this nirvana already softens my heart: the desert I have crossed was that of my desires. But when my will reawakens, I fear it will want anew and that I will fail to recall past sufferings.” (P 45)

Although the book essentially recounts a year in her life, which she spent journeying deep into Morocco to reach a Sufi lodge, it is noteworthy for all that she does not recount. There is almost no mention of her spiritual practices. She is a convert to Islam, yet ritual prayer is mentioned only once in the book. Her writings are more a series of anthropological and geographical notes than anything else. Yet, because the notes were gathered in this crucial period of upheaval – both politically and internally – it is an interesting read for Orientalists and Occidentalists alike.

by E Shittu