In the Shadow of Islam & The Oblivion Seekers are both collections of writing by another lady travel writer that I have encountered – Isabelle Eberhard.
Never heard of her?
I had not either, but a quick look at her biography ensures that I will look at a more in-depth biography about her.
“ISABELLE EBERHARDT (1877–1904) was born in Geneva, the illegitimate daughter of a former Russian Orthodox priest and a part-Russian, part-German aristocratic mother. Her father was an anarchist and nihilist who was to convert to Islam, and his daughter’s life was to take similar dramatic turns before her tragically early death at the age of twenty-seven. Increasingly isolated from her family and her inheritance, she was plagued by emotional and financial problems, but she had a fierce will. From an early age she dressed as a man for the greater freedom this allowed, and she developed a literary talent and a gift for languages, including Arabic. Like her father Eberhardt became drawn to Islam. She converted while in Algeria with her mother. After her mother’s death she cut all ties with her family, called herself Si Mahmoud Essadi and travelled throughout North Africa. She became involved with Qadiriyya Sufi order, married an Algerian soldier, worked as a war reporter, helped the poor and needy and fought against the injustices of French colonial rule. She was also the victim of an assassination attempt but later successfully pleaded for the life of the man who attacked her. She openly rejected conventional European morality of the time, preferring to choose her own path, and drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and had numerous affairs. She died in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria, in 1904.”
Eberhardt, Isabelle. In The Shadow of Islam (Modern Classics) (Kindle Locations 25-32). Peter Owen Publishers. Kindle Edition.
In both collections, In the Shadow of Islam & The Oblivion Seekers, Eberhardt describes life in norther Africa, Algeria to be precise, from the point of someone actually living with the people at around 1900. She doesn’t cling to any European perspectives she may hold and gives a voice to the people she encounters, their believes, their customs, their reasoning. She describes tribal rivalries, domestic issues, love, slavery, hardship, wealth – all of which seems to have its place in her settings. The stories are not connected and aren’t really stories either. Rather they are vignettes of observations or conversations mixed with stories.
Because Eberhardt does not give the account from the perspective of a European traveller, but of someone who is searching for her own self, she does not judge. or at least, she pretends not to judge.
The stories truly are interesting. However, her writing is – lyrical as it is – does at times come across as too stylised to be a true account of her observations. Some poetic licence was no doubt at play.
When looking at both collections separately, In the Shadow of Islam is a better book. It contains one or two stories that are also in The Oblivion Seekers but I found the translation of the stories in In the Shadow of Islam to have a much better flow.
In a way this is surprising because The Oblivion Seekers has gathered more praise on account of the translation by Paul Bowles, which in my opinion is not warranted. I found Bowles translation hard to read.
In the Shadow of Islam – 3.5*
The Oblivion Seekers – 2.5*
‘I don’t care if I dress as a workman, but to wear ill-fitting, cheap and ridiculous women’s clothes, no, never…’
— Isabelle Eberhardt