The Nomad Isabelle Eberhardt
I recently read “The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Ebernhardt.” I happened upon the book on a library shelf. I quickly became absorbed by the tale of this cross-dressing, Russian expatriate and Muslim-convert who travels Algeria dressed as a man going by the name Si Mohammad. Despite her excessive drinking, seasoned drug use, and hyperactive sex life, she was welcomed into a mystical order of Sufism. Her life story is filled with drama from her pursuit of absolute individualism and pure self-understanding. I’m surprised that her short life, she drown in the desert at the age of 27, has yet to be converted into a movie.
I will not attempt to summarize the brief flash of life she lived from 1877-1904. You can read a short bio of her in the article An unconventional life for a desert fox. This article fails to mention the assassination attempt made on her life, which is recounted in her journal. Yet even her journal fails, in my opinion, to fully disclose how she came to be the person she was.
Yet I do understand something in her love for Algeria, Islam, and the desert. I feel I share a bit of those sympathies with my love for Morocco. Morocco is the land of my dreams, literally. It is the land that holds the cool milkdrop stars in a domed sky so close to the earth you can taste them; the land of goldyellow dust on red dirt yielding sweet, soft, succulent green melons that cool and quench; the land upon which echoes the prayer call and holds the slightly acrobatic worshipers who meet God, one-on-one, five times a day acknowledging their submission to a grand plan they cannot hope to understand let alone negotiate.
But, as a consequence of my recent extended stay, Morocco became less of a dream Place and more of a Real place. I now remember its beauty muddied by pointless sweat, bitter bickering, petty intrigues, and small meanness. I am reminded by this smallness with comments I continue to get from the staff at Riad D’Or calling me I am an alcoholic woman and suggesting I lied about my own experience there. I don’t want to repeat the back-story to their venom. Suffice to say it involves a room I paid for a did not sleep in and a bottle of wine I ordered and dinner and took with me to share with guests at the Riad Safir the next evening.
The consolation to my loss of wonder and the maturation of my love for Morocco comes with knowing that even the passionate and fierce Isabelle Eberhardt fell a bit out of wonder with her Algeria. As she writes in her journal on page 91:
“I would like to leave the Souf with the impression I had before Behima (site of the assassination attempt), to leave overwhelmed by its great and shadowy attraction, a pull that would be fed until the day of my return. How could I have believed in the mysteriousness that I thought I sensed in this country, which was only a reflection of the sad enigma of my own soul?”
I too would have liked to have left Morocco with a sense of awe and mystery. I would have liked to have held onto the feeling that I was unraveling a great mystery associated with that Place instead of the monotonous mystery contrived by my own temper, following me through every mundane action of my life. These small things are not easily called majestic, not easily seen as beautiful, and are the things I still don’t understand.
As Isabelle wrote, “I am as ignorant of myself as I am about the outside world. Perhaps that is the only truth.” She flatly ended her journal entry with that sentiment.
I still love Morocco. I still love Moroccan design. Yet, I know I carry the Real masterpiece, the True understanding, and the Ultimate mystery as a companion inside me, which makes it smaller, more accessible, more challenging to Understand, and infinitely harder to Accept.