The following is an interview with the anthropologist, Kathleen Modrowski about the life, times, writings, and character of Isabelle Eberhardt. Kathleen conducted the bulk of her anthropological research in North Africa, and found records of Eberhardt while going through old economic archives in Algiers. This discovery sparked an interest in the life of this captivating desert wanderer, and Kathleen subsequently engaged herself in a deep study of the literature surrounding Eberhardt. It was my honor to have had the chance to interview Kathleen Modrowski in person when I passed through Brooklyn last summer.
What do you think was Isabelle Eberhardt’s attraction to the desert?
From what she has written, her first attraction was the space, the beauty of the place, her attraction to Islam, and especially the Sufi Islamic cult.
How deep was Eberhardt’s practice of Islam? Was she really into it?
Yeah, I think she was very much. I think she was into the practice of, again, the Sufi cult. In the beginning [of her time in Algeria], she was not an Islamic scholar so she was very attracted to it as a religion. Eberhardt was very attracted to the chanting of the services. You can join a Sufi group and there will be the chanting, the incense, and the singing without much teaching.
I know that she was certainly into a lot of hashish, as well, as part of her religious practice. But I think that there was something about the beauty of the desert, the simplicity of the life, the coherence of the community that she found there [that attracted her to Islam]. I don’t think she appreciated the poverty that she found, but that is going away from your question . . .
Do you think that because Eberhardt was not a scholar, that she was not trained as a professor, she was able to immerse herself into the Arabic culture to a degree that was more personal?
I think it was very personal, of course. While she was not a scholar, she was really trying to be a writer. She was trying to report, because she worked as a journalist as well, certain things that she found in the society; yet [some of these things] often went against the grain of what was the colonial principles and the colonial impression at the time. Remember that this was the big period of colonial expansion in North Africa.
Now Eberhardt also had a very interesting background. Her father was fascinated with Tolstoy, and tried to create a community (he was sort of a nutty guy too) that was base on his writings. So she [Eberhardt] was raised in a natural freedom that was very coarse for a woman; she could ride a horse and often dress in men’s clothing. And when she moved to Marseille, in France, she became kind of like a little star.
When she was seventeen or eighteen she first visited Algeria, and her writings say that when she saw Algiers for the first time from the boat, the city looked like a collection of doves on a hillside. So you can see that she was very taken by the picturesque beauty of the place.
But I want to go back to something else here, that Eberhardt was also influenced by, as I am sure everybody else was at this time, by what they were seeing. Because this was the beginning of the use of photography, which started to tell people what they were seeing, and about what was out there in the colonial empire. On one hand there was this very romantic vision of the exotic, as only the exotic was being presented. On the other hand, there was a presentation of the civilizing influence. Now the French had this sense that the indigenous people in their colonies could become little Frenchmen.
Eberhardt was [also] influenced by the writing of the people who have come and gone in these colonial communities, and there was a lot of talk of the exotic. [In this setting] she had created quite a personage, a persona, for herself, and I think this was very important.
Did Eberhardt rebel against the French idea that the indigenous people in the colonies could become “little Frenchmen”?
I think that she didn’t see the civilizing mission, the bringing of French civilization to the colonies, as very important. Instead she immersed herself in the culture as something very pure, very beautiful. So although she did not rebel, as such, I think her rebellion was looking at the way the people really were, and living with them.
There were very few women who took on the life of moving with the caravans and living the very simple life, and Eberhardt’s knowledge of the local people became very valuable when the French saw that there ws opposition to their colonial rule. [So although] Eberhardt was not going to be the Joan of Arch of the Arabs, she certainly did look at them from the inside view.
Do you think that part of Isabelle Eberhardt’s lifestyle was trying to live out the anarchist dreams of her father?
I think she was influenced by her father’s idealism, but I do not think that she had a philosophical view of anarchy. Eberhardt would spend hours in the souqs and markets just drawing and moving with the people.
What topics did she usually write about?
Sketches, little romantic stories, love stories and despair.
Did Eberhardt’s writings have an impact on Western Civilization?
Yes, she certainly captured the imagination of western writers, and she was well published.
I have found that much of what she wrote was, in fact, romanticized by her publishers and the French public. But that was what they wanted at the time: a vision of the exotic, a vision of a woman riding alone on horseback through the desert.
Her diaries are certainly interesting from an ethnographic point of view, as well. You get a sense of the poverty of the villages in North Africa, of the mortality, the daily diet. I am sure this was not fascinating to the people of France at the time, who were only looking for the exotic.
What is your personal attraction to Isabelle Eberhardt?
First of all, she was a woman, and there were not many women doing what she was doing at the time. She kind of became a symbol of women’s rights and women’s empowerment as well, for better or worse.
I was doing economic anthropology in Algeria at the time (70’s and early 80’s) that I discovered records of Eberhardt in local governmental archives. I found studying her life to be a refreshing escape from going through all of the statistics that were representative of a man’s world: Men writing about how many kettles of wheat, barely, and dates they produced.
I found her personality very attractive. In a very sad way too.
Interview with Kathleen Modrowski on Isabelle Eberhardt
September 5, 2007
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