Isabelle Eberhardt: Swiss Explorer, Sufi Adventurer

Isabelle Eberhardt: Swiss Explorer, Sufi Adventurer May 14, 2012

Isabelle Eberhardt’s extraordinary life is the stuff of legends – and movies, and operas. Song From the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, Missy Mazzoli’s multi-media opera, which premiered this spring, explores the unconventional twists and turns of Eberhardt’s short, “operatic” life. You can see the trailer, the Kickstart video, some excerpts and a shorter earlier performance here.

The New York Times review describes the work as ”Crackling Vignettes From an Adventurer’s Life”:

a 19th-century Swiss adventuress who blazed a headstrong trail before perishing prematurely in Algeria at 27, there surely is a saga worthy of operatic treatment. Eberhardt learned Arabic, converted to Islam, dressed as a man to travel freely, survived an assassination attempt and died in a flash flood after saving her Algerian soldier husband from the same fate.


Mizzy Mazzoli describes her as a female T.E Lawrence:

There are photos of Eberhardt in boys’ clothes with a sailor’s hat, and in several North African male outfits. Just picture Lawrence of Arabia (who was a contemporary of Eberhardt’s), only with a woman wrapped in the draping clothes.

Born in 1877, Eberhardt was the daughter of an aristocratic Russian mother and an Armenian-born father who was an ex-priest and anarchist. Aged 20, she traveled to North Africa with her mother, where they both converted to Islam. Her mother then died suddenly, and was buried in Algeria under the name of Fatma Mannoubia. This was followed by the death of Eberhardt’s father and the suicide of her half-brother, severing her ties to her former life. From that time on, Eberhardt traveled through North Africa dressed as a man and going by the name Mahmoud Essadi, wandering from Marseilles to Tunis and Algeria from 1899 to 1904 and eventually joining a Sufi sect in Algeria.

My first encounter with Eberhardt’s story was when I came across her travel journals, on which Mazzoli’s work is based, collected in The Nomad: the Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, and, like Mazzoli’ ”became obsessed with Isabelle Eberhardt’s strange and moving life story.” Eberhardt’s writings are collected in The NomadIn the Shadow of IslamPrisoner of DunesThe Oblivion Seekers and a novel, The Vagabond.

Via Amazon.

As Mazzoli describes it:

I was struck by the universal themes of her story – how much her struggles, her questions, her passions, mirrored those of women throughout the 20th and 21st century. Isabelle made a great effort to define herself as an independent woman under extreme circumstances.

As this review points out, Mazzoli’s Eberhardt stands in contrast to one view of the heroine in operas as the perfect victim:

The philosopher Catherine Clément called opera a “spectacle thought up to adore, and also to kill, the feminine character.” Critics of her views counter that men in opera don’t always have it any easier—think Verdi’s Macbeth or Wagner’s Tristan—and that the form’s supposed victims are portrayed by divas who rise in glory to sing again.

As revivified in composer Missy Mazzoli’s enthralling Song from the Uproar, Isabelle Eberhardt is no victim.

Eberhardt’s strange and moving life story has been told and retold in countless biographies, such as the 1954 The Wilder Shores of Love, which in a rather speculative fashion told the stories of ”four nineteenth-century European women who leave behind the industrialized west for Arabia in search of romance and fulfillment.” The particular flavor of Orientalism of that book (self-described as offering “exotic true-life stores”) has been eclipsed in the last few decades, and in 2003, In the Shadow of Islam describes  how “gripped by spiritual restlessness and the desire to break free from the confinements of her society she traveled into the desert, and into the heart of Islam.”

Annette Kobak’s biography was more prosaically titled Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt. But some things do not change. One selected collection of her writing in 1995 is entitled Prisoner of the Dunes. This year, there is a new collection of her writings with the almost equally terrible title Writings from the Sand. The soft black and white images of Song from the Uproar features sand too, endless sand, and endless ocean. The imagery in fact seems peculiarly suited to a description of Eberhardt’s “stormy love affair with the Algerian desert.”


As the titles of these works suggest, there is a justifiable focus on the cultural transgressions of Eberhardt’s life, and on her bold individuality. But what can be said about the way she fit within the colonial system, and the political aspect of her writing against the abuses of French colonial rule?

Ali Behdad’s book Belated Travellers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution identifies Eberhardt’s sympathetic relationship with ”the natives” as having influenced French colonial policy. Her intimate knowledge proved useful, Behdad writes, to such figures as General Lyautey, since “already a strong supporter of the new idea of association presented by the French colonial lobby…which aimed at a more indirect, flexible rule that would gain native cooperation.” Eberhardt’s writing and her relationships with locals replaced the “inadequacies of the assimilation policy” and was part of “the shift from a detailed program of absolute domination to a general policy of more subtle control.” In the 1991 film Isabelle Eberhardt where the heroine was portrayed by Matilda May, Peter O’Toole portrayed General Lyautey.

Much could be said about how far the transgressive elements of Eberhardt’s life affected or was inscribed within official colonial and orientalist discourse. However, while it involves a more personal portrait, Song From the Uproar offers a compelling and inspiring celebration of the idiosyncratic free spirit and cultural nomad, and of an extraordinary woman’s “lives and deaths.”

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