A Russian Jew who converted to Islam, Isabelle Eberhardt ran off to the Sahara Desert in 1899 when she was 22, served as a war correspondent for an Algerian newspaper, dressed as a man and called herself Si Mahmoud, slept with Arab boys, routinely smoked kif, and drank absinthe and chartreuse until she fell asleep on the dirt floor of whatever random café she happened to be passing through.
“I detest cultivated green country full of crops,” she wrote in a journal entry during her travels. “Why do I have this morbid craving for a barren land and desert wastes? Why do I prefer nomads to villagers, beggars to rich people? Aie yie yie! For me, unhappiness is a sort of spice.”
Isabelle is incomprehensibly foreign to me, which is why she’s my new bad girl as I start life over again in a strange place. I’m in London, reflecting on what has brought me to this point in my life and why I’m here. Sure, I could blame Jack for causing my life crisis, but that would be the easy way out. There’s a reason why I chose him, something in me that wanted his drama and our failure. Maybe I didn’t really want to be in a traditional marriage, and by marrying Jack I guaranteed that would never happen.
Maybe I’m a bad girl myself, which is why the Bad Girls Project resonates so strongly with me. Now I’m free to enjoy the travel experience with Isabelle Eberhardt, and I can spend hours daydreaming of a trip through the Sahara with her. We go on a desert fantasia, riding over the desert dunes on her horse Souf as we discuss love and happiness. She tells me how much she loves her husband, Slimène, a soldier who lets her come and go as she pleases with no expectations, no demands.
Isabelle loved many men in her life, and one of them, a highly spiritual man named Abdallah, attacked her viciously with a sword because he believed that God wanted him to kill her. During Isabelle’s six-week recuperation in a French military hospital, her injured head burned and her badly wounded arm felt uncomfortably heavy. And yet, she says, try as she might to feel hatred for her attacker, she could not find any in her heart.
“What I do feel for him is curious: whenever I stop to think about it, I have the feeling that I am in the presence of a mystery which may well hold the key to the entire meaning of my life. As long as I do not fathom that enigma—and will I ever! God alone can tell—I shall not know who I am, nor the reason for my curious life.”
As for me, I’m trying to be more spiritual and life-loving, but I’m not quite feeling the sheer happiness and gratitude that come from being free. I’ve started to get a sense of extending past my limitations, but I need constant reminding, so I buy a used paperback edition of Isabelle’s journal and carry it around with me. I want her with me all the time, and I scribble feverish, urgent notes to myself all along the margins: “…thoughts of a blissful future, double life, making a home, rootless—searching for direction—the artistic struggle, the passion of religious belief, I like Isabelle…”
Isabelle always put her hopes, wishes and fantasies first—to such an extreme that her nomadic life left her half-starved, penniless and alone. But her mad spirituality and desert wanderings brought her an intense joy that left her ready for death at the age of 27 in a flash flood in the Sahara.
During her desert sojourns, Isabelle made frequent trips to Aїn Sefra, an Algerian village on the edge of the Sahara, where she made a little money by reporting on tribal skirmishes for El Akhbar. On October 2, 1904, she checked herself into the hillside military hospital there for treatment of malaria and syphilis.
She was a wreck but as happy as she’d ever be, deep in the land where she belonged and looking forward to being together again with Slimène, who was coming to see her after an eight-month absence. A few weeks passed, and Isabelle checked herself out of the hospital, against doctor’s orders, and walked downhill to the poor part of town, where she had rented a little clay house on the bank of a dry riverbed for her reunion with Slimène.
The day was mild, Isabelle felt stronger, and soon she was in her soulmate’s arms. Slimène welcomed her home, they smoked kif to their heart’s content, and spent a happy night together. In the morning, under a strangely clear and sunny sky, an unexpected flashflood swept through the riverbed, and water poured into the lowland floodplain. The clay houses in the bottom half of the desert town melted in the flood, and Isabelle was among the dozens who were drowned or carried off. When the waters receded, Slimène was found alive though in shock and Isabelle’s lifeless body was discovered in their little love nest, crushed under a fallen beam beneath the staircase, with her waterlogged writings scattered about, some stored in an urn found in the wreckage.
Isabelle Eberhardt struggled to find the reason for her curious life, and I think that by the end she found it in the Sahara Desert. Can she help me find the reason for mine? What would Isabelle do if she were me? I ask myself on my daily walks through Holland Park. “Isabelle, are you out there?” I say out loud, scaring myself, one day as I look down from the window into the enclosed garden square at Elgin Crescent. It’s a quiet day, unusually sunny, and I hear a whisper in my ear: Seek your spirituality…
Oh, boy. What am I going to do with that advice? Ever since my Protestant parents started sending me to happy-clappy churches in the suburbs, I’ve never been very good at being religious. Church is the last place I would look for God. But on Good Friday, shortly after my arrival in London, I put on a dark skirt and attend St. John’s Notting Hill, a church at the top of a high knoll on Lansdowne Crescent. It feels exotic to me; something like what an Algiers mosque would have felt to Isabelle.
Sitting on a hard wooden pew among the Anglicans, a pilgrim alone in a foreign city, I weep and I weep during the readings from the Passion of St. John, and the readers’ formal diction only increases the beauty of the solemn prayers.
My God my God, why have you forsaken me: Why are you so far from helping me and from the words of my groaning? My God I cry to you by day but you do not answer: and by night also—I take no rest…All those that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out their lips at me and wag their heads…
I sit in the pew and begin praying to the spirit of Isabelle, seeking consolation from her as we continue our desert fantasia together and talk about motherhood, childlessness, solitude, getting old and love. Being here now in this strange place, with so much distance between me and Tearful Valley, I feel safer than I did in my own home.
And I am so grateful that I have the strength and freedom to look after myself, alone, without a husband to get in my way. I can feel myself getting to the core of something essential: I have the rest of my life now to explore the meaning of love, creativity and everything else that’s good, and never again will I fall in line with somebody else’s idea of happiness. Yet again, Isabelle and all the other bad girls out there are beckoning me.
I’m still thinking of Isabelle as I leave the church and walk home, contemplating the poetry of her death. She saw glamour in suicidal thinking, but she didn’t really want to die. Her tragedy was that she ran out of time. As for me, I’m hungry for more time, because I’m only just beginning the long struggle to reinvent myself.