I must learn to think

Isabelle Eberhardt in 1900

Isabelle Eberhardt was an explorer and writer whose brief but extraordinary life was marked by curiosity and defiance. Born in Geneva in 1877 to an anarchist father and a mother of Russian descent, it was in 1897 that she finally visited North Africa, a place she had longed to see, with her mother. The trip proved transformational and both converted to Islam, but her mother’s death in November of that year left Eberhardt feeling profoundly lonely. Most of her remaining years were spent in Algeria, during which time she frequently dressed as a man under the pseudonym ‘Si Mahmoud Essadi’. Fully immersing herself in Arabic society, she became a part of the Qadriya Sufi brotherhood and in 1901 married an Algerian soldier named Slimane Ehnni. This diary entry was written a year earlier as she prepared to return from a trip to Europe. Tragically, Eberhardt’s journey ended in 1907, when she was killed in a flash flood.

The Diary Entry

Geneva, 15 June 1900

I shall always cherish the memory of these past few days spent in greater happiness for they are moments stolen from life’s hopelessness, so many hours snatched from the void.

I will only ever be drawn to people who suffer from that special and fertile anguish called self-doubt, or the thirst for the ideal, and desire for the soul’s mystical fire. Self satisfaction because of some material accomplishment will never be for me: the truly great are those who quest for better spiritual selves. Not for me are those who feel smug, happy with themselves and their lot, content with the state of their heart and soul.

Not for me those solid citizens who are deaf, dumb and blind and never admit to their wrongs.

I must learn to think. That may be painful and take time, but without it there can be no such thing as individual happiness or inspiration and sense of worth.

I cannot describe the contempt and loathing I have for my own inadequacy, my obsessive need to see people, however banal, to prostitute my heart and soul and go into sickening explanations.

Instead of looking in myself for what my soul requires, why do I look in others, where I know it cannot be found?

Oh, why can’t I get rid of all the superfluous rubbish and react against this impulse that continues to encumber my life? Except with people of a very rare sort, there is no such thing as communication on an intellectual plane, so why insist on courting disappointment?

Further Reading

Four of Eberhardt’s diaries survived the flood and were posthumously published in French. In 1978 they were translated into English by Nina de Voogd and published with the title Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt. Other editions have followed.

In 2011, Emma Garman wrote a great piece on Eberhardt for the Paris Review.

Isabelle Eberhardt on Wikipedia.

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