Young, gifted, female and finally trending
We live in a society that is fixated on success and for too long maverick musician Philippa Schuyler and cultural nomad Isabelle Eberhardt have shared the fate of being dismissed as eccentric and marginal figures who failed to live up to their early promise. Philippa Schuyler’s reputation as a composer and pianist has been conveniently buried in the wreckage of a military helicopter in Da Nang Bay while Isabelle Eberhardt’s literary ambitions have been scattered in a wadi in southern Algeria.
But attitudes are changing, and, quite appropriately, that change has been sparked not by the mainstream media, but by voices that are themselves often considered eccentric and marginal. In a remarkable example of cultural miscegenation a chance coupling between this blog and the BBC has spawned a Radio 3 profile of Philippa Schuyler which is being broadcast this evening. A few months later a multi-media chamber opera based on the life of Isabelle Eberhardt composed by Missy Mazzoli, whose credentials include working with the Kronos Quartet, eighth blackbird and the Bang-on-a-Can New Music Marathon, premieres at a leading New York performance space.
At first sight the lives of Philippa Schuyler and Isabelle Eberhardt have little in common, other than a passion for what a friend of the pianist described as "Sex - and not of the nicest kind". Philippa was a musical prodigy who was born in New York in 1931, her father was black and mother white. Their biracial daughter was acclaimed as a pianist and composer before the combination of rabidly conservative musical establishment and an overly ambitious mother sent her career into terminal decline. She died when a US military helicopter crashed in Vietnam in 1967 and the pomp of her funeral was crowned by flowers sent by US President Lyndon Johnson.
By contrast Isabelle Eberhardt was born in Geneva in 1877 to unmarried Russian parents. Music played little part in Isabelle’s life although she was known to play the piano in louche bars . Despite her family having no direct connections with Islam, she was convinced she had been born a Muslim and from an early age she was fascinated by North Africa; the photo above shows her dressed as an Arab girl when she was seven.
In 1897 Isabelle left Switzerland with her mother for the first of several extended residencies in North Africa, choosing to live in the Arab quarter of Algiers rather than the French enclave. Soon after arriving in Algeria the death of her mother, who had converted to Islam, deepened her commitment to her faith. This commitment was political as well as spiritual, and Isabelle's first stay in Algeria was prematurely terminated when she was forced to leave the country after taking part in a demonstration against Algeria’s colonial masters, the French.
Her independent spirit rejected social constraints and the political leanings of her father left her unimpressed by wealth and power. In 1899 she severed her links with Switzerland and moved to a traditional Turkish house in the old Arab quarter of Tunis where her immersion in the local culture extended to having her head shaved in the fashion of the local Muslims; the photo below shows her in Tunisian dress. She set off from Tunis on the first of her explorations of southern Algeria. Even today travel is difficult and perilous in these remote desert regions and more than a hundred years ago Isabelle only reached the oasis of El Oued after an eventful and often dangerous journey.
After returning to the north of Tunisia she travelled back to Europe to seek support for further explorations. She was writing newspaper articles to finance her travels, and in Paris discussed another journey to southern Algeria. This was to be part of an expedition sponsored by the monarchist and anti-semitic Paris newspaper Libre Parole. The paper, which played a prominent role in the Dreyfus affair, was hoping to form an anti-republican axis of monarchists and Muslims in North Africa. When these plans collapsed Isabelle returned alone to Algiers, where she started her addiction to smoking the mixture of cannabis and tobacco known as kif, before heading south to return to El Oued. During this journey she took as a lover a young Algerian army officer Slimene Ehni who was to become her husband first under the Muslim rite and eventually, after considerable difficulties, under French law.
In El Oued Isabelle was made an initiate of the Qadiri brotherhood, one of the oldest Sufi orders, an unprecedented honour for a European. Her involvement in esoteric mysticism reflected her view that modern (i.e. late 19th century) Islam was being diluted by Western influences. Isabelle was clearly in her element and she is seen on horseback in the photo below But her idyll in the oasis was cut short by an anonymous letter sent to the French military authorities maliciously accusing her of being a monarchist spy. This together with her connections with Libre Parole, resulted in her husband being posted to a garrison in northern Algeria in order to remove Isabelle from the politically sensitive south.
But before she could leave she was the victim of an assassination attempt by a member of a rival sect to the Quadiri who severed a bone and nerve in her left arm with a sabre. Isabelle interpreted the attack as predestination, believing it was part of a divine plan for her to become a maraboute or saintly mystic. Her would-be assassin was sentenced to hard labour for life; but this was reduced to ten years following a plea for clemency from Isabelle who was increasingly aligning herself with the colonised Arab and Berber population. However any satisfaction at this outcome was negated by an expulsion order which ordered her to leave the country for her own safety.
In January 1902 she returned to Algeria for the last time and her belief in a mystical vocation led her to the religious school, known as a zawiya, of a celebrated woman maraboute. Isabelle was by then estranged from her husband and in a surprising shift of allegiance participated in the early stages of France’s annexation of Morocco. After moving to Ain Sefra on the Algerian-Moroccan border she was enlisted as an agent by the French colonel leading the insurgency. As part of her intelligence activities she spent time at the zawiya of the Ziania Sufi order at Kenadsa in Morocco attempting to win the support of the influential sheikh of Kenadsa for French territorial ambitions.
The harsh conditions in the desert regions caused Isabelle’s health to deteriorate and she was hospitalised in Ain Sefra suffering from malaria and possibly syphilis; the deterioration in her condition can be seen clearly in the picture above taken in 1904 . She discharged herself from the military hospital and together with her husband, who she had been summoned from the north, moved to a dilapidated rented house in the Algerian quarter of the town. On 20th October 1904 a flash flood swept through the area and Isabelle was trapped in the collapsed house and drowned. Her husband escaped and the manuscript of the book on which she had been working was salvaged incomplete and damaged.
She was given a simple Muslim burial in Ain Sefra which her husband did not attend. The remnants of her manuscript were controversially edited and completed by her journalist friend Victor Barrucand and published under the incongruous title of Dans l’ombre chaude de l’Islam – ‘In the warm shadow of Islam’. Below is a photo taken a few days before she died.
Twenty-seven years separate the death of Isabelle Eberhardt in Algeria and the birth of Philippa Schuyler in New York. But despite this temporal and cultural gap there are remarkable similarities between the two women which start with their early lives. Both grew up under the influence of radical fathers: Philippa’s was an outspoken black journalist while Isabelle’s was a former Orthodox priest who renounced his faith in favour of anarchism as advocated by the notorious Mikhail Bakunin. Both women were precocious: Philippa had a 500 word reading and writing vocabulary before she was three and Isabelle was fluent in French and Russian, studied Latin, spoke Arabic, Italian and some English, and could read the Koran in Arabic when 16.
A shared fascination with Africa is another bond. Philippa, whose father was African American, felt a powerful affinity with the continent when she first visited it. From an early age, the Muslim-incarnated Isabelle felt a powerful attraction to North Africa, the Maghreb, which she considered to be “the sacred touchstone of Mecca”; below she is seen photographed in Arab-style dress in Switzerland when she was eight. Both women had little time for the established values of their country of birth. Philippa grew up challenging the institutional racism found in classical music in America while Isabelle rejected the cultural complacency of Switzerland. Both took a stand against discrimination, Philippa deplored the treatment of black GIs in Vietnam and Isabelle championed North African Muslims against the French.
But conversely, both women supported colonialism towards the end of their lives. Philippa, was an active member of the John Birch Society, wrote for a notoriously right-wing newspaper and defended American involvement in Vietnam, while Isabelle worked as a tax collector for the French administration in Tunisia, was also linked with a newspaper on the extreme right and participated in the destabilisation of the Moroccan Sultan. Both became involved in espionage: Isabelle was as an intelligence agent for the colonising French forces on the Moroccan border and was suspected by some as having an affair with the colonel heading the French push into Morocco, while Philippa was under surveillance by the CIA and had a close personal relationship with a senior US intelligence officer in Vietnam.
Travel is another link. Isabell’s prediction “I shall stay a nomad all my life” could have been echoed by Philippa as she restlessly roamed the world. Both women died far from their country of birth and both died tragically young: Isabelle was twenty-seven and Philippa just nine years older. Writing was another link: both women financed their travels by journalism and both were had a number of published books to their name. And, probably not coincidentally, both are well served by women biographers. Kathryn Talalay has given us a definitive life of Philippa while Annette Kobak’s Isabelle is the primary source for this article, although Paul Bowles introduction to his edited volume of Isabelle Eberhardt's writing The Oblivion Seekers has introduced many, including this scribbler, to her.
Central to understanding both women is their conflicted identities. The biracial Philippa changed her identity to the white Felipa Monterro Schuyler in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat prejudice. Isabelle’s identity conflict was equally as dramatic: from an early age she experimented with cross-dressing, she is seen below dressed as a sailor when she was seven. For most of her travels wore male Arab clothing and assumed identity of a man. Although her disguise was ostensibly to counter gender prejudice in the Muslim world, there was probably a deeper sexual motivation: as evidenced by her visit to a brothel disguised as a man during her last journey in southern Algeria.
Which brings this path to two powerful forces which shaped the lives of both Philippa Schuyler and Isabelle Eberhardt, sex and religion. Philippa’s predilection for “Sex – and not of the nicest kind” has already been noted and she had a number of brief sexual liaisons, one of which led to an abortion. In her biography Annette Kobak writes of Isabelle’s prodigious sexual appetite, particularly for North Africans, and how she was attracted to ports, to “their coarse virility… their… rough couplings” and of how “she could get the thrill of passing for ‘rough trade’”.
In view of their lack of sexual inhibitions it is surprising that both women were deeply religious and shared an involvement in mysticism. Philippa used the tarot to take important decisions, converted to Catholicism when she was twenty-seven and her commitment to her faith took her to more than one hundred and fifty Christian missions in Africa, including that of Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer. Isabelle’s religious vocation was very different: she believed she had been born a Muslim, had a premonition of a mystical calling, and was initiated into a Sufi order and visited several important zawiya.
There is one last chilling similarity between these young, gifted, and finally trending women - the element of mystery surrounding their deaths. The crash of the US military helicopter in which Philippa died in Vietnam has never been satisfactorily explained, while the escape of Isabelle’s estranged husband from the flash flood in which she perished has fuelled conspiracy theories. However, despite these mysteries, both were buried according to their faiths, Isabelle without pomp in a Muslim cemetery in southern Algeria, and Philippa in a Pontifical Requiem Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York.
* The portrait above is reputed to be of Isabelle Eberhardt. Song from the Uproar: the Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt with music by Missy Mazzoli, films by Stephen Taylor and directed by Gia Forakis opens at The Kitchen. 512 West 19th Street, New York on February 24th 2012, more details here. Isabelle: the Life of Isabelle Eberhardt by Annette Kobak (ISBN 0701127732), which was the source for the illustrations, is out of print but copies are available.
* BBC Radio 3's programme about Philippa Schuyler Colour of Genius is being broadcast at 8.25pm on October 14th. Associated resources include my profile of her Genius or Genetic Experiment? and John McLaughlin William's performance and analysis of her early piano music. Compositions in Black and White: the Life of Philippa Schuyler by Kathryn Talalay (ISBN 0195113934) is published by Oxford University Press.
* It is interesting to reflect that Isabelle Eberhardt experienced severe hardship and died in Algeria in 1904, just four years before Gustav Holst visited the country and made a similar journey south.
* This article is one in an occasional series on the theme of the Algerian autumn.
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