Excerpt: A Halt in the Desert by Isabelle Eberhardt

Last year, to get to Bechar, we went east, behind the mountains, passing by the small post of Bou-Yala, since abandoned, to extend the edge of the protected zone at the frontier more to the west. Now it is Bou-Ayech that is the first stop after Beni-Ounif, thirty-five kilometers away.

It is ten o’clock and the valley is afire. Ruddy haze trembles on the wavering horizon. The heat is now burning. A thin trickle of blood runs from the dried-out nostrils of our mares. Lethargy invades me, and I let myself drift in my Arab saddle, comfortable as an easy chair.

Ben-Zireg is only twenty-eight kilometers away, and we have plenty of time to get there to sleep. But what good is it to hurry?

We have to reach the entrance to the village of Bou-Ayech before we can see it; it looks so much like the earth around it.

About a dozen wooden sheds, a fortress of yellow earth and about a hundred formless gourbis made of brush, where the Moroccans who work on the construction of the railroad live. Within a hundred meters, all blends in with the alfa grass and the dust, so this corner of the valley seems as deserted as the others.

The state railway line ends, for the time being, a few kilometers beyond Bou-Ayech, and all the construction work gives an air of commercial vitality to this out-of-the-way post.

Already the terrain takes on a more Saharan aspect, less lugubrious than at Beni-Ounif; the pale sand, beneath a golden-green mantle of alfa grass, does not provoke the same sensations — painful to the point of anguish sometimes — as the black hamada of Ounif.

In one of the shacks of the “village,” on a wooden table, some Spaniards are drinking anisette.

Roughly hewn figures, shaven, tanned, and well-tempered, large black felt hats, short jackets, espadrilles — a distinct race, simple and unpolished, that accustoms itself to all solitudes, to all privations, to the most inclement sun.

From a cashier’s window in the wall of a shed, the clerk of the French depot at Beni-Ounif distributes supplies to the workers. I notice that they have all shed their beautiful, earth-colored tatters for horrible, second-hand European workers’ clothing that clashes with their white turbans.

Almost all the Moroccans are from the North: energetic, bearded faces, many of them with regular features, quite handsome, with their fierce, elongated eyes.

Some are blond Berbers with blue eyes of the sort one finds, in Kabylia, who are certainly the inheritors of a distant line of Germanic blood.

Among these workers, only those from Figuig and the guys from Tafilala keep their tattered Arab dress. They have only come temporarily to earn a few pennies and then return to their villages.

Bou-Ayech was a stopover for us. . . .

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Isabelle Eberhardt’s stormy love affair with the Algerian desert sets the physical and emotional scene in this collection of short stories. Written in French in the late 1800s and translated by Karim Hamdy and Laura Rice, her characters live, love, work, and die with passions as fierce and brutal as the midday sun, reflections as gentle as the evening breeze, and happiness as beautiful and fleeting as the spring desert in bloom. As in “The Oblivion Seekers,” Eberhardt’s descriptions and voices are as lyrical, harsh, and ultimately captivating as the North African land and people she knew.

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