Excerpt: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

In this ksar, where the people have no place to meet but the public square or the earthen benches along the foot of the ramparts on the road to Bechar, here where there is not even a cafe, I have discovered a kif den.

It is in a partially ruined house behind the Mellah, a long hall lighted by a single eye in the ceiling of twisted and smoke-blackened beams. The walls are black, ribbed with lighter-colored cracks that look like open wounds. The floor has been made by pounding the earth, but it is soft and dusty. Seldom swept, it is covered with pomegranate rinds and assorted refuse.

The place serves as a shelter for Moroccan vagabonds, for nomads, and for every sort of person of dubious intent and questionable appearance. The house seems to belong to no one; as at a disreputable hotel, you spend a few badly-advised nights there and go on. It is a natural setting for picturesque and theatrical events, like the antechamber of the room where the crime was committed.

In one corner lies a clean reed mat, with some cushions from Fez in embroidered leather. On the mat, a large decorated chest which serves as a table. A rosebush with little pale pink blooms, surrounded by a bouquet of garden herbs, all standing in water inside one of those wide earthen jars from the Tell. Further on, a copper kettle on a tripod, two or three teapots, a large basket of dried Indian hemp. The little group of kif-smokers requires no other decoration, no other mise-en-scene. They are people who like their pleasure. . . .

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This month on the blog, in addition to our regular excerpts from recently released City Lights titles, we’re featuring excerpts from our backlist that orbit (near or far) around this theme of “journey,” observations from/about whatever worlds our authors have visited.

Isabelle Eberhardt was an unusual woman, and with The Oblivion Seekers, we’re fortunate to glimpse her unique meld of European angst and Algerian verve. We’re equally lucky for Paul Bowles’s sympathetic, robust biography that precedes Eberhardt’s 13 short stories. Born in Switzerland in 1877 and dead by 1904 in Algeria, Eberhardt spent her childhood dressed as a boy and her short adulthood living a journalist’s life in Africa, full of luck and illness, passion and melancholy. From that intricate mix, her stories set in the dusty heat of Algerian villages breathe and sigh and radiate the culture and conflicts of her chosen home.

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