Isabelle Eberhardt, Street Art, and Seeking Oblivion

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These are selections from a 2007-10 street art series, the theme of which was “small things.” At the time it seemed to me that so much of street art was either macho and bombastic, or had a sense of forced cuteness. I wanted to focus on the theme of the small while avoiding a twee sensibility.

One of the pieces contains sentence fragments from the Isabelle Eberhardt short story, “Outside.” Eberhardt was a big influence for me at the time and I referenced her often. I’ve included the text of “Outside” below in its entirety.

Isabelle Eberhardt

Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off blue places, toward the bright edges of the earth. It burns in the sunlight, a dusty stripe between the wheat’s dull gold on one side, and the shimmering red hills and grey-green scrub on the other. In the distance, prosperous farms, ruined mud walls, a few huts. Everything seems asleep, stricken by the heat of day. A chanting comes up from the plain, a sound long as the unsheltered road, or as poverty without hope of change tomorrow, or as weeping that goes unheard. The Kabyl farmers are singing as they work. The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labour pains.

But all the warm gold spread out in the sunlight causes no glimmer of interest in the uncertain eyes of the wayfarer. His locks are grey, as if covered by the same dull dust that cushions the impact of his bare feet on the earth. He is tall and emaciated, with a sharp profile that juts out from beneath his ragged turban. His grey beard is untended, his eyes cloudy, his lips cracked open by thirst. When he comes to a farm or a hut, he stops and pounds the earth with his long staff of wild olive wood. His raucous voice breaks the silence of the countryside as he asks for Allah’s bread. And he is right, the sad-faced wanderer. The sacred bread he demands, without begging for it, is his by right, and the giving of it is only a feeble compensation, a recognizing of the injustice that is in the world.

The wayfarer has no home or family. He goes where he pleases, and his somber gaze encompasses all the vast African landscape. And he leaves the milestones behind, one after the other, as he goes. When the heat is too great and he has had enough walking, he lies down under the big pistachio tree on the side hill, or at the foot of a weeping eucalyptus beside the road. There in the shade he drops into a dreamless sleep.

It may be that at one time it was painful for him to be homeless, to possess nothing, and doubtless also to have to ask for that which his instinct told him was due him in any case. But now, after so many years, each like the last, he has no more desires. He merely undergoes life, indifferent to it.

Often the gendarmes have arrested him and thrown him into prison. But he has never been able to understand, nor has anyone explained to him, how a man can be prohibited from walking in the life-giving light of day, or why those very men who had failed to give him bread or shelter should then tell him that it was forbidden not to possess these things.

When they accused him of being a vagabond, always he said the same thing : I haven’t stolen. I’ve done nothing wrong. But they claimed that was not enough, and they would not listen to him. This struck him as unjust, like the signposts along the highways that illiterates had to understand.

The tall, straight back grew bent, and his gait became uncertain. Old age arrived early to exact its payments for his shattered health. He suffered from the wretched illnesses of old age, those ailments whose very cure brings no consolation to the patient, and one day he fell beside the road. Some pious Moslems found him there and carried him to a hospital. He said nothing.

But there the old man of the wide horizons could not bear the white walls, the lack of space. And that spongy bed did not feel as good as the ground he was used to. He grew depressed and longed for the open road. If he stayed there, he felt, he would merely die, without even the solace of familiar sights around him.

They handed him back his ragged clothes with disgust. He was not able to go very far, and he collapsed before he got out of the city. A policeman came up to him and offered to help him. The old man cried : If you’re a Moslem, leave me alone. I want to die outside. Outside ! Leave me alone.

The policeman, with the respect of those of his religion for the penniless and the deranged, went away. The wayfarer dragged himself beyond the hostile city and fell asleep on the soft ground beside a faintly trickling stream. Covered by the friendly dark, and with the vast emptiness around him, he fell into an untroubled sleep. Later, he felt stronger, and he began to walk straight ahead, across the fields and through the scrub.

The night was drawing to an end. A pale glow came up behind the black line of the mountains in Kabylia, and from the farms the cocks’ cracked voices called for daylight. He had slept on an embankment which the first rains of autumn had covered with grass. The cyclamen-scented breeze brought with it a penetrating chill. He was weak ; a great weariness weighted his arms and legs, but the cough that had come with the arrival of the cold air now bothered him less.

It was daylight. From behind the mountains shone a red dawn, making bloody streaks on the calm surface of the sea, and dyeing the water with golden splotches. The faint mist that still hung above the ravines of Mustapha disappeared, and the countryside came nearer, huge, soft, serene. No broken lines, no clash of color. One would have said that the earth, lying back in exhaustion, still permitted itself a sad and slightly sensual smile. And the wayfarer’s arms and legs grew heavier.

He thought of nothing. No desires, no regrets. Softly, in the solitude of the open spaces, the uncomplicated and yet mysterious force that had animated him for so many years, fell asleep inside him. No prayers, no medicines, merely the ineffable happiness of dying.

The first tepid rays of sunlight, filtering through damp veils of eucalyptus leaves, gilded the motionless profile, the closed eyes, the hanging rags, the dusty bare feet and the long olivewood staff : everything that the wayfarer has been. The soul no one suspected him of possessing had been exhaled, a murmur of resignation from ancient Islam, in simple harmony with the melancholy of life.

Eberhardt, Isabelle, and Paul Bowles. The Oblivion Seekers & Other Writings. San Francisco: City Lights, 1975.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “The Wayfarer Dragged Himself Beyond the Hostile City.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 17 June 2017.

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