The Many Faces of Isabelle Eberhardt

Jamie James

The Glamour of Strangeness

Isabelle Eberhardt never converted to Islam. For her, it would have been a redundant formality: from her early youth, she was possessed by an unshakable belief that she had been born a Muslim. Among the first Western writers to describe the life of Islam from the inside, as a believer, Eberhardt came from origins tangled in mysteries that will never be unraveled. She was born in Geneva in 1877, the daughter of Nathalie de Moerder, a Russian noblewoman who six years before had left her husband, General Pavel de Moerder, to live abroad, taking their three young children with her. The move was ostensibly undertaken for her health, but in fact she went to Geneva to make a new home with her lover, Alexandre Trophimowsky, the children’s tutor, a defrocked Orthodox priest.

When Isabelle was born, Nathalie registered her as fille naturelle and gave her her own birth surname, to avoid naming the father. In adulthood, Eberhardt spun fantastic stories about her parentage, claiming variously that she was the “wretched outcome of a rape committed by my mother’s doctor,” a Turk, and that her father was a Russian Muslim. The most outlandish theory of her begetting, first advanced by the French critic Pierre Arnoult, is that she was the daughter of Arthur Rimbaud, based on a perceived resemblance and a common destiny.

Whether he was her natural father or not, Trophimowsky supervised Isabelle’s upbringing and education like a tyrant. He was a fervent anarchist associated with Mikhail Bakunin; the choice of Switzerland as the new home might have been determined by his desire to join the Bakuninist faction in exile there. When Isabelle was two, Trophimowsky bought a walled estate in the countryside near Lake Geneva called Villa Tropicale, shaded by groves of pine trees and lilac, which he renamed Villa Neuve. The principal subject on the curriculum was horticulture, specializing in orchids and cacti. The children worked long hours in the gardens and fields, which covered more than three acres, trying out the latest agricultural fad to capture Trophimowsky’s imagination. He did give Isabelle a firm grounding in languages: in addition to Russian and the European languages that all Swiss study, he instructed her in Latin, ancient Greek, and classical Arabic, which she had mastered by the age of nineteen.

From her early childhood Isabelle was raised as a boy, a decision that may have been motivated by a noble intention to liberate her from the inferior role of women in Swiss society, but it might have been simply a freak of Trophimowsky’s fancy. She learned to ride and shoot and always dressed in boy’s clothes, with her hair cropped. When Isabelle was old enough to venture into the city on her own, Trophimowsky allowed her to do so only if she wore trousers. In adolescence, she delighted in strolling the streets of Geneva dressed as a sailor and drinking beer with real sailors in cafés, the first of many disguises.

Trophimowsky, the renegade priest, was violently antireligious, but he held a more bitter grudge against Christianity than Islam and regarded Jesus Christ as virtually his personal enemy. His ancestry was Armenian and possibly Muslim, and his reading of the Koran in Arabic with Isabelle brought him close to an open embrace of cultural Islam. Effectively a prisoner behind the villa’s walls, Isabelle sought imaginative escape in books. Swiss by birth she loved Rousseau, Russian in her soul she venerated Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but her favorite books were by Pierre Loti, particularly his Romance of a Spahi. A spahi was a native Algerian cavalryman serving in the French army; Loti’s novel was a picaresque romance of the soldier’s life in the Maghrib (also spelled “Maghreb”), the Arabic name for North Africa.

From these disparate influences, the lonely, unhappy girl, born without a father or a homeland, synthesized a land of dreams in the African desert. Long after she had escaped Trophimowsky’s grip, she wrote to her beloved brother Augustin about “this land of the Maghrib, which, you remember, was always the sacred Kaaba for us both,” and in her diary described “that extraordinary attraction I felt for [the land of Africa] before I had ever seen it, long ago in the monotonous Villa.” After she immigrated to Algeria and traveled through the desert in the character of a young male scholar, Eberhardt’s fantasy of the Maghrib merged with her acute observations of the real place in tender, vivid reportage and short fiction.

Villa Neuve was tormented by secrets and forbidden passions, doomed like the House of Usher. Isabelle adored her mother, whom she always referred to as the “White Spirit” in her journals. Throughout Isabelle’s childhood and adolescence, Madame de Moerder was an invalid in a state of slow decline from an unspecified chronic illness, increasingly overpowered by Trophimowsky. Of the general’s three children who accompanied them to Switzerland, Nicolas, the eldest, joined the French Foreign Legion when he turned twenty-one and promptly jumped ship in Singapore; Nathalie denounced Trophimowsky to the police for making “disreputable and obscene propositions to her” and conspiring to murder General de Moerder, her father, by poisoning; and Vladimir, a delicate, shadowy youth whose principal interest was tending the villa’s cactus garden, committed suicide.

Isabelle and her fourth sibling, Augustin, were extraordinarily close in childhood and adolescence, almost to the suspicion of an incestuous love. Their sister Nathalie told the police that Trophimowsky was Augustin’s father; if she was telling the truth, Augustin might have been Isabelle’s only full sibling. Isabelle and Augustin dreamed of their escape to the Maghrib, where they could ride together in the desert, free from their autocratic guardian or undeclared father. With Pierre Loti in mind, Isabelle later wrote to Augustin about “certain books which arouse in our two almost identical souls the same feelings, the same anxieties, the same sad calls toward the Unknown, towards an Elsewhere.”

Augustin proved to be a disappointing soul mate. He was an indecisive weakling, an alcoholic and habitual smoker of opium and hashish. Time and again he ran away from the villa, only to creep sheepishly home. In what was intended to be a final, irrevocable break with his shadow father, Augustin imitated his elder brother by joining the French Foreign Legion, a last resort for misfits and losers. Isabelle wrote to him in despair,

Who knows whether the kisses we exchanged on the doorstep at ten o’clock on October the twelfth were not to be our last. We have never been separated for long. What desolation, what heavy sadness, deep and implacable. There is no hope and no faith. No God to whom we might cry out our nameless misery, all the atrocious injustice of our suffering. Heaven is empty and dumb; there is nothing, no one anywhere. The loneliness is absolute. . . . What is to become of our dreams, our hopes, our plans for the future?

Augustin was a failure even at ignominy: after committing an unnamed criminal offense, he was discharged from the Foreign Legion, an almost unheard-of disgrace. Isabelle finally realized that “our dreams, our hopes, our plans for the future” were her dreams, her hopes, her plans.

Trophimowsky impulsively came up with a new plan, possibly at Isabelle’s instigation: they would sell Villa Neuve and immigrate as a family to Algeria. The move realized the first of Isabelle’s three main goals, to live in the Maghrib, and temporarily accomplished the second, to be quit of the domestic despot. A French-Algerian couple Isabelle was in correspondence with found them a house in the coastal city of Bône (which has since reverted to its Arabic name, Annaba). Isabelle and her mother would leave for Africa immediately, while Trophimowsky remained in Geneva to oversee the sale of the villa. It was an ideal scheme as far as Isabelle was concerned: she needed someone to bully with love, and with Augustin now beyond her reach, she concentrated her affections on the White Spirit. On May 21, 1897, twenty-year-old Isabelle andher mother embarked at Marseilles, bound for Bône.

Isabelle Eberhardt’s travels in the character of Mahmoud, the devout young scholar, were a classic case of self-romancing, a common characteristic of the artist-exote since Gauguin created the legend of his life in Tahiti, where, “in the silence of the lovely tropical night, I can listen to the sweet murmuring of the music of my heart, beating in amorous harmony with the mysterious beings of my environment. Free at last.” Like Byron’s Childe Harold, Eberhardt sought freedom in the purity of the desert, an illimitable place where she could roam at will in her new identity as Si Mahmoud Saadi, a taleb on a solitary quest of the infinite.

After her arrival in Bône with her daughter, Madame de Moerder converted to Islam and died soon afterward, leaving Isabelle alone in the world. She and Augustin drifted ever farther apart and made the final break after his marriage to a dreary, semiliterate Marseillaise. Isabelle was despondent after the death of the White Spirit. In his biographical sketch of Eberhardt, Paul Bowles wrote that when Trophimowsky arrived in Bône for the funeral, “he found Isabelle in a state of hysteria, wailing that she too wanted to die. The old Nihilist’s reaction was typical: he took out his revolver and offered it to her. She did not accept it.” After Vladimir’s suicide five months later, Trophimowsky was a broken man, at last bitterly aware of his utter failure as a parent. He himself died a year after Madame de Moerder, of esophageal cancer, severing Isabelle’s last connection with Switzerland except legal entanglements over Trophimowsky’s bequest of the villa to her and Augustin.

Released from the twisted, toxic environment of her childhood home, Eberhardt exulted in her newfound independence. She began her restless wandering in the Sahara, always dressed as a man and usually traveling alone. She wrote in her diary, “Since I’ve finally left that house, where everything had died a death even before it conclusively fell into ruins, my life has been nothing but a quick, dreamlike flash through various lands, under different names and different disguises.” She delighted in being taken for a man, so she could astonish those she chose to attach herself to by revealing that she was a woman. She was naïve about the success of her deception; her friend Robert Randau wrote that the men she met “knew that this svelte cavalier in an immaculate white burnoose and soft red leather boots was a woman,” but “the innate courtesy of the Arabs is such that none of them ever made any allusion, even by so much as a wink,” that would have spoiled her fun.

In her desert rambles, Eberhardt realized Lady Hester Stanhope’s ideal of living as an être à part, female only in bed. In cities, she frequented the roughest dives, where she could meet sailors and working-class men for quick trysts divested of affection, anticipating the sexual outlaws of Jean Genet. On a visit to El Oued, a remote outpost deep in the desert, her scandalous behavior attracted the notice of the Arab Bureau, as the local colonial administration in the Maghrib was called. The bureau chief wrote to his superiors that Eberhardt was a “neurotic and deranged woman” who had come to El Oued “to satisfy her vicious inclinations and taste for the locals.” Eberhardt did have her vices: she drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney, much of it kef, the form of hashish common in Africa. Intoxication palliated the hardships of her circumstances and emboldened her in the aggressive pursuit of sex.

One of Eberhardt’s biographers, Françoise d’Eaubonne, advanced the theory that Eberhardt’s male disguise was essential to her sexual pathology, suggesting that she presented herself as a boy because she wished to make love like a boy, by taking the passive role in anal intercourse. This scenario of sexual role-playing has a pedigree that dates to comic tales of buggery in The Arabian Nights and resurfaces in modern dramas such as David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly and Neil Jordan’s film The Crying Game, but for obvious reasons it is an implausible model of habitual sexual behavior. Eberhardt was obsessed by the romantic image of the Arab youth, androgynous and ethereal, first exemplified by Halim in “Vision of the Maghrib.” She wanted both to be that man and to be loved by him, not in an exciting daydream but in a real, rapturous physical union.

Isabelle Eberhardt’s celebration of the freedom of the life of the Arab brought with it an inherent hypocrisy, resulting from the dissonance between her idealization of the male’s independence and the state of subjugation in which most Muslim women lived. The only alternative to being a wife in some form of domestic isolation, if not actually in purdah, was to become a prostitute, like the feral belly dancers of the Ouled Naïl. Eberhardt seized for herself the freedom of the desert by creating a male alter ego, with little thought for the powerless dependency of Arab women. It is not a question of judging her by the standards of a later era: the feminist critique had been articulated long before, dating at least to Flora Tristan’s Peregrinations of a Pariah in 1838.

• • •

In the new century, two events transformed Eberhardt’s life. On a return visit to El Oued, she met Slimène Ehnni, a young spahi officer who was posted there. She fell in love with him with a passion that never diminished. Dark and good-looking, almost exactly her age, he was raised in Bône, the son of a police officer. He was Muslim, of course, but évolué, the French term for a Gallicized Algerian committed to French rule, who held French citizenship. He was in the cavalry, so the lovers would ride the dunes together to distant oases for discreet assignations. Slimène was the first man she met with whom she felt secure enough to take the feminine role, a disguise she had not yet tried. He had a sickly constitution and was as irresolute and tractable as Augustin. Isabelle alternated between nursing him, as she had her mother, and making a project of him, as she had done with her brother. Her friends were unanimous in their disapproval, incredulous that she was besotted with a man so obviously her intellectual inferior; yet to the end of her life she persevered in the dream of making a home in the desert with Slimène.

Eberhardt’s lifelong conviction that she was born under an evil star, so often validated by events, had made her spiritual life a mystic quest. In Paul Bowles’s summary,

She calmly set out to be initiated into the secret religious cult of the Qadriya, a Sufi brotherhood that wielded enormous political power among the as yet unconquered desert tribes. . . . They were under no misapprehension as to her sex; but if she chose to dress as a man it was her affair. From then on, no matter where she went, every member of the cult was bound by oath to feed her, give her shelter, or risk his life to protect her. She belonged to the Qadriya.

The Qadriya gave Eberhardt the sense of family she had never securely possessed and which was altogether lacking after the death of her mother. Because it is a secret society, no accessible record exists to testify to the extent or details of her involvement, yet there is no doubt that it profoundly changed not only her spiritual life but her earthly life as well, for membership in the Qadriya brought with it certain dangers.

In her diary, she wrote that as she lay in Slimène’s arms one night in El Oued, she had “a vague feeling that some enemy forces lurking in the shadows were trying to separate us.” The presentiment soon proved to be true. In January 1901, Slimène was transferred to another posting, an order issued with the explicit intention of breaking up his affair with Eberhardt and ridding the town of them both. Although it was never revealed to her, the shadowy enemy had written an anonymous letter to the Arab Bureau, the first in a series denouncing Eberhardt as a spy working against French interests; for good measure, the letter also accused her of murdering Trophimowsky.

Another, more dangerous calamity came one week later. While she was on the way to a funeral with a group of her Qadriya brothers and their spiritual leader, or marabout, known as El Hachemi, an attempt was made to assassinate her. As she sat peaceably in a courtyard in a village called Béhima, translating business letters for a stranger, a member of the Qadriya’s fanatical rival sect, the Tidjaniya, burst in wielding a saber and aimed a blow at Eberhardt’s head. The blade was deflected by a wire clothesline, saving her life by redirecting the blow to her left arm, which was nearly severed. The attacker escaped into the crowded street, crying that he was going to find a gun and finish the job. The Tidjani sheik of Béhima at first refused to cooperate with the authorities, but he finally handed over the assassin, Abdallah ben Mohammed, who claimed that he was acting on a direct command from Allah.

Who, if not Allah, ordered the attack? Eberhardt suspected the French, who were always making trouble for her, but she never made a direct accusation; for their part, the French, quick to find a romantic intrigue, apparently believed that El Hachemi was Eberhardt’s lover and that he had ordered the hit in order to get rid of her and blame the attack on the Tidjaniya. Legal documents relating to the case were made public for the first time in 2001, which multiplied the possible scenarios but did not clarify the motive behind the crime. Eberhardt’s theory is more plausible than that of the French; the notion that she was sleeping with her religious instructor while she was in love with Slimène is difficult to accept. Yet the Lone Swordsman theory, that Abdallah ben Mohammed acted on his volition believing he was under divine orders, is just as likely as any other. Eberhardt pleaded for the court to show mercy, but he was sentenced to hard labor for life. She immediately lodged an appeal on his behalf, even though he had said repeatedly that if he regained his freedom he would make another attempt to kill her, and his sentence was reduced to ten years in prison.

Meanwhile, the French exiled Eberhardt from the Maghrib, for her own protection, they claimed. After the trial she sailed to Marseilles, where Slimène joined her. They were married in civil and Muslim ceremonies there, which entitled her to claim French citizenship and thus put an end to her perennial immigration woes.

When she was recovering from her wounds at the hospital in El Oued, Eberhardt had a mystical revelation that she was under divine protection, that her life had been spared for a higher purpose, and that in fact she herself was chosen to be a marabout. She wrote in her journal, “God alone knows—I shall not know who I am, or what is the reason or the point of my destiny, one of the most incredible there has ever been. Yet it seems to me that I’m not destined to disappear without having some understanding of the whole mystery which has surrounded my life from its strange beginnings to the present day.” Eberhardt was well aware that to claim openly that Allah had chosen a European woman as a prophet would invite accusations of insanity, and she never disclosed this epiphany to anyone but her husband.

Surviving the attack also revived her self-confidence as a writer. In her diary she noted, “Before, I had to wait sometimes for months for the right moods to write. Now I can write more or less whenever I want.” Eberhardt’s bravura performance at the trial was widely publicized and made her a celebrity in the Maghrib, prompting a Parisian writer and editor named Victor Barrucand to take an interest in her. He was one of a growing number of influential men who believed that Eberhardt was in a unique position to aid the French cause in Africa and should be put to a good use rather than persecuted on account of her eccentricities. He was starting a newspaper in Algiers, the Akhbar, and invited her to contribute as a correspondent. She leaped at the opportunity.

Barrucand proposed sending her to Aïn Sefra, a western outpost near the frontier with Morocco, where the French were poised to invade, though they did not yet know it. A brilliant officer named Hubert Lyautey, who had previously served as a colonial administrator in Tonkin and Madagascar, had been put in command in Aïn Sefra. Lyautey loved Africa and admired the Arab way of life; he had studied Arabic and read the Koran. He believed that Islam and French colonialism in the Maghrib could work together, a progressive mutation of the mission civilisatrice. They were an unlikely pair, the general and the transvestite hashish addict, but Lyautey and Eberhardt became fast friends. After her death, Lyautey wrote to Barrucand, “We understood each other very well, poor Mahmoud and I, and I shall always cherish exquisite memories of our evening chats. She was what attracts me most in the world: a rebel.”

Lyautey met Eberhardt at a propitious moment. He was developing a strategy to bring the city-state of Kenadsa, on the unsettled frontier with Morocco, under French infl uence. He wrote to his superior that an alliance with the marabout of Kenadsa “would be one of the most important factors in our success,” by which he meant the annexation of Morocco. Kenadsa was in theory under the sovereignty of Fez, but in fact the marabout ruled his tiny domain like a prince. The present marabout, Sidi Brahim ould Mohammed, was a mystic who strictly enforced Sufi doctrine and despised the corrupt, extravagant sultan of Fez, who imitated Western ways. The main obstacle to Lyautey’s plan was that infidels were barred entrance to Kenadsa under penalty of death. Eberhardt, or rather Si Mahmoud Saadi, was clearly the man for the job as a Qadri brother. She had long wanted to visit Kenadsa, a legendary center of Islamic learning deep in territory that no European had ever penetrated.

Eberhardt’s friendship and collaboration with Hubert Lyautey has always raised doubts about the sincerity of her commitment to “the Arab cause,” as it was called. It was a bitter irony that she should be accused of working as an agent for French interests in the Maghrib, for the French had kept her under constant surveillance and exiled her after the assassination attempt, which might have been made at their behest. Eberhardt might have thought that she had the advantage of Lyautey by accepting his sponsorship for the mission to Kenadsa. No record exists that she ever reported significant intelligence to him about her sojourn there or elsewhere (but none would).

She was conducted to Kenadsa by a slave named Embarek, lent to her by a religious brother in Béchar, the last outpost in Algeria. After a long journey across golden sands and desolate valleys, “Kenadsa appears on the horizon, clouded in a pink haze: black spots of scattered trees, the bluish line of a large palm grove, and a broken minaret appears reddish brown as it towers above the sand in the still-slanting sun.” The town was built of warm-colored clay and surrounded by fine green gardens, clinging to a gentle hillside in a graceful disorder of superimposed terraces. Embarek conducted her through a maze of alleys to the zaouia, the ancient Islamic academy of Kenadsa and the seat of temporal power, where Si Brahim lived. The marabout received her kindly and invited her to stay as long as she liked. In a dispatch to Barrucand, she wrote, “I am a guest of these men. I will live in the silence of their house. Already they have brought me all the calmness of their spirit; a shadow of peace has penetrated the innermost recesses of my soul.” Her quest of the absolute seemed finally to have brought her to a place where it was within her grasp. She asked, “Is all my thirst finally going to be quenched?”

Accustomed to the relatively free and easy atmosphere at Algerian zaouia, Eberhardt was at first taken aback by the rigorous discipline in Kenadsa. After a few days of quiet contemplation and working on the novel she was always scribbling at, she realized that she was, in effect, being held prisoner: the doors of the zaouia were barred and guarded by statuesque slaves. She went to Si Brahim and demanded her freedom. He granted it at once, with the proviso that she exchange her Algerian burnoose for a djellaba, the light muslin gown of the Moroccans. He was perfectly aware of her transvestite charade, but with the usual Arab courtesy participated in the deception and affected to believe in the reality of Si Mahmoud.

Invisible in her djellaba, Eberhardt roamed through the tortuous alleys of the Casbah and into the desert. On a dune above the town, she found a kef den in the hut of a lunatic mystic, where she passed hours in ecstatic oblivion. One hot evening, as she lay in her cell at the zaouia, she heard the pounding of drums and the clangor of copper castanets, announcing a Sudanese festival, “a stranger note from a more distant Africa. Through centuries of Islam, the Sudanese have kept the practices of a forgotten, fetish-laden antiquity, a poetry of noise and gesticulations that had its full meaning in the deep forests haunted by monsters.” The dancing became ever more frenzied, “excited to the point of madness,” until the celebrants collapsed. The marabout arrived to give his blessing, not forgetting to include Si Mahmoud.

Eberhardt saw the students of the zaouia as she wandered through its dim passageways and at the mosque, but she had had little direct contact with them until a slave arrived one day at her cell and, with an air of mystery, invited her to follow him and take tea with a group of students at their private retreat. The students at Moroccan zaouia had acquired some notoriety after the publication of Unknown Morocco (Le Maroc inconnu), a scurrilous book by a French missionary named Auguste Mouliéras, which described depraved orgies in lavish detail, most of it invented. In her report for Barrucand, Eberhardt mentioned the book and wrote that beneath the students’ piety there lurked a “raging sensuality that creates the most complicated and most dangerous love affairs and, it must be said, many hidden vices.” Yet in her visit to the bith-essohfa, the students’ club house hidden away in the Casbah, she found a scene of chaste refinement verging on effeminacy.

“We enter the tea room through carved double doors that creak on their rusted hinges. A hazy half-light reigns there.” Delicate milkstone columns support a lacework frieze of arabesques; overhead, small dormer windows in a cupola filter watery light onto Nile-green pots and chests painted in tarnished gold, piled with books, saddlery, weapons, and musical instruments. An inscription in cinnabar leaves urges eternal health. The students sit on a low platform, on carpets from Rabat. The host, a scrawny fellow named Si El-Madani, greets her and without being asked explains his clandestine invitation: “You know, Si Mahmoud, that usage and custom demand that our parents and elders remain unaware of our pleasures or at least be able to pretend to be unaware. We gather here to spend hours rejoicing our hearts through music and the recitation of the sublime works of ancient poets and through cordial discussions. No one must know what happens here except God and us.” The time passes in conversation and classical song, accompanied by a three-string guitar and tambourine. One youth busies himself embroidering a white silk tunic. Eberhardt writes
that she is becoming aware of the “strength and tranquility of things that seem to last indefinitely because they are slowly making their way toward nothingness.”

At the end of the hot, long summer in Kenadsa, her health failed her. Years of extreme deprivation, hard travel, heavy drinking, and smoking kef had wrecked her. She was scrofulous and had lost all her teeth. She fell ill with malaria and passed many days and nights in shivering deliriums. Si Brahim’s mother nursed her back to health. After she had recovered some of her strength, Eberhardt worked on her novel in the courtyard and talked with Si Brahim, who had grown fond of her. When two young Berbers from the far West arrived to return a flock of sheep that had been stolen some time before, and to seek the forgiveness of the marabout, he lodged them with Si Mahmoud. As he expected, they soon became friends.

The Berber lads begged Eberhardt to return with them to their homeland. She agonized over the invitation. She had been drawn to Kenadsa in the first place because it was hors frontière; here was an opportunity to go to a place beyond the beyond, even more distant from “civilization.” In her journal she wrote that while she realized that returning to Aïn Sefra to stay at the hospital was the only reasonable course open to her, “nevertheless, I cannot bring myself to do it. I linger in my retreat: I breathe with delight the air that poisoned me.” Finally she declined the invitation, the first time she had ever let such an opportunity slip away. Perhaps she remembered that she had a home to return to, with Slimène.

The Glamour of Strangeness
Barnes and Noble



Jamie James is the author of The Snake Charmer, Rimbaud in Java, and other books. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He regularly reviewed art exhibitions and contributed features to The New Yorker and served as the American arts correspondent for The Times (London). He has lived in Indonesia since 1999, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Grant.

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