You may have heard of Isabelle Eberhardt, intrepid explorer and writer in turn of the 19th-20th century Algeria, and you've probably heard of Gertrude Bell, contemporary of Lawrence of Arabia and familiar with the same geography.
But chances are you may not have come across Rosita Forbes, a prolific English adventurer and writer, author of a number of books on her travels in North Africa and Central Asia.
The photo at left is one of many in her 1924 account of a legendary figure of early 20th century Morocco: The Sultan of the Mountains: The Life of Story of Raisuli. Raisuli was also known as Raisuni.
At the American Legation, we're used to recounting the story of the kidnapping of Tangier American Ion Perdicaris by Raisuli. "Perdicaris Alive Or Raisuli Dead!" was the rallying cry of Theodore Roosevelt's gunboat diplomacy to liberate Mr. P.
The true story is exciting enough (kidnapping, US battleships in Tangier harbor, Marines guarding legations), but it had to be sexed up by Hollywood, whose The Wind and the Lion cast Candace Bergen in the role of the kidnap victim, swept away by the handsome Raisuli, played by Sean Connery.
But here's what author Margaret Bald (From the Sahara to Samarkand: Selected Travel Writings of Rosita Forbes, 1919-1937) has to say about the inspiration for the film:
Years ago, when I first began traveling to Morocco, I had read Forbes’s biography of the Moroccan brigand Raisuli and had found aspects of it fascinating. I had seen John Milius’s 1975 film, The Wind and the Lion, with Sean Connery as the Raisuli, which owed a lot to Forbes’s portrait of the Raisuli and her relationship with him.
"Relationship" nowadays might imply more than your usual subject-biographer rapport, and I understand that local lore has it that Rosita Forbes was romantically involved with Raisuli, something that Margaret Bald did not imply and in fact qualifies as "nonsense." In a comment to this post, Margaret Bald adds this:
For The Wind and the Lion, Milius used Raisuli quotes from Forbes verbatim in his dialogue, imbued his character of Raisuli with the charisma Rosita described, and drew on some aspects of Rosita's relationship with the Raisuli as she described it in her book for his portrayal of the Sean Connery-Candice Bergen attraction. But that aspect of the movie, as well as many others, was highly fictionalized.
So though the Milius film really did mangle history, there's no doubting that Raisuli was taken with Rosita Forbes:
… there came to visit us the beautiful, the precious pearl, the learned, the well-educated Sayeda Rosita Forbes, the Englishwoman. [From the Arabic dedication to the book].
For her part, Forbes writes of Raisuli's "fabulous glamour" and "his charm, as powerful as it is elusive."
A year after Forbes published her book, Raisuli was captured by the forces of Rif Republic rebel Abd el Krim, and died in captivity. His "brigand" ways – kidnapping, ransoming, switching allegiance – had finally led to his downfall.