The cross-dressing aristocrat who became a nomad
If there is one word to summarize Isabelle Eberhardt’s life it would be: fate. The illegitimate daughter of an exiled aristocrat led her life as she saw fit, traveled widely in the Maghreb, wrote about it, dressed sometimes as a man (and also took a male pen name) to bypass the limitation of her gender and converted to Islam to be accepted by the Arab population she had grown to love. All of this, at the turn of the 20th Century.
One could say the circumstances of Isabelle’s birth and her early life was a sign of things to come. She was born in Geneva in 1877, an illegitimate daughter to Alexandre Trophimowsky and Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt). Her father was a former orthodox priest turned atheist and anarchist and her mother was herself illegitimate, born of a Prussian woman and a wealthy Russian Jew.
Isabelle received a good education from Trophimowsky himself but the nihilistic beliefs of her father made for a very chaotic life at home.
Departure for Algeria and conversion to Islam
Her fascination with Algeria and the Maghreb started early and in 1894, she engaged in a correspondence with Eugène Letord, a French officer stationed in the Sahara who was looking for a penpal. In 1895, she published her first short story and an essay “Vision of the Maghreb” under the name of Nicolas Podolinsky. Despite the fact she has never been to this part of the world, critics recognized the depth of insights in her work and one of her readers came to Geneva to see her. Louis David, an Algerian-French photographer, had been intrigued by her writing and encouraged her to move to Algeria.
This was just the push Isabelle needed and in 1997, she left Switzerland with her mother and they established themselves in Bône with David’s family. Pretty soon, the relationship soured as the two women could not stand the European settlers’ attitude toward the Arabs and they moved away. Within a few months, Isabelle became fluent in Arabic and started to wear men’s clothes as she knew Algerian women could not go out alone or unveiled. Both Isabelle and her mother finally converted to Islam but a few months later, Nathalie died and Isabelle decided to stay. She had already taken the male pseudonym of Si Mahmoud Saadi, which allowed her to travel more freely through the Sahara. Her travels were not only geographical but spiritual. She got acquainted with the Qadiriyya, a secretive Sufi order of Islam and was initiated into the faith.
The nomadic life of Si Mahmoud Saadi
Her closeness with Arabs and anti-colonial beliefs earned her the suspicion of the French authorities and she went back to Geneva for a time, escaping scrutiny and taking care of her dying father. After a couple of back and forth to Europe and a marriage to Slimane Ehnni, an Algerian soldier, Isabelle came back to Northern Africa. For good, this time. In the years to come, she would travel extensively through the desert, under disguise, and lived a life according to her own terms. She would write in her diary and also had assignments from newspapers, especially with Al-Akhbar (The News), reporting extensively about the desert and its peoples.
Death and legacy of Isabelle Eberhardt
Ultimately, the life that she had chosen took its toll. In 1904, she was 27 years old but looked much older. She had lost her teeth due to lack of hygiene and heavy smoking of”kif”, had contracted malaria and probably syphilis. To top it all, she also escaped an attempt on her life that nearly cost her an arm. For Isabelle, it was probably a covert operation by the French who regarded her as a dangerous agitator. Because of her fever, she sought treatment to Aïn Séfra, then a military town. On October 21, 1904, the day after her husband managed to join her, a flash flood devastated the city and destroyed the house the couple was staying in. Her body was discovered among the rubbles.
She left behind a lot of writings, many of it posthumous, gathered from the remains of her house and sent to the newspaper she was working for. Her diaries and short stories are an insight into the life, customs, and culture of the peoples of the Maghreb.
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