Today is the birthday of Isabelle Eberhardt, who was born in 1877 in Geneva, Switzerland. Her mother was the illegitimate daughter of a Lutheran German and a Russian Jew. Her father was a Russian anarchist who had once been an Orthodox priest. Her father taught her to speak French, Russian German and Italian. She also knew Latin Greek and Classical Arabic. She and her father read the Koran together. From an early age she enjoyed dressing as a boy because of the freedom it allowed her. I love this photo of her, dressed as a sailor and wearing a hat that appears to say ‘vengeance’. Isabelle’s life was unlikely to be a mundane one, and it wasn’t. It was also sadly rather short. She died at twenty-seven.
Isabelle is rather hard to pin down. She was a writer and a wanderer. A hedonist who also longed to find peace and stillness. She wrote her first published short story at eighteen under the pseudonym Nicolas Podolinsky. It was about a medical student who falls in love with corpses. Her second story was about male homosexuality. She also started to write about life in North Africa. She had never been, but she had a brother in the Foreign Legion and also a pen pal who was a French officer stationed in the Sahara. Her ‘Vision of the Maghreb’ so impressed an Algerian-French photographer that he invited Isabelle and her mother to come and stay with him. Algeria was then under French colonial rule. They arrived in 1897 and stayed for a little while but soon moved into an Arabic style house far away from the European quarter. They both converted to Islam. Isabelle dressed as a man because Muslim women were not allowed to go out alone or unveiled. They were shunned by both the French settlers and the colonial administration. Later that year Isabelle’s mother died and she devoted herself to the Muslim way of life. Apart from the fact that she often drank a lot of alcohol and smoked a lot of marijuana.
In 1899 her father died. Free from family ties, she began to live a rather nomadic life style. She now dressed in men’s clothes all the time and called herself Si Mahmoud Saadi. She both wrote and spoke as if she were a man, specifically an Arabic man. When asked why that was, she replied that it was impossible for her to do otherwise. She wasn’t particularly fooling anyone into thinking she was a man, The people who met her knew perfectly well that it was a disguise. The Algerians just accepted her decision whereas the Europeans she met were critical. They couldn’t understand why, if she wanted to wear men’s clothes at all (which they thought was ridiculous anyway) she had not chosen to dress as a European man. I don’t think she had any specific yearning to be a man, but it would have been impossible for her to get about and do the things she wanted if she appeared to be a woman. It seems as though she hoped to find herself by pursuing a simple desert life, but also by turning inward by smoking marijuana and kief
Often running out of money, she made several trips backwards and forwards between North Africa and Europe seeking funds. At one point she was employed to investigate the death of a French marquis who had been assassinated by Tuareg tribesmen. She readily accepted, but there is no evidence that she did much investigating.
She met and fell in love with an Algerian soldier called Slimane Ehnni and also joined the Sufi order of the Qadiriyya. The Qadiriyya had a widespread network of zawiya, religious houses where she would be able to find hospitality on her travels. There was no love lost between the Algerians and their French rulers and, in her writing, Isabelle tended to favour the Algerian point of view. The French didn’t like her, they thought she was a spy. They put her on a blacklist and transferred Slimane Ehnni to another post. She was too poor to follow. While she was trying to seek assistance from the Qadiriyya, she was attacked by a man with a sabre. She managed to dodge most of his blows, but her left arm was almost severed. She believed that her attacker was an assassin paid for by the French. She was taken to a military hospital and once she had recovered the Qadiriyya paid for her to travel and be reunited with her lover. They considered her survival a miracle. The French responded by ordering her to leave Algeria. She left for France but returned briefly when her attacker was put on trial. She told the court that she held no grudge against him and even pleaded successfully for his life to be spared.
In 1901, Ehnni was posted to Marseille in France. They were married, which meant she could return to Algeria. She worked for a newspaper in Algiers, having several short stories published and did some work as a war reporter. Isabelle also seems to have worked for the French Foreign Legion as liaison between themselves and the local Arabic people. In 1904 she rented to a mud house in Aïn Séfra, a village at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. She and her husband had been apart for some time and she asked him to join her, which he did on October 20th. The next day there was a flash flood which washed away their house and Isabelle was drowned. Among the works she left behind were an unfinished novel called ‘Trimardeur’ (Vagabond), a semi-autobiographical story about a Russian student who tires of his anarchist friends, becomes absorbed by Arabic culture and spends his life wandering and observing. She also wrote a series of short stories that are gathered under the title ‘The Oblivion Seekers’. Isabelle was not afraid of dying, she said: “I am not afraid of death, but would not want to die in some obscure or pointless way.” I’m not sure whether drowning in a desert is obscure and pointless or not.