Isabelle Eberhardt, Fearless Nomad and Seeker
By Elodie Barnes | On April 30, 2021 | Updated August 29, 2022 | Comments (0)
Isabelle Eberhardt (February 17, 1877 – October 21, 1904) was a Swiss-born traveler and writer. From an early age she dreamed of escaping to North Africa, a dream that was nourished by the exotic fantasies of desert life that were popular at the time, and in her early twenties, she left Europe to make Algeria her home.
Her exploration of the deserts and cities of the Mahgreb, usually disguised as a man, has become legendary. She was a prolific writer, but much of her work — including travelogues, diaries, and short stories — was only published after her death in a freak accident at the age of twenty-seven.
An unconventional early life
Isabelle’s mother, Nathalie, was born into a wealthy Prussian family in Moscow. She married Senator-General Pavel de Moerder, who at the time was a senior advisor to the Tsar, and they had three children for whom they engaged a tutor, Alexander Trophimowsky, a defrocked Orthodox priest.
Less than a year later, in around 1871, Nathalie left her husband to live in Switzerland with Trophimowsky. Another son, Augustin, was born soon after. Who the boy’s father was is unclear, but after a failed attempt at reconciliation with his wife, de Moerder allowed Nathalie to give Augustin his surname.
However, when Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt followed five years later on 17 February 1877, she was registered as the fille naturelle, or illegitimate daughter, of Nathalie.
While it’s safe to assume that she was Trophimowsky’s child, there has been speculation as to why he did not accept the outward responsibility of fatherhood. The most likely explanation is that his nihilist beliefs disavowed the traditional concept of family.
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Later in life, Isabelle enjoyed weaving fantasies around this ambiguity, claiming variously that her father was a Tartar Muslim, that he was a doctor who had raped her mother, and that he was a Turk.
Many years after her death, another, even more outlandish theory was put forward by the French writer Pierre Arnoult, who claimed (with no evidence other than a passing facial resemblance) that she was the daughter of Arthur Rimbaud.
Trophimowsky was a dominant figure and a fervent anarchist. The family had a large house, Villa Nueve, on the shores of Lake Geneva, but despite the luxury, Nathalie’s physical and mental health declined steadily.
The eldest three children, who had traveled with Nathalie to Switzerland, were also notably unhappy: the daughter, Nathalie, denounced Trophimowsky to the police for making “disreputable and obscene propositions,” while one of the boys, Vladimir, ultimately took his own life.
Trophimowsky, who believed in equal education for boys and girls, took charge of the children’s home schooling and general deportment. Isabelle was encouraged to dress as a boy, and he taught her to ride and to shoot. Most formal education consisted of horticulture — long hours were spent working in the gardens that surrounded Villa Nueve — and languages.
Brought up to be bilingual in French and Russian, Isabelle was given a thorough grounding in Latin, Italian, Ancient Greek, and classical Arabic. She also loved the novels of Pierre Loti, who fictionalized his travels in Africa, the Middle East, and the South Seas, and together with Augustin, she began to dream of an escape to the Mahgreb.
Augustin was ultimately a disappointment to Isabelle. As an adult, he was indecisive, weak, alcoholic and an opium addict; after attempting to escape the stifling home atmosphere by joining the French Foreign Legion, he was dismissed for criminal behavior and sank into disgrace.
Isabelle, however, continued to dream. One of her first short stories, Visions of the Mahgreb, depicts a young Russian woman’s encounters with an Islamic mystic in Algeria. It was published in the French journal Nouvelle Revue Moderne under a man’s name. The exotic fantasy of north Africa became an obsession, and after she left Switzerland permanently for Algeria this fantasy blended with reality in her fiction, journalism, and diaries.
First journey to Africa
Isabelle’s chance finally came when she was around twenty. She had spent several months in contact with two men who had strong ties to the Sahara: Eugène Letourd, a French officer stationed in Algeria who had placed a newspaper advert for a pen pal, and Louis David, an Algerian-French photographer who contacted her after reading her stories.
Both encouraged her to relocate to Algiers, and in around 1896 she made her first trip accompanied by her mother, whom she adored and referred to as the “White Spirit.” The journey, however, was too much for Nathalie, who suffered from heart problems. She died shortly after arriving in Bône, having formally converted to Islam. Isabelle was distraught at her mother’s death.
Trophimowsky, who had been sent for when Nathalie’s health deteriorated but arrived after she had died, showed little sympathy; when Isabelle cried that she wanted to follow her mother into death he responded by offering her his revolver, which she declined.
He returned to Switzerland and left Isabelle in Algiers, where she quickly spent the money left to her by her mother. Poverty forced her to return to Geneva in 1899. There she found him seriously ill with throat cancer. She nursed him through his final months, and he died in May 1899.
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The wandering years
After some legal wrangling over Trophimowsky’s will and the status of Villa Nueve, Isabelle first mortgaged and then sold the property and returned to North Africa. Free of the toxic environment of the Swiss villa and without any real family ties, she embraced life as a vagabond.
She wandered restlessly, writing her diaries and stories and travelogues, usually alone and always dressed as a man. In the deeply patriarchal and traditional North African societies of the time, traveling as Si Mahmoud Saadi rather than Isabelle Eberhardt afforded her freedoms she would otherwise never have been granted (although she spared little thought for the often powerless situation her female Arab contemporaries found themselves in, which has drawn critique from modern feminists).
The success of her disguise was sometimes doubtful: according to her friend Robert Randau, many of the men she met knew that she was a woman, but their deeply ingrained sense of courtesy meant that none of them ever said anything.
Her lifestyle was not only itinerant but promiscuous. Her early French biographer Claude-Maurice Robert said that she “drank more than a Legionnaire, smoked more than a hashish addict, and made love for the love of making love.”
When passing through cities, she would often walk the streets in search of sex, mostly with sailors and working men, and on a visit to the town of El Oued, her behavior drew the attention of the local colonial administration. But she was also deeply spiritual. Drawn to fatalism, she was convinced that she had been born under an unlucky star, and frequently conjured the idea of maktoub (‘it is written”).
Some years later, Isabelle wrote in her diary that, “It is the inescapable chain of events that has brought me to this point, rather than I who have caused things to happen.” Her spiritual quest was an attempt to find some meaning, and she was eventually initiated into the Qadriya. This was a Sufi brotherhood that wielded immense influence among the desert tribes at the time, and which gave her the sense of familial belonging that had been missing throughout her childhood.
Love, and an assassination attempt
Around 1900, on a return visit to El Oued, she met and fell in love with Slimène Ehnni. He was a young Algerian officer and an évolué, an Algerian committed to French rule and who held French citizenship. They took the risk of living together openly, a decision that drew anger and condemnation from the French authorities who had already blacklisted Isabelle because of her previous behavior.
Attempts were made to split the couple up by posting Slimène to Batna instead, and although Isabelle was too poor to accompany him there, their feelings for each other remained undiminished and they were still very much a couple.
In 1901, at a Qadriya meeting in Behima, an attempt was made on Isabelle’s life which resulted in her left arm being almost severed. Whether or not the assassin was hired by the French authorities remains a matter of speculation: certainly, Isabelle believed that that was the case, although others maintained that it was either the result of tribal rivalries or a lover who was tired of her (falling in love with Slimène had not entirely put a stop to her promiscuous lifestyle).
The wounded arm would cause her immense pain for the rest of her life. However, not long afterward, in October of that year, she and Slimène married in Marseilles in both Muslim and civil ceremonies. This entitled her to French citizenship and, the couple hoped, would end the intolerance of the authorities against them.
Journalism, writing — and espionage?
The publicity surrounding the assassination attempt reached France, where a Parisian editor called Victor Barracund became aware of the story and Isabelle’s writing. He invited her to contribute to a new newspaper he was starting in Algeria, Al-Akhbar, and she jumped at the opportunity. Her first assignment was in Aïn Sefra, near the western border with Morocco.
Here she met the French officer Hubert Lyautey, and the two became firm if unlikely friends. After her death Lyautey would write, “She was what attracts me most in this world: a rebel.” As with her relationship with Slimène, her friendship with Lyautey was not without its problems: despite her demonstrated commitment to the Arab way of life, she was accused of working for the French as a spy.
Nothing came of the accusation and no involvement with the French authorities was ever proven, although her biographers in later years have generally accepted that she did, on occasion, engage in espionage for Lyautey.
From Aïn Sefra, she traveled along the border, reporting on the Moroccan-Algerian clashes between Berber tribes and the French forces. Her journals and travelogues from this time record her impressions of the landscape, often in romantic and lyrical language: “…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.”
Her writing had always occupied a central part of her life, and she viewed it as a welcome respite from the preoccupations with drink, drugs, and sex that she was often unable to prevent overwhelming her. As well as her articles for Al-Akhbar, several of her short stories appeared in the local press, and Barracund eventually gave her a regular column in which she wrote about the customs of the Bedouin tribes.
An untimely death
By 1903, Isabelle’s health was starting to fail. Years of heavy drinking and smoking took their toll, along with the deprivations of travel. She had lost all her teeth, suffered bouts of malaria, and also had syphilis. Suffering had never bothered her; she was a natural ascetic who believed that “the human body is nothing, the human soul is all,” but by the late summer of 1904 she was sufficiently weak with fever that she was admitted to the hospital at Aïn Sefra.
Against medical advice, she discharged herself some weeks later to meet Slimène, whom she hadn’t seen for almost a year. The couple rented a small mud house for their reunion, but the next day the town was struck by a flash flood. Slimène survived, but Isabelle’s body was found later, pinned under a beam of the house and surrounded by the soggy pages of her latest manuscript.
Under Lyautey’s orders, soldiers rescued the papers, which were later restored and preserved. He also organized her burial in Aïn Sefra, where a marble headstone was engraved with both her adopted Arabic and given French names.
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Legacy of Isabel Eberhardt
Isabelle’s writing brought her little money during her lifetime, and appeared in book form only after her death. Two anthologies of her travel journals, The Oblivion Seekers and In the Shadow of Islam, are still available. Her life, however, has proved more inspiring than her writing.
Hailed as an early advocate of feminism and decolonization (although modern scholarship has drawn attention to her complicity with Lyautey) and as a daring adventurer, she has been the subject of plays, two films, an opera, and a Broadway musical. Ironic, perhaps, for a woman who wrote shortly before her death, “Soon, the solitary, woeful figure that I am will vanish from this earth.”
Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online, and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at Elodie Rose Barnes.
More about Isabelle Eberhardt
- Departures: Selected Writings (2001)
- In the Shadow of Islam by Isabelle Eberhardt, Peter Owen (2003)
- The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt, Peter Owen (2009)
Biography and diaries
- The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, ed. Elizabeth Kershaw, Interlink Books (2003)
- Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt by Annette Kobak, Virago (2006)
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Feminize Your Canon (Paris Review)
- Rejected Princesses: Isabelle Eberhardt
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