A Swiss woman who converted to Islam, spent seven years wandering the Tunisian and Algerian Sahara writing almost exclusively about the suffering of locals at the hands of the French colonial government, and died in a flash flood at the age of twenty-seven, Isabelle Eberhardt wasn’t your average Edwardian explorer.
Eberhardt was a rebel in every sense of the word and one with several causes. The illegitimate daughter of a Russian noblewoman, who was herself illegitimate and had run away from her Tsarist husband to Switzerland, Eberhardt was born in 1877 with neither known father nor fatherland—a doomed position for a woman in a society where status was all.
“Yet vagrancy is deliverance and life on the open road is the essence of freedom,” Eberhardt wrote in The Oblivion Seekers, an English-language anthology of notes, journal entries, and impassioned letters. “‘To have the courage to smash the chains with which modern life has weighted us (under the pretext that it was offering us more liberty), then to take up the symbolic stick and bundle and get out!”
Eberhardt “got out” by wearing a burnous (androgynous white robe), introducing herself as Si Mahmoud Essadi, and exploring the Maghrebian desert mostly on foot or horseback. She was initiated into the Quadriya, a mystical Sufi brotherhood that had great influence among the desert tribes, and, according to her journal, she harbored secret ambitions to become a marabute (saint). However, she also admired the wild life of the legionnaires and ended up traveling, bunking, and drinking with them.
Like many rebels, Eberhardt sacrificed her own health on the altar of rock and roll. She always preferred a hard floor to a soft bed and carried a gun rather than a toothbrush. By the time she died, she’d lost all her teeth as well as most of her hair due to malnutrition. Malaria meant frequent visits to the hospital, and she also suffered from what was probably syphilis. Even if she hadn’t been in the Aïn Séfra oasis during that fateful flash flood, it’s hard to imagine a version of her narrative where she wouldn’t have been one of the founding members of the 27 club.
Possibly due to her lack of connections in Europe, her writing has not enjoyed as much recognition as it deserves. In an age when Bedouin-Oriental romanticism was defining the work of travel writers such as Pierre Loti, Eberhardt wrote almost exclusively about the dehumanizing effects of French rule on the Maghreb. Her perfect Arabic, religious devotion, and marriage to local soldier Slimene Ehnni gave her unrivaled insider access, and she reported on Bedouin traditions normally closed to outsiders. When she died, she left 2,000 pages of articles, journal entries, and works of fiction, including the novel, Vagabond.
Language itself was one of her favorite weapons. “She was the first to use polyglotism as a device to undermine ‘monolange,’ one of the principle pillars of the colonial order,” observes Tunisian scholar Hedi Abdel-Jaouad. Her travelogues resolutely refer to the Maghreb rather than North Africa and include indigenous Berber words, while her letters flit between Russian (her first language), Arabic, French, Latin, and Greek.
Of course, her scorn for the accepted order did not go unnoticed.
“How the masses get annoyed when they see among them an individual—especially a woman—emerge who wants to be herself and not resemble them!” Eberhardt reflected in her journal, published posthumously as The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt. Given that government agents tailed her, thinking she was a spy, she and her husband were bullied out of the town of Tenes, and a religious fanatic all but severed her left arm with a saber in 1901, leaving her in constant agony, the term “annoyed” feels like understatement.
We live in an age where identity, gender, and nationhood are topics that still have the power to divide, and in many ways Eberhardt’s short, astonishing life embodies some of the big discourses of modern times. So why have most of us never heard of her? She falls between the cracks of the canon to remain somewhere between man and woman, European and Arab, hedonist and journalist, intellectual and lost soul. One thing we can all agree on is that she made quite some contribution to the cause of personal freedom.