- Isabelle Eberhardt abandoned her European upbringing to lead an adventurous — albeit short — life as a writer in North Africa.
- She left a legacy not only as a writer but also as a cross-dressing pioneer.
The French colonists in Algeria didn’t know what to make of Isabelle Eberhardt. The Swiss-born explorer and writer had multiple affairs, drank and smoked kef, a potent form of hashish. In her journal, Eberhardt wrote, “I’ve often been criticized for liking too well the ordinary run of people. But where I ask, is life, if not among the people?”
Eberhardt packed a lot of adventure into her brief life — she died at 27 — dressing as a man when she abandoned her European upbringing to devote her life to Islam and roam the deserts of North Africa, writing both fiction and nonfiction about her travels.
“Imagine Prince, Bowie: They all enjoyed ambiguity and a certain amount of exhibitionism,” says Annette Kobak, author of Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt. “A millennial generation would appreciate that a lot [about Eberhardt]. She was a pioneer and she was genuinely trying to live her authentic life.”
When Eberhardt liked a man, she would “beckon him over and off they’d go.”
Eberhardt was born in 1877, in Geneva, to a Russian mother who had ditched her husband, a general, to run off with Alexander Trophimowsky, her children’s tutor. Rumors that Isabelle was illegitimate abounded, bolstered by the fact that her mother had registered her as a fille naturelle, or illegitimate child, and that she bore her mother’s surname. That uncertainty, and the attendant gossip, bred a melancholy streak in young Isabelle. But Trophimowsky raised her as his own, and historians believe she was most likely his biological child.
The restless Eberhardt was described by neighbors as a “little wild animal” who did whatever took her fancy. Besides Russian and French, Trophimowsky taught her Latin, Italian and Arabic. By the time she was 16, Eberhardt had read the entire Quran. Captivated by the stories of “the Orient,” Eberhardt decided to travel to see these lands. She published her first short story, “Vision of the Maghreb,” at age 18.
Eberhardt started dressing as a man, cutting her hair short and wearing trousers. Trophimowsky supported her decision, remarking that pants were more practical when riding horses and chopping wood.
After her parents died, the 22-year-old Eberhardt started traveling the deserts of North Africa. She dressed as a man because women weren’t allowed to travel alone and renamed herself Si Mahmoud Saadi. She slept in tents alongside soldiers and hung out with men and mystics. A friend was once quoted as saying that when Eberhardt liked a man, she would “beckon him over and off they’d go.”
Eberhardt fell in love with an Algerian soldier, Slimane Ehnni, whom she later married. She continued traveling and became a war correspondent, chronicling the Moroccan-Algerian border clashes. She was the first woman ever to take part in the fantasia, a traditional desert horse race done at a gallop while firing a rifle.
A failed assassination attempt left Eberhardt with one arm almost severed, and she lost all her teeth. (Legend has it that she traveled with a gun, not a toothbrush.) As she wrote in her journal, “No one ever lived more from day to day than I.”
By late 1904, Eberhardt hadn’t seen Ehnni for almost eight months. When the couple reunited, they decided to spend the night in a small mud house. Unfortunately, their reunion was short-lived. The next morning, a flash flood destroyed almost half the town. Ehnni survived; Eberhardt did not. The waterlogged pages of her manuscripts were found strewn about.