Eberhardt, Isabelle (1877–1904)

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Eberhardt, Isabelle (1877–1904)

Swiss-born author, traveler and adventurer who ventured into little-known areas of North Africa in the guise of a Muslim man and, through her writings, presented an often romanticized vision of Muslim life to her European readers. Name variations: (pseudonyms) Nicolas Podolinsky and Si Mahmoud Saadi. Born Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt on February 17, 1877, in Geneva, Switzerland; died in a flash flood in Ain Sefra, Algeria, on October 21, 1904; illegitimate daughter of Nathalie Eberhardt de Moerder (a Prussian aristocrat) and Alexander Trophimowsky (a tutor, scholar and anarchist); educated by father at home; married Slimène Ehnni, on October 17, 1901, in Marseilles, France; no children.

Raised in an eccentric family in Geneva and encouraged to wear male clothing from a young age; traveled to Algeria with her mother and contributed essays on North African life to Parisian magazines (1897); participated in a riot against French colonialism and was forced to return to Geneva to avoid arrest (March 1898); after father's death, returned to North Africa (1899); presented herself as a Muslim man, Si Mahmoud Saadi, and traveled to the souf region of Southern Algeria; sojourned briefly in Marseilles and Paris, attempting to launch her career as a writer (1899–1900); returned to Algeria and met future husband, Slimène Ehnni, a non-commissioned officer in the French forces in Algeria; initiated into the Qadryas, a Sufi Islamic order; was almost assassinated by a member of a rival Islamic order (1901); expelled from Algeria (1901) and permitted to return only after securing French citizenship through marriage to Ehnni; worked under General Hubert Lyautey, engaged in espionage for French forces planning an incursion into Morocco (1903); killed in a flash flood in Ain Sefra, Algeria (1904).

Selected publications—in French:

Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam (1905); Notes de route (1908); Pages d'Islam (1920); Trimardeur (1922); Amara le forçat (1923); Mes Journaliers (1923); Contes et Paysages (1925); Au pays des sables (1944). In English translation: The Passionate Nomad (1987); Vagabond (1988). Articles in French in various periodicals under the pseudonyms Nicolas Podolinsky and Mahmoud Saadi.

The flash flood that swept through Ain Sefra, Algeria, on October 21, 1904, took the town by surprise. No rain had fallen for a long time, but precipitation in the mountains caused a build-up of water that swept downwards towards the unsuspecting town, cascading out of the river bed and destroying everything in its path. The next day, when the torrent had subsided, French soldiers stationed in Ain Sefra dug through the rubble searching for the bodies of victims. Beneath the fallen beams of one house, they discovered a figure attired in the garb of an Arab cavalryman. But this was no Arab, nor even a man, but a female journalist and sometime spy for the French military, Isabelle Eberhardt. The iconoclastic path that took Isabelle Eberhardt from her birthplace in Switzerland to death in the water and debris of Ain Sefra a scant 27 years later would make her more famous—and infamous—after her demise than she had ever been during her brief life.

Eberhardt was born on February 17, 1877, in Geneva, Switzerland, the illegitimate daughter of Nathalie Eberhardt de Moerder , the widow of a Russian general, and Alexander Trophimowsky, the erstwhile tutor of the de Moerder children and a former Russian Orthodox priest. Although Trophimowsky's paternity was never openly acknowledged, he acted as a father to young Isabelle, her older brother Augustin, who may also have been Trophimowsky's child, and the three de Moerder children. De Moerder and Trophimowsky raised their children in a villa they had purchased on the outskirts of Geneva. Perhaps fearful that their adulterous relationship (Trophimowsky had a wife and children in Russia) would affront the bourgeois morality of Geneva, the couple lived a reclusive life. The children were rarely allowed off the villa grounds and were educated at home by Trophimowsky, who imbued them with his anarchistic beliefs, in addition to training them in several languages.

Eberhardt's parents treated her more as a boy than a girl, and, from an early age, Eberhardt abetted this adoption of a male persona. Visitors to the villa understandably mistook young Isabelle for a boy when they saw her attired in men's clothes performing traditionally masculine tasks such as chopping wood. Trophimowsky also stipulated that, for her own protection, Eberhardt could visit Geneva only if she wore male clothing. As a teenager, Eberhardt had herself photographed in the uniform of a French sailor and in the garb of an Arab man. For her earliest journalistic efforts, she adopted a masculine pseudonym. Thus, Eberhardt's later transvestism was not merely a device to facilitate her entrée into Muslim society, but also a natural outgrowth of her upbringing.

Eberhardt's fascination with North Africa also developed in her childhood. She studied classical Arabic and read the Koran with her father. She and her brother Augustin devoured the orientalist novels of Pierre Loti set in the "exotic" Middle East and dreamed of journeying to North Africa themselves. While Augustin was able to visit Algeria briefly, Isabelle, for the time being, contented herself with establishing a correspondence under the male pseudonym "Mahmoud Saadi," with Abou Naddara, an Egyptian intellectual living in Paris. Under her own name, she also corresponded with Eugène Letord, a lonely French officer stationed in southern Algeria who had advertised in the newspapers for a pen pal.

In May 1897, Eberhardt and her mother left Geneva for Bône, Algeria, where some acquaintances of the family helped the two women settle in. The move may have been motivated by a desire to escape the increasingly repressive atmosphere of their Geneva home, dominated by the paranoid Trophimowsky, or by concern for Mme de Moerder's failing health. Although Algeria had been a French colony since 1830, the European community there had remained aloof from the native population. Eberhardt's acquaintance in Algeria, a European woman named Cécile David, captured the typical attitude of the colons (the colonial residents of Algeria) when she wrote to Eberhardt, "My dear Isabelle, what a filthy race these Arabs are!"

Eberhardt and her mother did not share these feelings, however. They quickly moved out of their comfortable residence in the European quarter of Bône and into rooms in the Arab section. Mme de Moerder soon converted to Islam. (Eberhardt, who never acknowledged Trophimowsky's paternity, believed that her father had been a Russian Muslim and thus saw no need for a formal conversion to Islam for herself.) Eberhardt also fashioned the identity that would shape her life in North Africa from this point until her death seven years later. She presented herself as "Mahmoud Saadi," an Arabic male student. Attired in North African men's clothing, Eberhardt roamed freely throughout the Arab sections of Bône, soon becoming fluent in colloquial Arabic. Her experiences formed the basis for several essays published in Parisian journals under the pen name Nicolas Podolinsky.

On November 28, 1897, this interesting life came to an abrupt halt when Mme de Moerder died of heart failure. For several months, Eberhardt remained alone in Bône, apparently too numbed by her mother's death either to return to Switzerland or to reestablish her life in Algeria on a new footing. In March 1898, however, Eberhardt joined in a riot against the French authorities in Algeria. Although she had disguised herself as Mahmoud Saadi, she feared that the colonial government would discover her allegiance to the Muslim rioters and arrest her. Eberhardt quietly slipped out of Bône and returned to Geneva.

The situation at the family villa in Geneva was not happy. Trophimowsky and Eberhardt's half-brother Vladimir had been living in paranoid seclusion, their only occupation the tending of cactus plants grown in hothouses on the villa grounds. Shortly after Eberhardt's return, the always unstable Vladimir committed suicide. Trophimowsky, already gravely ill with cancer, lingered on until May 1899. Although Eberhardt apparently nursed him devotedly, she also found time during this interlude in Geneva to become briefly engaged to a young Turkish diplomat attached to the embassy in Paris.

Trophimowsky had attempted to provide financially for Eberhardt and her brother Augustin after his death. However, members of both the Trophimowsky and de Moerder families in Russia quickly challenged these arrangements. Eberhardt would never benefit financially from her parents' deaths; her share of the estate was soon eaten up by legal costs. From this point on, money worries haunted her. Indeed, a mere two years later, Eberhardt summed up her situation as total poverty: "No food, no money and no heat," she wrote in her diary. "I have begun to make a point of going to people's houses to eat, for the sole purpose of keeping fit, something that would have been anathema in the old days."

Soon after her father's death, with a small sum of money held in her own name, Eberhardt returned to North Africa, this time to Tunisia. Again adopting masculine garb, she presented herself as a Muslim student traveling, as was the custom, from one zawiya (home of a holy man) to another, across the North African desert. Eberhardt claimed that her masculine disguise successfully hid her sex and nationality from her Muslim companions. She wrote, in reference to a Tunisian tax collector with whom she traveled and worked, "Si Larbi never suspected that I was a woman, he called me his brother Mahmoud, and I shared his nomadic life and his work for two months." It seems more likely, however, as many of Eberhardt's contemporaries recognized and as most of her later biographers have argued, that few of the men with whom she associated in such close quarters could have failed to discern her true identity. If her male companions neglected to raise the issue with Eberhardt, it was probably owing more to their tact, discretion, and tolerance for eccentric behavior than to the efficacy of her disguise. A French friend later confirmed that the Algerians with whom she associated, "knew that this svelte cavalier in her immaculate white burnous and soft red leather boots was a woman. The innate courtesy of the Arabs is such that in her presence none of them ever made any allusion, even by so much as a wink, to a quality she did not want to acknowledge."

One question that has tantalized Eberhardt's biographers has been the nature of her

sexuality. Certainly sexual opportunities in North Africa were much more varied and more readily available than in straight-laced Geneva. Dressed as a Muslim man, Eberhardt enjoyed access to areas and experiences that would have been forbidden to her as a European woman. Eberhardt apparently had a taste for the seedier areas of town, where quick and anonymous sexual encounters were the norm. As Mahmoud Saadi, she visited brothels, although only as an observer, not as a participant. Despite her penchant for men's clothes and for experiences generally reserved only for men, it appears that Eberhardt was heterosexual.

In addition to her transvestism, Eberhardt took advantage of differing cultural norms to engage in other forms of behavior usually closed off to European women. She smoked kef (hashish), as well as ordinary tobacco cigarettes, to both of which substances she appears to have been addicted. What little money Eberhardt possessed would often be used to purchase those substances rather than food or rent. Despite her adherence to Islam, Eberhardt was also a hard drinker and often finished an evening in a drunken stupor or a kef-induced haze. She justly feared that people viewed her as merely a "drunken, plate-smashing degenerate." Such excesses eventually took their toll on Eberhardt's health and physical appearance. Her devotion to narcotics and alcohol rather than food made her painfully thin (some biographers speculate that she was anorexic) and by her mid-20s she had lost most of her teeth.

As for myself, all I want is a good horse as a mute and loyal companion, a handful of servants hardly more complex than my mount, and a life as far away as possible from the hustle and bustle I happen to find so sterile in the civilised world where I feel so deeply out of place.

—Isabelle Eberhardt

Eberhardt's lifestyle also proved to be incompatible with her dream of becoming a great writer. Her plans to author a novel set in North Africa and to continue her travel writing languished under the spell of kef and alcohol. In late 1899, however, concerned about her lack of artistic productivity as well as by her diminishing financial resources, Eberhardt returned to Europe. Dividing her time between Paris and Marseilles, where her newly married brother Augustin had settled, Eberhardt furthered her connections in the French literary world and also managed to complete her novel and start another.

The siren song of North Africa, however, soon proved too strong to be resisted. In July 1900, Eberhardt arrived in Algiers and from there soon set off for El Oued, an oasis town in the southern part of Algeria. At some point during that journey, she met "the great love of my life," Slimène Ehnni, a noncommissioned officer in a spahi regiment stationed in El Oued. The spahis were a French army unit. Although the soldiers were Algerians, they had been greatly Europeanized through their contact with the French military. Ehnni, unlike most Algerians, was even a French citizen. Their love affair, as recorded by Eberhardt, was heightened by the exotic romance of the desert. Attempting to keep their relationship secret, the two would ride their horses to a palm-studded oasis outside the town, make love, and then spend the night on the sand under the desert sky, wrapped in their burnouses against the cold.

Ehnni was a Sufi Muslim and a member of the Qadriya order, an 11th-century sect with strong mystical beliefs. Eberhardt, too, soon became an initiate of the Qadriya order, an unusual honor for a European and even more so for a woman. As a Qadriya, Eberhardt enjoyed the rare pleasure of participating in a fantasia, two days of pageantry, festivities and equestrianship in the desert for the purpose of welcoming one of the spiritual leaders of the order.

Eberhardt's Qadriya status may also have led to a dramatic attempt on her life. With her fellow Qadriya initiates, Eberhardt journeyed from El Oued to rendezvous with one of their religious leaders as he set forth on a pilgrimage. At a resting point in the village of Béhima, Eberhardt was seated, her head down as she scrutinized a letter to be translated. Suddenly she felt a sharp blow to her head and two more on her arm and realized that a man she had never seen before was attacking her with a saber. The attacker was pulled off by two Qadriyas. When Eberhardt asked what she had done to him to provoke the attack, he answered, "Nothing, you've never done anything to me, I don't know you, but I have to kill you." The attacker, however, proved to be an initiate of a rival Sufi order, and this may have been the motivating factor in his attempted assassination of Eberhardt.

At the trial of Eberhardt's assailant, however, the French authorities portrayed the crime as arising from completely different motives. Increasingly nervous about growing anti-French sentiment among Algerian Muslims, the colonial authorities depicted the attack as an assault on a European Christian by a Muslim fanatic. With a harsh sentence for Eberhardt's assailant, they hoped to deter other Islamic militants from attacks on Europeans. Eberhardt's attacker—following the lead of his counsel—deflected this argument in his testimony. He claimed to have known that Eberhardt was a Muslim and testified that because Eberhardt had disgraced Islam through her transvestism and dissolute living he felt compelled to assassinate her. The court, however, found him guilty and sentenced him to hard labor for life, a draconian sentence. Eberhardt was appalled at this harsh punishment and even lodged an appeal on behalf of her attacker. She wrote that "Abdallah [her assailant] was the instrument of people who had an interest—real or imagined—in getting rid of me." In part because of Eberhardt's advocacy, Abdallah's sentence was commuted to ten years.

Eberhardt even came to believe that the attack might have been divinely ordained for the purpose of allowing her to become a maraboute (Muslim holy woman). Eberhardt claimed that the desire to follow a religious path had struck her "out of the blue" on the day Abdallah was jailed. She confided to her diary her belief that she would "have no trouble reaching a spiritual goal like that." Although her "unlimited devotion" to Islam appears genuine, it is doubtful that Muslim society would have accepted an eccentric and dissolute European as a religious leader.

Although the colonial authorities had used Eberhardt's mishap and Abdallah's trial to strike a blow against the perceived threat of Islamic fanaticism, they too were longing to be rid of this strange woman who mingled with Muslims and wore men's clothing. The French authorities had kept a close watch on Eberhardt since her first visit to Algeria. Her lifestyle immediately made her suspect in the eyes of the conservative colonial authorities. The head of the Arab Bureau in El Oued had written upon first meeting Eberhardt that in addition to her espousing "quite advanced ideas" she was "a neurotic and unhinged, and I'm inclined to think that she has come to El Oued principally to satisfy unhindered her dissolute tastes and her penchant for natives in a place where there are few Europeans." However, the French authorities also feared that Eberhardt, with her journalistic connections, was involved in press attacks against the colonial government and French army in Algeria. Although Eberhardt protested her loyalty to France, claiming to be "just a dreamy eccentric anxious to lead a free, nomadic life," the colonial government expelled her from Algeria immediately after the completion of Abdallah's trial. Since Eberhardt was officially a citizen of Russia, not of France, she had no legal recourse.

Eberhardt returned dejectedly to her brother Augustin and his family in Marseilles. She was desolate at being separated from Ehnni and from the land she loved. Her one hope was to marry Ehnni, whose French citizenship (which carried with it the right to live in French territory, including Algeria) would be extended to his wife should he marry. The military authorities had initially forbidden Ehnni from marrying, but after Eberhardt appealed directly to the colonial minister in Paris they relented. The two married in Marseilles on October 17, 1901, Eberhardt dressed, for once, in women's clothes and a wig to hide her shorn head. She warned Ehnni that she did not envision their union as the traditional Muslim marriage; she wrote, "I am also your brother Mahmoud, the servant of God before I am the servant that being an Arab wife entails. And I do not want, you understand, you to prove unworthy of the beautiful dreams I have for us both."

Ehnni resigned his army post, and the newly married couple returned happily to Algeria. As a result of letters written to the Algerian press at the time of the trial, Eberhardt made several new acquaintances in Franco-Algerian literary circles. One of these, the journalist Victor Barrucand, was to play a prominent role in popularizing Eberhardt's writings and building up the myth of the "passionate nomad" associated with Eberhardt after her untimely death. In late 1903, Barrucand also mentioned Eberhardt to General Hubert Lyautey, army commander in the southwestern part of Algeria who was planning a military incursion into neighboring Morocco. Lyautey realized immediately that Eberhardt, with her knowledge of Islam and Algerian culture, as well as her journalistic experience, would be the perfect spy for the French military in areas closed off to most Europeans. Eberhardt traveled throughout the Moroccan border region writing articles about the political situation and about the local peoples for French journals and also providing Lyautey with crucial information. By autumn 1904, however, Eberhardt's always fragile health had curtailed her espionage activities as well as her writing. Exhausted, she headed for the town of Ain Sefra and its hospital.

Although her relationship with her husband had apparently been deteriorating for some time, owing perhaps to Eberhardt's prolonged absences on reconnaissance missions for Lyautey, Ehnni rejoined her in Ain Sefra. He later recalled the events of October 21, 1904, when the flash flood inundated Ain Sefra:

We were on the balcony of my room on the first floor. Suddenly there was a roar like a procession of wagons. It came nearer. I didn't understand. The weather was calm. There was no rain, no storm. In a minute, the water came down the river bed, rising up like a wall, running like a galloping horse, at least two meters high, dragging along trees, furniture, bodies of animals and men. I saw the danger and we fled. The torrent caught us up in it. How did I get out? I've no idea. My wife was carried away.

After Eberhardt's body had been recovered, General Lyautey ordered his troops to search the ruins of Ain Sefra for any of her manuscripts or other writings. The scraps that were eventually discovered were forwarded to Barrucand, Eberhardt's self-appointed literary executor. Barrucand decided to rework her fragments into a romantic novel set in the exotic Sahara. The resulting book, Dans l'ombre chaude d'Islam (In the Warm Shadow of Islam), published in November 1905, was an instant success, going into three editions and selling over 13,000 copies. Barrucand, who listed himself as co-author of the work, reaped the financial windfall from this bestseller and from subsequent publications of Eberhardt's other writings which he compiled and edited.

Barrucand's presentation of Eberhardt as a sensuous, passionate, and free-spirited adventurer ensured her in death the celebrity denied to her in life. And, in many respects, this glamorous portrayal of Eberhardt is accurate. Yet, her life was also one of poverty, physical hardship, and loneliness. Isabelle Eberhardt was, indeed, as she described herself, "a nomad who has no country besides Islam and neither family nor close friends[;] I shall wend my way through life until it is time for that everlasting sleep inside the grave."


Clancy-Smith, Julia. "The 'Passionate Nomad' Reconsidered," in Western Women and Imperialism. Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel, eds. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Eberhardt, Isabelle. The Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1987.

Hart, Ursula Kingsmill. Two Ladies of Colonial Algeria. Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1987.

Kobak, Annette. Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt. London: Chatto & Windus, 1988.

Mackworth, Cecily. The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951.


Isabelle Eberhardt archive at Aix-en-Provence, France.

Mary A. Procida , Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania