“Africa ingests and assimilates everything that is hostile to it. Perhaps it is the Predestined Land from which the light that will regenerate the world will one day emerge!”
“One very graceful impression is that of sunset over the port and the terraces of the upper town, and the gay Algerian women; a whole playful world in pink and green on the slightly blue-tinted white of the uneven and disorderly terraces. It’s from the little lattice window of Madame Ben Aben that you discover all this.”
–Isabelle Eberhardt, Excerpts from Her Journals
Described by some as a desert queen in men’s clothing, by others as “too lazy to live,” the life and writings of Isabelle Eberhardt has captivated the imaginations of dreamers throughout the past century. Eberhardt was a female writer who penetrated deep into the heart of Algerian culture and society at the peak of French colonization, and left behind a legacy that has lived on in multiple biographies, movies, and the continual reproductions of her own writings. This is the legacy of a liberated women who lived a life outside of the constraints of both Arabic and Western values, and seemed to touched that far flung notion of unabashed freedom. From the pages of her diaries, one can discerned that Eberhardt was truly a romantic heroin cast adrift in a divine tragedy upon the seas of the great Sahara, as well as a ground breaking character who walked a path without predecessor.
Isabelle Eberhardt was born in Geneva in 1877, and had a very unconventional upbringing. Her father, Alexandre Trophimowsky, was an Armenian anarchist, one time priest, and convert to Islam, who sought to live along the communitarian model set forth by Tolstoy; while her mother was an aristocratic Lutheran German/ Russian. Together, they raised a family that was far outside of the conventional realm, as their approach towards parenting was extremely open and lacked many of the restrictions of 19th century society. In this setting, Isabelle was free to ride horses, get dirty, and dig deep into the substance of life. She was also provided with ample inspiration to cultivate the furthest stretches of her imagination and free-will.
Accompanied by her mother, Eberhardt’s first trip into North Africa was when she was twenty years old in May of 1897. Soon after landing in Algiers, both women quickly converted to the Wahabi sect of Islam, “fulfilling a long standing interest.” Her mother soon died, and her father followed two years afterwards in Geneva. Now, without parents, Isabelle Eberhardt’s only kin were a couple of despondent siblings residing in Europe. Henceforth, Isabelle found herself a cast away in the ebb and flow of the Arab world.
Eberhardt, now without family ties in Europe, plunged into the sands of the Algerian culture with her entire being. Dressed as a man, she called herself Si Mahmoud Essadi, and joined the Qadiriyya: a radical Sufi brotherhood intent on opposing colonial rule. With pen in hand and vehemence in her heart, she threw herself into the fray of the Arab liberation struggle. Eberhardt almost fanatically claimed that this new identity and way of life was her true calling, and declared that she felt much more a Muslim than she ever did an anarchist (or European for that matter). In opposition to the influences of Europe, she wrote articles which denounced the rule of the French in Algeria, and romantic prose pieces about the beauty of traditional Arab culture. This defiance of the colonizing mission is no better exemplified than when Eberhardt wrote in one of her journals that, “In spite of the crowds brought here by a prostituted and prostituting “civilization,” Algiers is still a lovely city . . .” By this point in her life, Isabelle Eberhardt was thoroughly removed from the ideological influence of western culture.
One of Eberhardt’s post-humus translators, Robert Bononno, describes her as “. . . an artist and a rebel, [who] eschewed the conventions of bourgeois society (French, Swiss, and Russian), despised city life, sympathized with the Algerian people’s plight during the height of French colonialism, dressed as a man, drank to excess, smoked kif, and was an outstanding equestrian. She spoke Arabic, studied Islam, became a Muslim, married a native spahi, and was initiated into the religious confraternity of the Qadiriya.”
Though completely dedicated to the Arabic way of life and the musings of the Quadiriya, Eberhardt’s stance as an ardent Muslim was simultaneously counteracted by her overbearing desire for free-will and self-determination. At the same time that she was deep into her Islamic studies, she would occasionally get intoxicated off of alcohol and marijuana, and indulge in promiscuous endeavors. Perhaps these personal excesses were a result of her anarchist roots, or perhaps it was just the natural tidings of her purely uncontainable character. What ever was the case, Isabelle walked a line that was perilously kept in balance by contradictory extremes.
Isabelle Eberhardt’s journals present us with a de-facto display of these contradictions; as, on one hand, she boasts of her complete devotion to Islam and berates herself for occasional bouts of unseemly behavior, and, on the other hand, she writes with exuberance about the romantic aspects of life that conflicted with a strict view of Islam. In point, Eberhardt was truly a multi-faceted individual forever deep in the perils of solidifying her own self identity. As she writes in her journal: “The farther behind I leave the past, the closer I am to forging my own character.”
During her lifetime, Eberhardt focused her literary attention on the European populous, and wrote many articles about Arabic culture and the colonization struggle for French newspapers, as well as a couple of novels. These writings where heavily romanticized by the European press, and Eberhardt became a personification of the exotic. The idea of a rebellious women setting out alone on horseback through the desert, disguised as a man, and befriending the mysterious Bedouin tribes was just what Europe wanted in those colonial times. Isabelle unwittingly became a poster-child for the exoticism of the Arab world, and her writings were read with great enthusiasm. Apart from literary pieces which added to the romantic notions that Europe held towards North Africa, Eberhardt also filled an important role as a reporter for the French press. She mainly wrote newspaper articles for the Algerian News, In the Hot Shade of Islam, and The Day Laborers, while also serving a stint as a war reporter in the south of Oran.
In 1901, tragedy struck as Eberhart was hacked with a sabre while praying at a mosque by a local Algerian hired to kill her. Isabelle’s left arm was nearly severed, but this did not impede her empathy for the would-be assassin. Eberhart stoutly defended this man in court, and successfully pleaded for his life. This is another example of the dept of her character, as she not only took pity on her assassin, but forgave him as well.
Isabelle Eberhardt was a woman who felt life and her emotions very deeply, and this was never more evident than in her highly romanticized courtships with various men in North Africa. After a few bouts of lustful obsessions with a handful of men, Isabelle eventually married Slimane Ehumi, an Algerian soldier, later on in 1901. Her journals show the continual up and down nature of this relationship; and the impact that both extremes had on Isabelle were written about with shear romance, if not outright extravagance. Eberhardt had a tendency to be taken over and driven by her emotions, and the extreme tidings of her love life were given impetus by this depth of feeling.
Eberhardt live a life that hung perilously in the crux of contradictory extremes- within religion, within love, and in literature- and the nature of her death was consistent with a life full of contrasts. On October 21, 1904, Isabelle Eberhardt died in a flash flood in the ordinarily parched Algerian Sahara. She was 27 years old. A death by drowning in the middle of a desert could not have been more consistent with the extreme tidings of Eberhart’s own character. She died as she lived: close to the edge of perilous contradiction, within an unshakable shroud of mystery.
A groundbreaking writer of Arabic culture and creative stories in her own time, Isabelle Eberhardt’s image has sprouted coats of exoticism in the intervening years since her untimely death. She left behind a small lexicon of literary work, and with it an unconquerable legacy. But who was this undaunting woman who left behind the “civilized” world and forged an identity for herself upon the harsh sands of the Sahara? This is the unsatiable question that has tantalized the imaginations of anyone who has pondered the life and writings of Isabelle Eberhardt.