The words feminist, adventurer, rebel and cross-dresser are not usually attributed to any woman in the 1890’s. But Isabelle Eberhardt boldly broke every rule of her day, then made up new ones. In her short life, she smoked heavily, drank profusely, carried a revolver, had numerous lovers, and usually dressed like a man. Who was this forgotten rebel on the 19th century?
Isabelle was born in Geneva 1877, 5th child to an aristocratic Prussian mother and a Russian father, who was both a political anarchist and defrocked priest. At an early age, young Isabelle would dance about in their garden like an untamed animal, doing whatever she pleased. She was taught by her father that girls should be as educated same as boys. It helped that she was keenly smart. She grew up multi-lingual, learning French, German, Russian, Latin, Italian, and Arabic.
Isabelle began cross-dressing while still at home, where her father expected girls to perform both physical and intellectual labors. She cut her hair boy-short and wore men’s clothing, more practical for riding horses. She was one of the only European women allowed to join the Fantasia – a Swiss exhibition that involved racing horses and shooting guns. Spellbound by foreign travelogues, she dreamed of visiting the exotic Maghreb in northwestern Africa.
At only 18, Eberhardt published her first short story, Infernalia, under the pseudonym Nicolas Podolinsky. It can only be described as necrophiliac erotica, or “sepulchral sensuality” as it was called in her day. It would not be her only published work.
Then in 1897 at 21, Isabelle finally traveled to North Africa with her mother, where they both converted to Islam. Her mother died soon after, but Isabelle decided to remain there, making the Maghreb her home. She journeyed through French colonial Sahara including Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria – often alone and on foot. She began travelling dressed as a young Arab man, introducing herself as Si Mahmoud Saadi. Dressed in a male burna, with a fez atop her shaved head, she shared tents with both Arab men and French soldiers.
“What are you, a stranger, doing amongst all these nomadic warriors?” she was once asked. “I am obeying my destiny,” was her answer.
Her conversion to Islam did not mean she was pious. Quite the opposite, she was a heavy drinker, smoker, and hashish addict. Eberhardt took numerous lovers, never saved much money, and lived destitute most of the time. Despite her high-energy, adventurous lifestyle, she was often moody and depressed, a trait she blamed on her Russian father. Today, she’d likely be diagnosed as bipolar. In short, Eberhardt was a train wreck waiting to happen.
“Suffering is a very positive thing, for it sublimates the emotions, and produces great courage.”Isabelle Eberhardt
Despite her many addictions, writing was centrally important to her and she was eager to be published. Isabelle wrote she was “driven to maintain two lives, one adventurous that belongs to the Desert, and one, calm and restful, devoted to thought.” She was also deeply spiritual and motivated to change the world. Eberhardt condemned French colonialism in the Sahara, and openly conveyed her resentment of established gender roles for men and women.
Isabelle didn’t seem to worry about getting pregnant. Often poor and malnourished, she likely could not even get pregnant. Tougher than most men, Eberhardt always chose the hard earth to sleep on over a soft bed. Physical denial was a means of self liberation over what she called her ‘inconvenient biology.’ When asked about her Spartan lifestyle, she responded:
Her writings from the Maghreb were unlike the more romantic works about colonial Africa, favored by male authors. She often placed her female characters in controversial roles. One of her characters decides to sell her body for money as the only escape for women who did not want to be trapped in any marriage. Though now a Muslim, Eberhardt denounced the subservient role of Muslim women. She nevertheless fully entered Arabic society, including the secret Sufi brotherhood, Qadriya.
It was not an easy path. Her beliefs and male appearance often met with strong condemnation. It simply wasnʹt acceptable for a woman to: dress like a man, discuss politics, frequent coffee houses, smoke hashish and drink alcohol. She cast off all norms associated with a turn-of-the-century woman. It was said she drank more than a French Légionnaire, smoked more hashish than an addict, and made more love than a prostitute. When asked about her proclivities she responded:
“No one ever lived more from day to day than I, or was more dependent upon chance.”Isabelle Eberhardt
Her behavior was peculiar not only to the French colonials, but also the local Imazighen tribes. While working as a journalist, both the Algerians and French tried to use her as a spy. She never had much interest though, but that didn’t stop a sabre-wielding assassin from nearly cutting her arm off. She survived the attempt and in classic fashion, kept the sabre as a trophy. She even lobbied to have her attacker pardoned, though the wound left her in severe pain.
Through her affiliation with the Qadiriyya Sufis, she championed often violent demonstrations against French colonial occupation. Eberhardt wrote of her travels in several newspapers, including The Algerian News. She never made much money from her writing though, and what little she had, she spent quickly on tobacco, booze or books.
In 1901, Isabelle married an Algerian soldier, Slimane Ehnni, with whom she fell wildly in love.
When they got married, she broke down and wore a woman’s wig, for once bowing to convention. At one point, she even considered settling down to a quiet married life. “God had pity on me and heard my prayers,” she wrote. “He gave me the ideal companion, so ardently desired, and without whom my life would be mournful.” The young lovers talked about acquiring a small business to run together.
But it was absurd to think marriage would slow down a person like Eberhardt. While Ehnni’s post kept him in the north Saharan country, she worked as a war correspondent at the Moroccan-Algerian border. She carried out intelligence missions acting as intermediary between the local people. With her perfect Arabic and knowledge of the region, Eberhardt proved a valuable asset.
In the fall of 1904, Isabelle met up with her husband in the village of Aïn Sefra, in the Algerian province of Naama. They hadn’t seen each other for 8 months and spent what would be her last happy night together. The next day, at around 11 in the morning, the two were having an argument in their tent, when a deafening wall of water rushed down from the Algerian mountains in a freak flash flood. A large pack of melted ice would obliterate a quarter of the small town.
The couple barely had time to react to the strange roar, before a wall of water hit the town. Ehnni was swept away and survived, but Eberhardt’s body was found pinned underneath a large wooden beam. She was just 27. She had just completed a manuscript of stories and the muddy pages still surrounded her like fallen leaves. A grief stricken Ehnni ordered soldiers to sift through the rubble to find and preserve all her papers.
When she died, Isabelle was physically wasted. Though still young, heavy smoking, drinking, and drug use had taken their toll, as had years of poor nourishment. She suffered from malaria and likely syphilis from her many partners. Despite her youth, were it not for the flood, her body would not have carried on much longer.
Eberhardt’s legacy as a revolutionary feminist rests less on her writing than on her very life, which acquired legendary status. Her works appeared in books posthumously, published to critical acclaim. Vagabond made its debut as a novel in France in 1922. The Androgyne du Desert, as the French called her, has inspired plays, a 1991 film with Peter O’Toole, a 2012 opera, and even an off-Broadway musical, The Nomad.
Today, androgyny is not such a scandal, or even a shock. Numerous women, from actresses like Tilda Swinton, to models like Grace Jones, to singers like Pink have adopted an androgenous appearance and lifestyle. And let’s not forget the opposite adoption by men, with classic examples like musicians Elton John, Prince or David Bowie. Being nonbinary or gender neutral today, while more accepted, still carries with it some of the the same social stigma endured by Isabelle Eberhardt a hundred year ago.
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