When pondering eras past, is it deceptively easy to reduce an entire culture, time-period, or social movement to a simplified list of customs, events, and personalities. One of Irrational Geographic’s missions is to highlight moments and individuals that have the ability to jar us out of this facile interpretation of history. An exemplary specimen of this is the traveller, hedonist, writer, and all-around iconoclast Isabelle Eberhardt (1877 – 1904).
Growing up in Geneva during the final years of the 19th century, Eberhardt possessed the then unheard-of cultural advantages of having an intellectual, nihilist, former Orthodox priest for a father and an aristocrat with imperial familial connections for a mother. This combination of influences and resources, coupled with an endlessly inquisitive nature, gave her the wherewithal to embrace foreign cultures and languages, and the means with which to pursue these interests through study and travel.
Since women were afforded precious few rights in 19th century Switzerland, Eberhardt augmented her autonomy by dressing as and affecting the mannerisms of a man. This would allow her freedom hitherto unknown to women when she was brought by her mother first to other parts of Europe, and later to northern Africa. Eberhardt’s father encouraged her cross-dressing, and further aided her personal growth by teaching her six languages, cultivating in her an interest in metaphysics, and introducing her to Islam. Eberhardt’s life trajectory was cemented when her family relocated to Algeria and fell in with Arab anti-imperialists.
Upon the death of her mother, Eberhardt was finally afforded the freedom to pursue her passions on her own terms. As she herself put it, “The farther behind I leave the past, the closer I am to forging my own…” Following the death of her father two years later, Eberhardt fully embraced the nomadic lifestyle of Sahara-dwelling Arabs. Her promiscuous tendencies made it well-known that she was biologically a woman, but the Arab community accepted her as a man. She also indulged in the use of drugs and alcohol, despite the fact that these endeavors were prohibited by Saharan custom. In the words of one of Eberhardt’s friends, “She drank more than a Legionnaire, smoked more kif than a hashish addict, and made love for the love of making love.” This highlights the contradictory nature of the hybrid identity that Eberhardt managed to establish.
Despite the apparent ambiguity of her cultural allegiances, Eberhardt was spiritually committed to, and fully accepted by, the secretive Sufi sect (even becoming a close friend of the sect’s spiritual leader), which seemed to turn a blind eye to her decadent lifestyle. Eberhardt also managed to marry and Arab soldier named Slimene Ehnni, who apparently tolerated her notorious promiscuity. Herein lies the intriguing mystery of Isabelle Eberhardt. She was a European-born white woman who lived freely in the Arab world as a man (assuming the masculine name Si Mahmoud Essadi), openly using drugs and alcohol while a devoted member of a temperant sect, and maintaing a marriage with an Arab man while still freely exploring her sexuality. She was a woman of contradictions who redefined the world in which she lived.
It seems fitting, then, that even in death she was an iconoclast. Eberhardt once wrote that, “Death does not frighten me, but dying obscurely and above all uselessly does.” The universe was seemingly ignorant of, or humorously invested in, this sentiment when, on October 1 of 1904, the 27-year-old Eberhardt, while recovering form a bout of malaria, perished in a flash flood in the Ain Sefra municipality of Algeria. This death could not, it seems, have been any more obscure or useless.
While relatively unknown during her lifetime, Eberhardt’s writings have received some posthumous attention. Several journals and one novel, penned by Eberhardt during her travels, give contemporary readers a glimpse into the unique life of a cross-dressing, hedonistic, European woman living happily in the orthodox climate of turn-of-the-century northern Africa. Several essays, linked below, explore many intriguing facets of Eberhardt’s life and adventures.
Some Further Reading: