Isabelle Eberhardt

For 1991 film, see Isabelle Eberhardt (film).

Isabelle Eberhardt
An androgynous photograph of Eberhardt as a teenager, sporting a short haircut and wearing a sailor's uniform.
Born 17 February 1877
Geneva, Switzerland
Died 21 October 1904(1904-10-21) (aged 27)
Aïn Séfra, Algeria
Nationality Swiss
Occupation Explorer, writer

Isabelle Eberhardt (17 February 1877 – 21 October 1904) was a Swiss explorer and writer. She was educated in Switzerland by her father, who was a tutor, and published short stories under a male pseudonym as a teenager. She took an interest in North Africa and wrote about the area with "remarkable insight and knowledge" despite having only heard about it via correspondence. Upon invitation Eberhardt relocated to Algeria in May 1897, where she dressed as a man and converted to Islam, eventually adopting the name Si Mahmoud Saadi. Eberhardt's unorthodox behaviour made her a social pariah from both the European settlers in Algeria and the French administration.

Eberhardt was accepted into the Qadiriyya, which convinced the French administration that she was either a spy or an agitator. She survived an assassination attempt shortly thereafter. In 1901 she was ordered to leave Algeria by the French administration though was allowed to return the following year after she married her long-time partner Slimane Ehnni, an Algerian soldier. After returning to Algeria she found employment at a newspaper and also worked for General Hubert Lyautey. In 1904 she was killed in a flash flood in Aïn Sefra at the age of 27. The majority of her writings, which found critical acclaim, were not published until after her death. Anti-colonialism was a regular theme of her writings.

Early life and family background

Eberhardt was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to Alexandre Trophimowsky, an anarchist, tutor and former Orthodox priest[1] turned atheist,[2] and Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt), who was the illegitimate daughter of a middle-class Lutheran German and a Russian Jew.[3][4] Nathalie had married a widower, General Pavel de Moerder, who was forty years older than she was,[5] and the general had hired Trophimowsky to tutor his and Nathalie's two children, Nicolas and Vladimir.

Eventually, Nathalie took their children and left her husband for Trophimowsky, who had a wife and family that he likewise deserted.[6] After eventually settling in Geneva[6] in either late 1871 or early 1872 Nathalie gave birth to a son, Augustin; de Moerder recognised the son as his own. However, the older siblings believed Trophimowsky was the child's father. General de Moerder died several months later.[5] The family remained in Switzerland and, four years later, Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt was born, but registered as Nathalie's illegitimate daughter to avoid acknowledging the tutor's paternity.[1]

Isabelle was well educated; all of the children in the family were home schooled by Trophimowsky,[5] although forbidden to learn anything he had not approved.[2][7] Isabelle was fluent in French and spoke Russian, German and Italian.[1] She also was taught Latin, Greek, and classical Arabic. She would read the Koran with her father, and she later became fluent in Arabic.[8][9] From an early age she dressed and disguised herself as a boy or man in order to enjoy the greater freedom this allowed her.[10] Her father did not discourage this, as he had come to believe in nonconformity in general.[2]

Isabelle's first published work was the short story "Infernalia" in the journal La Nouvelle Revue Moderne in 1895, under the male pseudonym Nicolas Podolinsky. The story was about a medical student's physical attraction to a woman's corpse. The following year she wrote the short story "Per fas et nefas", which focused on the theme of male homosexuality.[5]

Relocation to North Africa

Eberhardt as a young adult wearing traditional arabic clothing
Eberhardt in Berber dress, around the year 1900

In November 1895 Eberhardt received a letter telling her that Augustin had joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned to Algeria. Eberhardt wrote to him, asking him to keep a detailed diary of what he saw in North Africa and send it to her.[5] She also kept in regular correspondence with Eugène Letord, a French officer stationed in the Sahara who had taken out a newspaper advertisement seeking a pen pal.[11][12] In 1895 Eberhardt published "Vision du Moghreb [sic]" (English: Vision of the Maghreb),[5] under her pseudonym Podolinsky in Nouvelle Revue Moderne.[12] The story depicted religious life in North Africa.[5] For someone who had only heard about North Africa by correspondence, Eberhardt displayed "remarkable insight and knowledge" of the area,[12] and her writings had a strong anti-colonial theme. Louis David, an Algerian-French photographer who had been touring Switzerland and was intrigued by her writings, met with Eberhardt and invited her to visit him in Bône, Algeria.[13] She travelled there with her mother in May 1897.[5][12] The two initially lived with the Davids, who disapproved of Eberhardt and her mother spending too much time with Arabic people. Eberhardt and her mother conversely disapproved of the attitude of her friends, which was the typical attitude of European settlers in the area,[5] and they subsequently avoided the French residents of the country, renting an Arabic-style house far out of the European quarter. Eberhardt dressed as a man, wearing a burnous and turban, appreciating that a Muslim woman could neither go out alone or unveiled.[13] Such behaviour, however, led her to becoming a social pariah from both the French settlers and the colonial administration, which kept her under close surveillance.[14] Both Eberhardt and her mother converted to Islam, and Eberhardt published stories in the local French papers.[13] Her mother died on 28 November 1897[5] in Bône and was buried there under the name of Fatma Mannoubia.[15][16] Eberhardt devoted herself to the Muslim ways of life, with the exception that she frequently consumed both marijuana and alcohol.[16]

Travels between North Africa and Europe

In April 1898 Eberhardt's half-brother Vladimir committed suicide; his older brother Nicolas, who resented Trophimovsky's intrusion into their lives and had returned to Russia 15 years earlier, had threatened to take Vladimir back to Russia by force.[5] Augustin, who had been discharged from the Foreign Legion due to his health, returned to the family villa in Geneva in November 1898. Trophimowsky died of throat cancer in May 1899.[5] Eberhardt intended to sell the villa, though Trophimowsky's legitimate wife opposed the execution of the will. Unable to sell the villa immediately, Eberhardt instead mortgaged it and returned on the first available ship to Africa.[16] With both her parents now dead, Eberhardt considered herself to be free of human attachments and able to live, by choice, as a vagabond.[17] She relinquished the name of her mother and instead called herself Si Mahmoud Saadi,[18][19][16] and now only wore male attire, which she had previously only done off and on, and assumed a male personality and spoke and wrote as if she were a man.[20] Eberhardt acted not only as a man, but specifically as an Arabic man, and is therefore considered to have challenged both gender and racial norms.[14] When questioned about why she would dress as an Arabic man, including by her future husband, Eberhardt would always reply "It is impossible for me to do otherwise."[21] Several months later Eberhardt's funds began to run out, and she returned to Geneva to liquidate the villa, though discovered her lawyer was helping Trophimowsky's wife, and there was little money left for her.[22]

Encouraged by a friend, Eberhardt set out for Paris where she intended to become a writer, though she had little success. By chance in Paris, however, she met the widow of Marquis de Mores. It was reported that de Morès had been murdered by Tuareg tribesmen in the Sahara, though no-one had been arrested. When his widow learned that Eberhardt was familiar with the area in which de Morès had been murdered, she offered to pay for Eberhardt to go and make private investigations into his murder. Eberhardt, who was destitute by this time and longing to get back to the Sahara, enthusiastically accepted the offer. She crossed into Algiers on July 21, 1900 and settled in El Oued. According to R. V. C. Bodley, an expert on the Sahara, Eberhardt made little effort to investigate the death of de Morès, though rather than deliberate dishonesty Bodley considered this to be due to a combination of Eberhardt's fatalist attitude and the unwillingness of the French to co-operate in any investigation of de Morès.[23]

Eberhardt set about making friends with in the area, and met an Algerian soldier named Slimane Ehnni. The two fell in love and eventually lived openly together. This gesture, however, completely ostracised Eberhardt from the French authorities, who were already outraged by her lifestyle.[24] On her travels she made contact with a Sufi order, the Qadiriyya. The order was led by Hussein ben Brahim, who was so impressed with Eberhardt's knowledge of and passion for Islam he initiated her into his zawiya without the usual formal examinations.[25] This, however, convinced the French authorities that she was either a spy or an agitator, and they placed her on a widely circulated blacklist. The French transferred Ehnni to the spahi regiment at Batna, possibly to punish Eberhardt, whom they could not harm personally.[26] As she was too poor to travel with Ehnni to Batna, Eberhardt attended a Qadiriyya meeting at the beginning of 1901 in Behima, where she hoped to ask a marabout for financial assistance. Here she was attacked by a man with a sabre. Eberhardt managed to dodge most of the man's attacks until others at the meeting overpowered and disarmed him.[27] Eberhardt suspected that the French authorities had hired him to assassinate her.[5] Her arm and shoulder were badly injured, and she was transported to the military hospital at El Oued the following day. Once she had recovered, she journeyed to join Ehnni, having gathered funds from members of the Qadiriyya, who regarded Eberhardt's survival of the attack as a miracle.[27] Her further meetings with Lalla Zaynab also concerned the French authorities.[28]

A portrait photograph Ehnni, a dark-skinned man wearing a turban
Slimane Ehnni, Eberhardt's husband

After being reunited with Ehnni, the French authorities ordered Eberhardt to leave North Africa, without giving any reason. As she was an immigrant, she had no choice but to comply. Ehnni requested permission from his military superiors' to marry Eberhardt in order to allow her to stay, though his request was denied. She travelled to France in May 1901, though was summoned to Constantine in the middle of June in order to give evidence at the trial of Abdallah ben si Mohammed, the man who had attacked her. Abdallah stated that God had ordered him to destroy Eberhardt, who he had never seen or heard of before the attack.[29] Eberhardt said she held no grudge against Abdallah, forgave him, and stated she hoped he would not be punished. Abdallah received life imprisonment; the prosecutor had called for the death penalty. Once the trial had finished, Eberhardt was once again ordered to leave the country, and she returned to France. She lived with her brother Augustin and his wife, and, while disguised as a man, joined her brother in working as a dock labourer. During this time she began to write the novel Trimardeur.[30]

Eberhardt was encouraged to write by Eugène Brieux, who was opposed to the way the French were ruling in North Africa and was in favour of Arab emancipation. He sent her several hundred francs as an advanced royalty and tried to publish her stories, though was unable to find anyone willing to publish pro-Arab writings. Eberhardt, however, was not discouraged and continued writing. Her morale was lifted when Ehnni was transferred to a spahi regiment near Marseille, where he was to complete his final months of service.[31] In France, Ehnni did not require permission from his military superiors to marry.[5] The couple were married[32] on 17 October 1901. The marriage allowed Eberhardt to return to Africa, and in February 1902 Ehnni obtained his discharge and the two returned to Bône to live with Ehnni's family.[31]

Later life and death

After the couple relocated to Algiers,[33] Victor Barrucand, the publisher of the newspaper Al-Akhbar, offered Eberhardt a job, which she accepted in March 1902. Throughout 1902 and 1903 she published several short stories in the newspaper; Trimardeur began to appear as a serial in the newspaper in August 1903. Barrucand dispatched Eberhardt to report on the aftermath of the Battle of El-Moungar, which occurred on 2 September 1903. She stayed with soldiers from the French Foreign Legion, and at their headquarters met Hubert Lyautey, the French officer placed in charge of Oran. The two became friends, and due to Eberhardt's knowledge of Arabic and Islam, she became a liaison between Lyautey and the local Arabic people.[5] While specific details are unclear, it is generally accepted that Eberhardt also engaged in some form of espionage for Lyautey.[34] Such behaviour has caused discussion about Eberhardt's complicity with colonialism by modern historians.[5] Weakened by fever, Eberhardt headed for Aïn Sefra, and requested Ehnni, whom she had not seen for several months, to join her.[5] Reunited on 20 October 1904, the two rented a small mud house. The following day a flash flood struck the area.[35] Eberhardt was killed, though Ehnni survived.[8] Lyautey buried Eberhardt in Aïn Sefra and had a marble tombstone placed at her grave, which was engraved with both her adopted Arabic name in Arabic and her birth name in French.[36][37]


Eberhardt had been in possession of several manuscripts when she died. Barrucand collected these, many of which were water-logged and damaged. After reconstituting the documents, and substituting his own words where the originals were too damaged to decipher,[5] Barrucand began to publish her works. The first of the posthumous publications, Dans l'Ombre Chaude de l'Islam ("In the Warm Shadow of Islam") was met with critical acclaim when it was released in 1906. A street was subsequently named after Eberhardt in Béchar, and another in Algiers.[37] Eberhardt was posthumously regarded to be an advocate of decolonisation, and according to Hedi Abdel-Jaouad wiriting in Yale French Studies, her work may have inaugurated the decolonisation of North Africa.[38]

In 1954, the critic and novelist Cecily Mackworth published "The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt", an evaluation of her work Mackworth undertook after following routes taken by Eberhardt in Algeria and the Sahara.[39] Mackworth maintained that "The Oblivion Seekers" was "[o]ne of the strangest human documents that a woman has given to the world."

In 1976 William Bayer published Visions Of Isabelle, a fictionalized account of the life of Eberhardt.[40]

In 1981 Timberlake Wertenbaker premiered a play about Eberhardt entitled New Anatomies.[41]

In 1988 Leslie Thornton directed a biography on Eberhardt entitled There Was An Unseen Cloud Moving.[42]

Eberhardt was portrayed by Mathilda May in the 1991 film Isabelle Eberhardt.[43]

In 1998 John Berger and Nella Bielski published a cinematic "novel in shots" based on Eberhardt's life, Isabelle.

In 2012 an opera composed by Missy Mazzoli, Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, premiered in New York City.[44]


  • Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam, by Eberhardt and Victor Barrucand (Paris: Fasquelle, 1906)
  • Notes de route: Maroc-Algérie-Tunisie, edited by Victor Barrucand (Paris: Fasquelle, 1908)
  • Au Pays des sables (Bône, Algeria: Em. Thomas, 1914)
  • Pages d'Islam, edited by Barrucand (Paris: Fasquelle, 1920)
  • Trimardeur, by Eberhardt and Barrucand (Paris: Fasquelle, 1922)
  • Mes journaliers; précédés de la Vie tragique de la bonne nomade par René-Louis Doyon (Paris: La Connaissance, 1923)
  • Amara le forçat; L'anarchiste: Nouvelles inédites, preface by Doyon (Abbeville: Frédéric Paillard, 1923)
  • Contes et paysages, preface by Doyon (Paris: La Connaissance, 1925)
  • Yasmina et autres nouvelles algériennes, edited by Marie-Odile Delacour and Jean-René Huleu (Paris: Liana Levi, 1986)
  • Ecrits sur le sable (Paris: Éditions Grasset, 1988)
  • Rakhil: Roman inédit, preface by Danièle Masse (Paris: La Boîte à documents, 1990)
  • Un voyage oriental: Sud Oranais, edited by Marie-Odile Delacour and Jean-René Huleu (Paris: Le Livre de poche, 1991)
  • Amours nomades (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2003)


  1. 1 2 3 Rentsch, Steffi (February 2004). "Stillgestellter Orient – 100th anniversary of death of Isabelle Eberhardt" (PDF) (in German). Kritische Ausgabe. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 Blanch, Lesley (1995) [1954]. The Wilder Shores of Love. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.
  3. Bodley 1968, pp. 141.
  4. Abdel-Jaouad 1993, p. 95.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Chouiten 2012, pp. 59–66.
  6. 1 2 Bodley 1968, pp. 142.
  7. Blanch, Lesley. The Wilder Shores of Love. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club. 1954, 1995.
  8. 1 2 "Eberhardt, Isabelle (1877–1904)". Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia via HighBeam Research. January 2002. Retrieved 24 November 2012.(subscription required)
  9. Review by Eve Auchincloss of The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt By Annette Kobak Knopf. Washington Post, 21 May 1989
  10. Kobak, Annette, Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt. London: Chatto & Windus; New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988; London: Virago Classic, 1998.
  11. Bodley 1968, pp. 143.
  12. 1 2 3 4 Abdel-Jaouad 1993, p. 96.
  13. 1 2 3 Bodley 1968, pp. 144.
  14. 1 2 Abdel-Jaouad 1993, p. 109.
  15. "Isabelle Eberhardt, Reporter et Voyageuse". Feuille d'Avis Officielle (in French). Canton Geneva. 2 September 2002. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
  16. 1 2 3 4 Bodley 1968, pp. 145.
  17. Belenky 2011, p. 97.
  18. Eberhardt, Isabelle (1906). Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam (in French). Charpentier et Fasquelle.
  19. Hamouche, Nacéra (17 May 2006). "Isabelle Eberhardt, sa voie et sa foi en l'Islam". Arabesques (in French). Retrieved 16 September 2015.
  20. Bodley 1968, p. 146.
  21. Abdel-Jaouad 1993, p. 110.
  22. Bodley 1968, p. 148.
  23. Bodley 1968, p. 149.
  24. Bodley 1968, p. 150.
  25. Bodley 1968, p. 151.
  26. Bodley 1968, p. 152.
  27. 1 2 Bodley 1968, p. 153.
  28. Clancy-Smith 1994, p. 248.
  29. Bodley 1968, p. 154.
  30. Bodley 1968, p. 155.
  31. 1 2 Bodley 1968, p. 156.
  32. Vuilleumie, Marc (7 November 2005). "Eberhardt, Isabelle". Biography (in German). Swiss Historical Lexikon. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
  33. Bodley 1968, p. 157.
  34. Belenky 2011, p. 103.
  35. Bodley 1968, p. 164.
  36. Aldrich 1996, p. 158.
  37. 1 2 Bodley 1968, p. 165.
  38. Abdel-Jaouad 1993, p. 102.
  39. Bowker, Gordon (July 31, 2006). "Cecily Mackworth". The Independent.
  40. Bayer, William (1976). Visions of Isabelle. Delacorte Press. ISBN 978-0-440-09315-2.
  41. Foster, Verna A. (2007). "Reinventing Isabelle Eberhardt: Rereading Timberlake Wertenbaker's New Anatomies" (PDF). Connotations: A Journal for Critical Debate. 17: 109–128. Retrieved 15 September 2015.
  42. Blaetz, Robin (25 September 2007). Women's Experimental Cinema: Critical Frameworks. Duke University Press. p. 252. ASIN B0140D5CEG.
  43. "Isabelle Eberhardt (1991)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 16 September 2015.
  44. Mullins, Lisa (24 February 2012). "'Song from the Uproar': An Opera on Isabelle Eberhardt". Public Radio International. Retrieved 16 September 2015.


  • Abdel-Jaouad, Hedi (1993). "Isabelle Eberhardt: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Nomad". Yale French Studies. 2 (83): 93. doi:10.2307/2930089. JSTOR 2930089. 
  • Aldrich, Robert (1996). Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion. Macmillan, London. ISBN 978-0-312-16000-5. 
  • Belenky, Masha (2011). "Nomadic Encounters: Leïla Sebbar Writes Isabelle Eberhardt". Dalhousie French Studies. 96. ISSN 0711-8813. JSTOR 23621483. 
  • Bodley, R.V.C. (1968). The Soundless Sahara. Robert Hale Limited. ISBN 978-0-7091-0066-9. 
  • Chouiten, Lynda (2012). Dictionary of Literary Biography: Orientalist Writers. 366. Coeli Fitzpatrick. pp. 59–66. ISBN 978-0-7876-8184-5. 
  • Clancy-Smith, Julie Ann (1994). Rebel and Saint : Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800-1904). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-52092-037-8. 

Further reading

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