Isabelle Eberhardt, Abandoning 19th Century Society for Unknown Desert Sands

Born in 1897, Isabelle Eberhardt was a complex and intriguing figure. From childhood she was homeschooled by her staunch non-conformist father, alongside her brother, where they were taught several languages including classical Arabic, ensuring his children were enquiring polyglots, with remarkable attitudes to dress and social acceptability, Isabelle was encouraged to dress as a boy, enabling her to enjoy the freedom and agility unaccessible in a the fashionable restrictive frock worn at the time. Here, the seeds for an alternative lifestyle were embedded in Isabelles personality, and it was perhaps the anarchist impression of her father than influenced her radical choice of moving to North Africa, travelling through the deserts and villages dressed as a man, marrying an Algerian soldier, and accepting Islam.

Reading The Nomad, Isabelle finds herself in a profound predicament after the death of her mother in 1897, confronted with the nihilism of her father, who offers her a revolver to commit suicide as a solution for dealing with the distress she felt at the loss of her mother. Yet more turbulent years were to come. She then faced the suicide of her older brother Vladimir, in 1899, and the death of her (suspected) father Alexander Trophimowsky in 1899. These sudden and in succession, mournful circumstances, appear to have had a calcifying effect on Isabelle’s determination to live her life as absolutely and authentically as possible.

Leaving the safety of her home in Switzerland at the age of twenty, Isabelle decided to live in French occupied North Africa. Upon arrival, rather than seeking out the familiar in

the unknown, she effectively alienated herself from the European colonial settlers already in residence, and embarked upon a fascinating journey for the duration of her short, yet significant life. Submerging herself in the customs of a Sufi brotherhood, where astonishingly she was accepted and treated, ambiguously, as a male. Isabelle delegated her own dress code with her characteristic requirements as linchpin, she notes, In The Shadow of Islam, ‘I’m able to pass everywhere completely unobserved, an excellent position to be in for observing. If woman are not good at this, it’s because their costume attracts attention. Women have always been made to be looked at, and they aren’t much bothered by the fact. This attitude I think, gives far too much advantage to men.’ (1897) Addressed as Si Mahmoud Saadi, Isabelle travelled, worshiped and lived with the Brotherhood, thus invoking the fury of the French occupational government. Undeterred, she stayed in Algeria, articulating controversial anti-colonial opinions, which in turn provoked an assassination attempt on her life in 1901. Despite potential pernicious risk, Isabelle married Algerian soldier, Sliméne Ehnni, further enraging the French authorities.

Prior to her time in North Africa, she spends time in Sardinia, in a diary entry, dated 1st January 1900, she solemnly reflects, ‘I am alone, sitting facing the grey expanse of the shifting sea…I am alone…alone as I’ve always been everywhere, as I’ll always be throughout this seductive and deceptive universe…alone, with a whole world of dashed hopes, disappointment and disillusionment behind me, and of memories that grow daily more distant, almost losing all reality.’ Her despair is palpable, yet her resilience and independence is remarkable, considering the loss and dislocation she is experiencing. In, The Shadow of Islam, she confronts her own shortcoming and erroneous assumptions, acknowledging unconscious bigotry. Here, in Africa whilst interacting with black muslims, she is confronted with a thought process and negative stereotypes which distinctly contradict an essential component of equality in Islam, being categorised only by righteousness contradicts European attitudes of racial superiority, as such Isabelle traverses through her prejudices and critically scrutinises her own unreasonable, subconscious cognitive processes.

Isabelle’s time in Algeria is dominated by male presence, the Brotherhood admits only men, as a consequence she has little opportunity to experience the female actuality. Although one woman Isabelle does distantly observe and identify with was Lella Khaddoudja. Isabelle finds herself staying in the house that belongs to Lella, and when she seeks more information on the owner, there is a noted affinity. Lella, widowed at a young age with two children, a girl and boy. She agree’s to remarry her cousin on the condition that he takes her to Makkah on the Hajj pilgrimage. Consequnetly, without her son, Lella leaves with her new husband, a servant recounts her departure, ‘The day she left Kenadsa, we all, every servant, accompanied her as far as the Ain each Cheikh fountain, on the road to Bechar. From her seat on the mule-back she turned one last time to look at the Ksar, and told us she would never return, because she would rather live and die on the sacred soil of Hedjaz (or Hajj).’ Isabelle says of her, ‘I, too, begin musing about Lella Khaddoudja, who must have a rather adventurous soul, to break so willingly with the sleep routine, the cloistered life she was born to, to go off and start a new life under another sky.’ (Eberhardt, In The Shadow of Islam, p.62) When considering the sociological differences of these two women, the sense of living for a greater, profound reason, resonates with both individuals, equally and irrespective of their financial, social and educational circumstances. In both ways these women were making the same religious expedition, connecting to their spiritual instincts and utilising their own means to an end.

After a time spent travelling alone Isabelle was reunited with her husband Sliméne, they rented a spartan clay hut near a riverbed, just one day into their time there was a flash flood. Tragically, at the age of twenty-seven, Isabelle was found inside the house, she had drowned and was found wedged behind a fallen beam, survived by her husband. In her short life Isabelle had responded to her spiritual call, and committed to her quest relentlessly. Her life was a complex one, full of controversy and courageousness, yet despite the many obstacles she pursued unlikely friendships and constantly challenged her perspectives and interpretation of living a meaningful, authentic life.


Eberhardt, Isabelle. In The Shadow Of Islam. Reprint, Peter Owen Publishers, 2016.

Eberhardt, Isabelle. The Oblivion Seekers. Reprint, London: Peter Owen, 2010.

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