Isabelle Eberhardt

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Isabelle Eberhardt
Isabelle Eberhardt.jpg
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 who lived and travelled extensively in North Africa. For her time she was a liberated individual who rejected conventional European morality in favour of her own path and that of Islam.[1] She died in a flash-flood in the desert at the age of 27.[2]

Early life and family background[edit]

Eberhardt was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to an aristocratic Lutheran Baltic German Russian[clarification needed] mother, Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt), and an Armenian-born father, Alexandre Trophimowsky, an anarchist and former priest.[3] Isabelle's mother had been married to elderly widower General Pavel de Moerder, who held important Imperial positions. After bearing him two sons and a daughter she traveled to Switzerland to convalesce, taking along her stepson and her own children, with their tutor Trophimowsky. Soon after arriving in Geneva she gave birth again, to Isabelle's half-brother Augustin, and four months later came the news that her husband had died of a heart attack. She elected to remain in Switzerland and, four years later, Isabelle was born and registered as her "illegitimate" daughter to avoid acknowledging the tutor's paternity.[3]

Despite this, Isabelle was well educated. She was fluent in French and spoke Russian, German and Italian.[3] She was taught Latin and Greek, and studied classical Arabic and read the Koran with her father; she later became fluent in Arabic.[1][4] From an early age she dressed as a man in order to enjoy the greater freedom this allowed her.[5]

Travelling to Africa[edit]

In 1888 her half-brother Augustin joined the French Foreign Legion and was assigned to Algeria. This sparked Isabelle's interest in the orient and she started to learn Arabic. Her first trip to North Africa was with her mother in May 1897, whereby her mother was hoping to meet up with Augustin. They were also considering setting up a new life there. While there they both converted to Islam, fulfilling a long-standing interest. However, her mother died suddenly in Annaba and was buried there under the name of Fatma Mannoubia.[6]

Two years later Trophimowsky died of throat cancer in 1899 in Geneva, nursed by Isabelle. Following the suicide of her half-brother, Vladimir, and the marriage of Augustin to a French woman Isabelle felt nothing in common with (she wrote: "Augustin is once and for all headed for life's beaten tracks" [7]), her ties to her former life were all but severed. From then on, as recorded in her journals, Isabelle Eberhardt spent most of the rest of her life in Africa, making northern Algeria her home and exploring the desert.[3]

Spiritual journeys[edit]

Dressed as a man and calling herself Si Mahmoud Essadi, Eberhardt travelled in Arab society with a freedom she could not otherwise have experienced. She had converted to Islam and regarded it as her true calling in life.[8][9]

On her travels she made contact with a Sufi order, the Qadiriyya. They were heavily involved in helping the poor and needy while fighting against the injustices of colonial rule. At the beginning of 1901, in Behima, she was attacked by a man with a sabre, in an apparent attempt to assassinate her. Her arm was nearly severed, but she later forgave the man and (successfully) pleaded for his life to be spared. She married Slimane Ehnni, an Algerian soldier, on 17 October 1901, in Marseille.[10]

On 21 October 1904, Eberhardt died in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria. After a long separation, her husband had just joined her. She had rented a house for the occasion. This house, constructed of clay, collapsed on the couple during the flood; her husband was washed away but survived.[1] She was buried according to the rites of Islam at Aïn Séfra. Slimane Ehnni died in 1907.


Isabelle wrote on her travels in many books and French newspapers, including Nouvelles Algériennes ("Algerian Short Stories") (1905), Dans l'Ombre Chaude de l'Islam ("In the Warm Shadow of Islam") (1906), and Les journaliers ("The Day Laborers") (1922). She started working as a war reporter in the South of Oran in 1903.

In culture[edit]

Eberhardt was portrayed by Mathilda May in the 1991 film Isabelle Eberhardt, which co-starred Peter O'Toole as a French colonial officer.[11]

On 24 February 2012, an opera composed by Missy Mazzoli, Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, premiered in New York City.[12]

Eberhardt's life was chronicled by Annette Kobak in her biography, Isabelle: A Life of Isabelle Eberhardt, published by Knopf.

Isabelle Eberhardt is mentioned in Jolie Holland's song "Old Fashioned Morphine", which is on her second album, Escondida.

Timberlake Wertenbaker wrote a play New Anatomies about Isabelle Eberhardt.[13]

Visions Of Isabelle[14] by William Bayer is a fictionalized account of the life of Isabelle Eberhardt.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kobak, Annette, Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt. London: Chatto & Windus, ISBN 978-0394576916; New York: Knopf, 1988, ISBN 0-394-57691-8. London: Virago Classic, with new introduction, 1989, ISBN 1-84408-342-X
  • Eberhardt, Isabelle, Amours Nomades (ed. Joëlle Losfeld), 2003. ISBN 2-84412-155-1. Contains biography.
  • Eberhardt, Isabelle, The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt (trans. Nina de Voogd; ed. Elizabeth Kershaw), with an Introduction by Annette Kobak. London: Summersdale Travel, 2002. ISBN 1-84024-140-3
  • Eberhardt, Isabelle, "The Oblivion Seekers & other writings" (trans. Paul Bowles), City LIghts [San Francisco], 1975. ISBN 978-0-87286-082-7
  • Lorcin, Patricia M. E. (2012). Historicizing colonial nostalgia : European women's narratives of Algeria and Kenya 1900–present. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9780230338654. 
  • Smith, Patti, "Early Work:1970-1979", 1994. ISBN 978-0393313017. W.W. Norton and Company, New York,London.


  1. ^ a b c "Eberhardt, Isabelle (1877–1904)". Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia via HighBeam Research. January 2002. Retrieved 24 November 2012. (subscription required)
  2. ^ Abdel-Jaouad, Hedi (1993). "Isabelle Eberhardt: Portrait of the artist as a young nomad". Yale French Studies 2 (83): 93–117. 
  3. ^ a b c d Rentsch, Steffi (February 2004). "Stillgestellter Orient – 100th anniversary of death of Isabelle Eberhardt" (PDF). Essays (in German). Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  4. ^ Review by Eve Auchincloss of The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt By Annette Kobak Knopf. Washington Post, 21 May 1989
  5. ^ Kobak, Annette, Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt. London: Chatto & Windus; New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988; London: Virago Classic, 1998.
  6. ^ "Isabelle Eberhardt, Reporter et Voyageuse". Feuille d'Avis Officielle. Canton Geneva. 2 September 2002. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  7. ^ "That is what must be, and so it shall be.". From the Journals. [dead link]
  8. ^ Eberhardt, Isabelle (1906). Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam (in French). Charpentier et Fasquelle. 
  9. ^ Review of Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam
  10. ^ Vuilleumie, Marc (7 November 2005). "Eberhardt, Isabelle". Biography (in German). Swiss Historical Lexikon. Retrieved 20 June 2012. 
  11. ^ Isabelle Eberhardt(1991) at Turner Classic Movies
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  14. ^ ISBN 0-440-09315-5