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Unsung Heroes: Isabelle Eberhardt

2011 March 31

When your mother is a Russian aristocrat convalescing in Switzerland and your father is an Armenian anarchist ex-priest you have to do some pretty special things with your life just to balance out the sheer coolness of your own birth. Isabelle Eberhardt does not disappoint, living a life that seemed straight from the pages of Adventure and its pulp ilk.

Black and white photograph showing Isabelle Eberhardt in sailor's uniform, looking quite androgynous.In 1901, aged 24, Eberhardt was attacked by a sabre-wielding assassin whilst praying at an Algerian mosque. She survived, but her left arm was almost severed. A reasonable response to this might be to get quite upset, feel somewhat hostile towards the man who just attempted to murder you, and ask for him to be punished to the full extent of the law. Eberhardt however had reached a stage in her life where she was quite simply too badass to be upset by little things like assassination attempts. Instead she chose to forgive her assailant and later represented him in court, successfully arguing for his life to be spared.

How did the daughter of a Russian aristocrat, born in Geneva, end up facing assassination attempts in Algeria? It started with her anarchist tutor father, who taught her Arabic and other languages, horse-riding, theology, and literature. The interest in literature in turn led her to the work of Julien Viaud, a French lieutenant serving in North Africa and writing under the pen name Pierre Loti. Loti’s writing sparked a fascination with North Africa, which coupled with a weariness of Geneva’s formal society and hostility from her older step-siblings, who disliked her father, convinced Eberhardt that she needed to do some travelling of her own.

Travelling to Algiers with her mother in 1897, both of them quickly converted to Islam. They began to travel North Africa but Eberhardt’s mother passed away, as did her father back in Europe shortly afterwards. With her family ties severed, Eberhardt was free to fully devote herself to her travels. To this end she adopted the identity of a young man, taking the name Si Mahmoud Essadi. Having apparently developed a knack for the art of disguise, and being fluent in Arabic, she had little trouble blending in and taking advantage of the greater freedoms her new identity allowed her.

Travelling around North Africa under the guise of Si Mahmoud, Eberhardt became involved with the Qadiriyya, a secretive and radical Sufi brotherhood. The Qadiriyya were strongly opposed to colonial rule of Algeria and struggled against it, whilst also attempting to help the poor. Eberhardt, who by this point had begun writing journals and perhaps attempting to follow the path of Loti, threw herself into the Qadiryya cause, penning articles and works of prose railing against the French rule and celebrating the local culture. This is most likely what led to the assassination attempt against her, described earlier.

One very graceful impression is that of sunset over the port and the terraces of the upper town, and the gay Algerian women; a whole playful world in pink and green on the slightly blue-tinted white of the uneven and disorderly terraces. It’s from the little lattice window of Madame Ben Aben that you discover all this.

– Isabelle Eberhardt, Journals

Later that same year, having survived the near-severing of her arm, Eberhardt married an Algerian soldier, Slimane Ehnni. This didn’t slow her down though, as she continued to travel and write, acting as a war correspondent in the South of Oran for the French press. She also continued to push social boundaries, writing in her journals about adventures with alcohol and other intoxicants. Alongside her devotion to her adopted faith, her anarchist upbringing and free spirit kept her bending and breaking rules to experience every possible moment of her new country.

I am not afraid of death, but would not want to die in some obscure or pointless way.

- Isabelle Eberhardt, Journals

How does Eberhardt’s tale end? In a manner entirely suited to the general badass themes of Eberhardt’s life as a whole. In 1904, after another extended journey of exploration and writing, Eberhardt reunited with her husband in Aïn Séfra, an area remarkable for its dryness even by Algerian standards. The pair had barely settled in when a flash flood struck the area and their house – made of clay – collapsed on them.

Eberhardt escaped, but swam back in to pull her husband out. She managed to get him to safety but lost her own life in the process. Drowning in a flood in the middle of a desert, giving her own life to save someone she’d spent a long period estranged from, aged only 27. Arguably Eberhardt achieved her wish, fitting in one last act of boldness in a thoroughly unusual incident.

Following her death, Eberhardt’s journals were rescued from the flood. They document the last four years of her life and her adventures around North Africa. Along with a novel and several articles written for French newspapers these have cemented Eberhardt as one of the 20th century’s most bold and fascinating of wanderers.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    March 31, 2011

    DEFINITELY joining the super-team.

  2. March 31, 2011

    Awesome account. She sounds reminiscent of the fictional (and male) Hub McCann, from the excellent movie Secondhand Lions.

  3. March 31, 2011

    Excellent post :). I’ve been interested in Isabelle Eberhart since reading Annette Kobak’s biography of her, Isabelle – it seems to be out of print now but Amazon has some used copies for cheap and I can recommend it.

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