Patti Smith championed her, Paul Bowles translated her writings into English, but Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904) may be best remembered for her embrace of personal and artistic freedom. Spiritual heiress to Arthur Rimbaud—some dubious rumors say she was his illegitimate daughter—Isabelle Eberhardt proclaimed, ‘Literature is my Polar Star.’ An itinerant journalist, diarist, novelist, and anti-colonialist, she was known as Algeria’s ‘Androgyne du Desert’. Ingrid Jensen revisits the fascinating life of Isabelle Eberhardt for PKM.
“A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places.”
Excepting certain innovations in dentistry, for which I am very grateful, I despise technology. I don’t like glowing screens, tiny keyboards, or the constant and unnecessary deluge of information and images on social media. It’s quite sad that, when you need help locating something in a library these days, you are more likely to be advised to look in the online card catalog than handed a helpful slip of paper with Dewey decimals scrawled on it. I am not willing to spend any more time in front of a computer than I have to, and therefore I’ve stopped asking for help in libraries. This means, of course, that it takes me about eight times as long to find something as it would a normal person, and that I end up finding a lot of things I wasn’t looking for (The Comprehensive History of English Rakes, anyone?) but to me, it’s worth it.
Recently, I spent an afternoon shifting through the musty shelves on the third floor of the school library, getting dust up my nose and choking on the cloying fragrance of the ube bubble tea someone was slurping in the study area. I was looking for books by Isabelle Eberhardt, and not having much luck.
I was about to give up, when a small, pocket-sized volume slipped from a pile of books on the Algerian War of Independence. I recognized a photo of Eberhardt on the cover, and my heart jumped in delight. She was dressed in full Arab riding gear, the guise of her desert alter ego, Si Mahmoud Essadi. The translation was by Paul Bowles, one of Eberhardt’s many famous fans. (It was through Patti Smith that I discovered Eberhardt’s writings—Smith has long been a champion of the obscure and underrated, using her fame to beam light into dark corners.)
Isabelle Eberhardt is known for her posthumously published short stories and diaries, for being perhaps the only woman indoctrinated into the Qadiriyya sect of Sufism, and for being a founding member of the 27 Club. She is considered one of the first female travel writers and was an outspoken anti-colonialist who acted as a war correspondent on the side of the rebels during the early French occupation of Algeria.
Reading the words of someone long dead can feel akin to a sort of worship or spiritual communication. By reading their thoughts and ideas, one can conjure their presence. Isabelle left a lot of thoughts behind, many of them still intensely relevant. Her writing is evocative, precise and full of fascinating anecdotes.
Her correspondence, which was rich and varied, poses a continuous puzzle to translators due to the fact that a single letter of correspondence is usually written in three or four different languages, which she switched between with the ease we switch television channels today. (The majority of her work was published posthumously. The Oblivion Seekers, In the Shadow of Islam, The Nomad: Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, Prisoner of Dunes, Letters from the Sand and Vagabond are the titles usually available today.)
Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt was born on the 17th of February in Geneva, Switzerland, in the year 1877. It is rumored without fact that Arthur Rimbaud was her father—they shared only a similar set of moral values and a (very) vague facial resemblance. She was, much more likely, the illegitimate daughter of Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt) and Alexandre Trophimowsky, a tutor engaged by Nathalie’s husband (a Russian general forty years her elder) to teach their children. Trophimowsky was a Russian anarchist, a defrocked priest who had been closely connected with Tolstoy. He was a nihilist who rejected nearly every idea of conventional morality and remained comfortably with the Moerder family as a tutor even after Isabelle’s birth.
Isabelle adored him and called him “Vava.” Vava taught her to speak five languages: French, Russian, Latin, Italian and Arabic. She was raised without the prejudices of the time (Vava believed that all genders were equal) allowed to wear trousers, cut her hair short, do anything boys did and not to put a check on her ambitions, ever. Her studies of classical Arabic with Vava led to Isabelle developing a fascination with Northern Africa.
She read and wrote voraciously. “Literature is my polar star,” she declared, and embarked while still in her teens on a career of fiction writing (short stories, and novel aptly entitled Vagabond) and journalism—she worked as a war correspondent while living in Algeria in her twenties.)
Her first published work was a piece called Infernalia, a short story detailing a medical student’s sexual attraction to one of his cadavers. Her next publication was Vision of the Maghreb, a tale of religious life in North Africa. Isabelle was strongly anti-colonialist and made use of her writing to express her feelings on the matter.
In 1895, when she was 18, she met a French-Algerian photographer called Louis David, an avid admirer of her writing. He took her portrait dressed as a sailor wearing a cap emblazoned with the phrase VENGEANCE, her hair cropped short. David took a liking to the fiery young girl, and when he heard of her longing to live in Algeria, offered to help her move to the port city of Bône (today known as Annaba.) It took a few years, but in 1897 she made the long move from her home in Switzerland, travelling with her mother.
Once established in Bône, they both converted to Islam. Isabelle was delighted to finally be physically present in the land about which she’d spent her teens dreaming, but her happiness was short-lived. Her mother died of a heart attack six months after their arrival. Isabelle went half-mad with grief and raged about their small apartment, threatening suicide. Vava arrived from Europe to comfort her, but when faced with her ravings, he silently handed her his pistol. Isabelle declined to use it. She remained in Bône until she ran out of money and was forced to return to Switzerland. Once home, she found Vava gravely ill with cancer of the throat. Isabelle nursed him as best she could, but he worsened, and died a few months after her arrival of a chloral overdose. It is entirely possible that Isabelle administered it, fulfilling the old fatalist’s last request.
When, to her great relief, she had gathered enough money to return to Algeria, she voiced her now-complete aloneness in the world to her diary: “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 the seductive and deceptive universe…alone, with a whole world of dashed hopes, disappointment and disillusion behind me, and of memories that grow daily more distant, almost losing all reality.”
Her entry then takes on a Rimbaudian flavor:
“Seen from the outside, I wear the mask of the cynic, the dissipated and debauched layabout. No one yet has managed to see through to my real inner self, which is sensitive and pure and rises above the humiliation and baseness I choose to wallow in.”
The author Claude-Maurice Robert, who wrote a biography of Isabelle, said that she “drank more than a Légionnaire, smoked more kif than a hashish addict, and made love for the love of making love.” Isabelle loved hashish, but she liked smoking, period—once, when she was penniless in Paris, she fashioned cigarettes from rolled up leaves gathered on the Rue du Tivoli. Considering the amount of stimulants she consumed, the clarity and sharpness of her writing is surprising. Her friends gently teased her for breaking the traditional Islamic rules that forbid alcohol and drug consumption, but Isabelle merely shrugged and grinned. She was stubborn, and despite her devotion to the religion, did what she liked, when she liked.
While living in Africa, Isabelle usually presented herself as a man, in the garb of an Arab cavalryman. She had dressed in boy’s clothes for the majority of her life, and when her friends questioned her need to appear sometimes as Si Mahmoud Essadi, and sometimes as Isabelle Eberhardt, she replied that she had been raised “as a boy,” and that she would rather appear in clothes in which she was comfortable than in a “cheap, ill-fitting,” dress. It was vital to her that her two identities be kept separate, and often she and her alter ego were friends with people who never figured out that Si Mahmoud and Isabelle were actually the same person.
Throughout her life in Northern Africa, Isabelle remained horrified and disgusted by the foul way Europeans treated Arabs. In order to bring public attention to the atrocities, she worked as a war correspondent, covering the Algerian rebellion against the occupying French.
In 1901, she was ordered out of Algeria by the French, who suspected her of being an English spy (they had made a previous attempt to assassinate her and failed.) She was permitted to return the following year when she had married her partner, an Algerian solider named Slimène Ehnni, whom she speaks of frequently and with tremendous affection in her diaries. She remained in Algeria with Slimène from 1902 until her death in a flash flood in the oasis of Ain Séfra, in 1904.
When Eberhardt’s body was discovered pinned beneath a wooden beam at her rented house in Ain Séfra, surrounded by a waterlogged halo of the pages of her unfinished manuscript, it was Slimène who snatched up the pages, dried them, copied what writing was salvageable and ensured that they were later published. He understood that she had held her writing to be of an importance above all other things and ensured that her wishes were honored even beyond her death. It is entirely thanks to Slimène that we have her work available to us today.
“A subject to which few intellectuals ever give a thought is the right to be a vagrant, the freedom to wander. Yet vagrancy is a deliverance, and life on the open road is the essence of freedom. To have the courage to smash the chains with which modern life has weighted us (under the pretext that it was offering us more liberty), then to take up the symbolic stick and bundle and get out.”
Excerpts from Song Fromthe Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, a one-act opera by Missy Mazzoli, which premiered at The Kitchen in NYC in 2012: