From conception onwards, Isabelle Eberhardt‘s existence owed nothing to convention.
Eberhardt was born in Switzerland in 1877, her mother a Russian noblewoman married to a general, though he did not father Isabelle. That role was filled by the Armenian Alexander Trophimowsky, who had lived in Russia and was steeped in the radical currents raging through the country at the time – anarchism, utopianism and ultimately nihilism. He served as the young Isabelle’s tutor, passing on not just his passion for revolt but also teaching her Arabic, among other languages.
Growing up on the shores of Lake Geneva, Eberhardt’s imagination was soon drawn to the sandy expanses of North Africa. She was already dressing up in robes as if rehearsing for the role of nomadic adventurer she would later inhabit, but the rest of the time she dressed as a boy, encouraged by her tutor/father who judged it more practical.
On her first trip to Algeria in 1897 Eberhardt adopted male dress so that she could move about without a chaperone, a practice not unknown among young, unmarried females in the region at that time. After her definitive move in 1899, Eberhardt discovered that it gave her much more sexual license as well.
Despite her numerous lovers, her drinking and hash-smoking, Eberhardt converted to Islam, and was in time received into a Sufi order. With shaved head and still dressed as a man she adopted a male persona, Si Mahmoud. But outside of the cities Eberhardt’s attire provoked suspicion and on one occasion murderous rage, when a fanatical assailant attempted to kill her. When asked during the subsequent trial why she persisted in dressing as a man, Eberhardt answered simply “it is practical for riding.”
Eberhardt was an enemy to all conformity, and her longing for the “Orient” went beyond mere hunger for exoticism. Her wild rides into the limitless desert were a desperate flight from all compass points and a frenzied embrace of nothingness.
When her soldier lover Slimane Ehnni suggested he might buy her a dress and even a wig to cover her cropped hair, she replied initially that the idea was “quite mad”. “I don’t care if I dress as a workman, but to wear ill-fitting, cheap and ridiculous women’s clothes, no, never…” More than the cross-dressing, though, it was the cross-cultural-dressing that bothered him. And so when they married in 1901, Eberhardt dressed for once as a simple bourgeoise, bodiced and bewigged. Once in Algeria she returned to male dress, albeit Western, and so a French journalist encountered her that same year in Algiers, as “a pale schoolboy, in a thin suit of blue cloth”.
Eberhardt, a contrarian to the last, died in a desert flood in 1904.