When the Swiss-Russian writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt died in the Algerian Sahara in 1904, she was physically ravaged. She was only twenty-seven, but heavy smoking, drinking, and drug use had taken their toll, as had poor nourishment. On her travels she’d carried a gun, but not a toothbrush, and so she had lost her teeth. She suffered from malaria and possibly syphilis, and just before her death had spent weeks hospitalized with fever. An assassination attempt a few years earlier, when a religious enemy attacked Eberhardt with a sword, had nearly severed her arm and left her in constant pain. Despite her youth, her body could no longer carry on. Her strange and brilliant mind, though, was immortalized by the travelogues, journalism, and fiction she left behind. “No one ever lived more from day to day than I, or was more dependent upon chance,” Eberhardt wrote shortly before her death. “It is the inescapable chain of events that has brought me to this point, rather than I who have caused things to happen.”
A devotee of Islam and a Sufi initiate, Eberhardt repeatedly invoked the principle of mektoub: it is written. It was an all-purpose fatalism that allowed her to accept heartache, since it was, in her words, “totally useless and absurd” to rebel against sorrow. She rebelled against nearly everything else. She had innumerable erotic encounters with young Arab men (“God made me sensual”) and gave free rein to the wanderlust that took her, in male guise, across the desert plains of North Africa. With preternatural boldness, she cast off all strictures—sartorial, behavioral, and sexual—associated with turn-of-the-century womanhood. Her early French biographer Claude-Maurice Robert marveled that she “drank more than a Légionnaire, smoked more kif than a hashish addict, and made love for the love of making love.”
Eberhardt’s roots were cosmopolitan, tangled, and romantic. According to some accounts, her mother, Nathalie, was the result of a liaison between a fraulein Eberhardt and a wealthy Russian Jew. Eberhardt’s biographer Annette Kobak, however, describes blonde, elegant Nathalie as the legitimate scion of an aristocratic Prussian family in Moscow. Regardless of her lineage, Nathalie made a good marriage to Senator-General Pavel de Moerder, a senior adviser to the tsar. They had three children, two boys and a girl, for whom a tutor was engaged. This rather mundane development turned momentous. The household’s new member, a dark-bearded Armenian named Alexander Trophimowsky, was a defrocked priest, an anarchist associate of Mikhail Bakunin and Tolstoy, and irresistibly attractive. Barely a year passed before Nathalie ran away to Switzerland with the tutor, who was also married, and her children. After nine months another son, Augustin, arrived. Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt followed five years later. She was registered as the fille naturelle—illegitimate daughter—of Nathalie.
Though Trophimowsky was almost certainly her father, Eberhardt grew up calling him by his nickname, Vava. As an adult, she enjoyed weaving stories around her ambiguous parentage. Her real father, she once claimed, was a doctor who raped her mother. More often, to bolster her adopted Islamic identity, she referred to her father as a Tatar Muslim. In one fanciful theory, advanced by Arthur Rimbaud’s biographer Pierre Arnoult long after Eberhardt’s death, she was the daughter of the idolized French poet. The evidence, including the eighteen-year-old Rimbaud’s presence in Geneva when Eberhardt was conceived, is wholly circumstantial. Still, it makes for a compelling piece of apocrypha. The two writers, who both fled repressive bourgeois Europe for the stirring atmosphere of Africa, had a passing facial resemblance and shared a restless, visionary, live-fast-die-young spirit. At sixteen, Rimbaud declared, “I’m now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet … The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering.” Eberhardt’s diary from when she was twenty-two contains a similar sentiment:
I assume for the gallery the borrowed mask of the cynic, the debauched layabout. No one yet has managed to see through to my real inner self, which is sensitive and pure and which rises above the degrading baseness I choose to wallow in, out of contempt for convention and also out of a strange desire to suffer.
Being the secret offspring of a canonized literary rebel who slept with both men and women, devoured opium and absinthe, and pioneered new poetic forms would have appealed to Eberhardt. But whether or not she shared his genes, it was Trophimowsky who wielded the most decisive influence.
The runaway family lived in the Villa Neuve, a large house in the countryside outside Geneva, set on four and a half verdant acres surrounded by pine trees. Eberhardt, according to neighbors, would “dance about like a little wild animal along the garden paths. Untamed and unfettered, she did whatever took her fancy from morning to night. Her fantasies knew no bounds.” The children were taught at home by Trophimowsky, whose anarchist principles dictated that boys and girls alike should be intellectually nurtured. Along with an eclectic program of reading that included Voltaire, Plato, Turgenev, and Zola, Trophimowsky taught Eberhardt—who grew up bilingual in French and Russian—Latin, Italian, and Arabic.
By age sixteen, Eberhardt could read the Koran in Arabic, and was already feeling the magnetic draw of faraway lands. Spellbound by the novels of Pierre Loti and their evocative fictionalizing of his travels in “the Orient,” she set her heart on going to North Africa. It was a place, she wrote, that exerted “an extraordinary attraction” before she’d ever seen it. Her short story Visions of the Maghreb, written when she was eighteen and still living in Switzerland, is an eerily precise projection of Eberhardt’s future. Published under a male pseudonym in the French journal Nouvelle Revue Moderne (whose contributors also included Loti and Rimbaud’s erstwhile boyfriend Paul Verlaine), this precocious, atmospheric tale depicts a young Russian woman’s encounters with Halim, an Islamic mystic in Algeria. Its portrayal of Halim could be of the author herself a couple of years hence:
Of medium height, his slenderness seemed almost feminine beneath the wrapping of his coarse clothing typical of a man of the people … He sat down near the fire across from me, and in its rekindled glimmer, I saw his pale face, almost unreal in its beauty, with dark eyes that seemed illuminated from the interior by a mystical flame beneath the perfect arch of his black eyebrows.
Eberhardt’s cross-dressing began under Trophimowsky’s scholastic regime, where girls were expected to perform physical as well as intellectual labor. At his behest, Eberhardt had short hair and wore boys’ clothing, all the more practical for chopping wood, gardening, and riding horses. In her late teens, when she was old enough to wander Geneva by herself, Trophimowsky allowed her to do so only if she wore trousers. She had a dalliance with a married man she met in the city, a “sensualist” like herself named Charles Schwarz. On one of their dates, Eberhardt was drunk and dressed as a sailor. Schwarz bet her that she wouldn’t dare embrace him in public. But, as she delightedly relayed to her brother Augustin, she called his bluff. They kissed at length while sitting in a drugstore. This type of homoerotic role-playing, a recurrent theme of Eberhardt’s sexual escapades, is the animating force of her only novel, Vagabond.
Drawing on Eberhardt’s experiences as well as those of Augustin, Vagabond is a bildungsroman that charts the determination of a young Russian, Dimitri Orschanow, to maintain the freedom he adores. At the beginning of the novel, Orschanow, a medical student, falls in love with Vera, a clever and thoughtful political activist. But the normal life that stretches before him—marriage, children, a respectable career as a doctor—cannot compete in his imagination with the alternative:
To become a free vagabond sleeping on the side of the road, someone who possesses nothing and envies no one, someone at odds with neither himself nor with his fellow men, but happy in his independence, master of things, not dominated by them, and master above all of the infinite horizons.
Orschanow indulges his “love of the bewitching elsewhere.” Abandoning the devoted Vera, he goes to seek a life of proletarian simplicity, liberated from domestication, sameness, and middle-class convention. It is a beautifully written, highly idealized fantasy. Yet the novel’s exaltation of nomadism, and its philosophical rejection of ambition and materialism, is as thought provoking today as it was a hundred years ago. “A subject to which intellectuals never give a thought,” wrote Eberhardt in a notebook, “is the right to be a vagrant, the freedom to wander. Yet vagrancy is deliverance, and life on the open road is the essence of freedom.”
At around the age of twenty-one, Eberhardt began to travel around the Maghreb dressed as a young Arab or Turkish man. She would introduce herself as Si Mahmoud Saadi. If her biological sex was evident to some, Arab codes of courtesy meant that she wasn’t challenged. Dressed in loose garments, with a fez atop her shaved head, she went on horseback expeditions through the Sahara, shared sleeping tents with groups of men, hung around the souks, and visited brothels with soldiers out of, she said, an “artist’s curiosity.” In Vagabond, a fascination with masculinity often shades into homoeroticism. Take, for example, this portrait of a group of dockers:
Their blue linen trousers were stained with tar and oil, their torsos seem molded into their blue and white vests, and loose red wool belts fell from their waists … The warm, rose-gold evening air brushed against their muscular necks and the bronzed contours of their faces.
When the dockers go on strike to protest their wages being undercut by migrant Italians, the politically jaded Orschanow views the action as foolhardy. Nevertheless, he is “mesmerized by the savage beauty of the crowd, by these healthy, robust men in their working clothes … suddenly dignified by their anger, their broad shoulders highlighted by the pools of alternating red and blue from the gas and electric lights.” It is startling, and amusing, to read such an unabashed sexualized portrayal of blue-collar masculinity from an educated and privileged nineteenth-century woman.
The novel’s renunciation of femininity extends to Orschanow’s experience with a pale-faced young prostitute. Her lovemaking, he notes with approval, “was bitter and brutal, without the sentimentality or spinelessness of most girls.” Eberhardt might have been talking about herself. Voraciously and unemotionally promiscuous, at times she lamented her “vulgar” side. Yet a friend from Tunis recalled that “when she saw a man she wanted, she took him. She’d beckon him over and off they’d go. She never made any pretenses; she never hid her adventures. Why should she?”
Eberhardt didn’t seem to worry about pregnancy. Judging by her readiness to live among men in the most basic conditions, she probably didn’t menstruate. If she was anorexic, as has been suggested, it ties in to both her religiosity and her masochism. “Suffering is a very positive thing,” she wrote, “for it sublimates the emotions and produces great courage or devotion; it creates the capacity for strong feelings and all-encompassing ideas.” Like her fellow Aquarian mystic Simone Weil, who starved herself and insisted on doing tough physical labor, Eberhardt would always choose a hard floor over a soft bed. Physical abnegation was a means of liberation, of transcendence over inconvenient biology.
Kobak remarks that Eberhardt “was living out in reality to an extraordinary degree the omniscience and androgyny that many writers take on in their imaginations.” By the same token, she viewed writing as a form of exhilarating exploration. “For me it seems that by advancing in unknown territories,” she wrote, “I enter my life.” Despite the compulsions—sex, drugs, alcohol, travel—that occupied her waking hours, her writing was of central importance, and she was eager for publication. She was driven to maintain, she wrote, “two lives, one that is full of adventure and belongs to the Desert, and one, calm and restful, devoted to thought and far from all that might interfere with it.”
At one point she considered settling down to a quiet life with Slimène Ehnni, an Algerian soldier with whom she fell passionately in love. Like Eberhardt, he belonged to the Qadriya, the oldest Sufi order. “God had pity on me and heard my prayers,” she wrote. “He gave me the ideal companion, so ardently desired, and without whom my life would always have been incoherent and mournful.” The young lovers talked about acquiring a small business to run together, a grocer’s or a café. When they got married in October 1901, Eberhardt wore a wig, for once bowing to convention.
But it was ludicrous to suppose that marriage would slow Eberhardt’s constant movement. While Ehnni’s post as a quartermaster kept him in the north of the country, she worked as a war correspondent, reporting on Moroccan-Algerian border clashes between Berber tribes and French forces making territorial incursions. She also carried out intelligence missions for Hubert Lyautey, the French brigadier general in charge of Oran, and acted as intermediary between him and the local people. With her perfect idiomatic Arabic and intimate knowledge of the region, Eberhardt proved a valuable asset. Though she tended toward an anti-colonial viewpoint, she apparently trusted that a French protectorate conducted according to Lyautey’s methods would benefit the Arab Muslims in Morocco. “What a delight,” wrote the general, “to find someone who is truly himself, who rejects prejudice, servitude, banality, and who moves through life as freely as a bird through the air.”
In the fall of 1904, when Eberhardt met up with her husband in the Saharan village of Aïn Sefra, they hadn’t seen each other for eight months. They spent a happy night together. The next day, at around eleven o’clock, a deafening torrent of water rushed down from the mountains and obliterated a quarter of the town. Ehnni was swept away by the current and survived, but Eberhardt’s body was found pinned under a beam of the house. She had just completed a manuscript of stories, and the muddy pages surrounded her. Under Lyautey’s orders, soldiers sifted through the devastation to find all her papers, which were painstakingly reassembled and preserved.
Eberhardt never made much money from her writing, and what little she had she spent quickly on tobacco, books, or gifts for friends. Vagabond began as a serialized story in Al-Akhbar in 1903, but she often filed installments late, or not at all. Her work appeared in book form only posthumously, with several collections of stories and reflections published to critical acclaim in the years after her death. Vagabond made its debut as a novel in France in 1922; in 1988 the Hogarth Press put out Kobak’s English translation, now out of print. Two anthologies, The Oblivion Seekers and In the Shadow of Islam, are currently available from the independent British press Peter Owen. These writings, which foreground the lives and experiences of North Africans, have established Eberhardt as a vital early critic of imperial rule. Her perspective, according to the Tunisian scholar Hédi A. Jaouad, “may have inaugurated the theme of decolonization in the Maghreb, for it expounded a theory of sociology and oppression whose theorists and critics would later include, among Francophone writers, the Martinican Frantz Fanon and the Tunisian Albert Memmi.”
Eberhardt’s legacy as a feminist, meanwhile, rests less on her writing than on her incredible and uncompromising life, which has acquired legendary status. The “Androgyne du Desert,” as she was called in France, has inspired plays, films, a 2012 opera by the composer Missy Mazzoli, and even, in 2015, a New York musical, The Nomad. Such splashy glorification would have bewildered Eberhardt, who wrote, the year of her death, “Soon, the solitary, woeful figure that I am will vanish from this earth, where I have always been a spectator, an outsider among men.”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications.