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Isabelle Eberhardt
Born: February 17, 1877 in Geneva, Switzerland
Died: October 21, 1904 in Ain Sefra, Algeria
Other Names: Podolinsky, Nicolas; Saadi, Si Mahmoud; Eberhardt, Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie
Nationality: Swiss
Occupation: Adventurer
Orientalist Writers. Ed. Coeli Fitzpatrick and Dwayne A. Tunstall. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 366. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2012. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning



  • Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam, by Eberhardt and Victor Barrucand (Paris: Fasquelle, 1906); translated by Sharon Bangert as In the Shadow of Islam (London: Peter Owen, 1993).
  • Notes de route: Maroc-Algérie-Tunisie, edited by Barrucand (Paris: Fasquelle, 1908).
  • Au Pays des sables (Bône, Algeria: Em. Thomas, 1914).
  • Pages d'Islam, edited by Barrucand (Paris: Fasquelle, 1920).
  • Trimardeur: Roman, by Eberhardt and Barrucand (Paris: Fasquelle, 1922).
  • Mes journaliers; précédés de la Vie tragique de la bonne nomade par René-Louis Doyon (Paris: La Connaissance, 1923); translated by Nina de Voogd as The Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt, introduction by Rana Kabbani (London: Virago, 1987).
  • Amara le forçat; L'anarchiste: Nouvelles inédites, preface by Doyon (Abbeville: Frédéric Paillard, 1923).
  • Contes et paysages, preface by Doyon (Paris: La Connaissance, 1925).
  • Yasmina et autres nouvelles algériennes, edited by Marie-Odile Delacour and Jean-René Huleu (Paris: Liana Levi, 1986).
  • Ecrits sur le sable (récits, notes et journaliers) (Paris: Grasset, 1988).
  • Ecrits sur le sable (nouvelles et roman) (Paris: Grasset, 1990).
  • Rakhil: Roman inédit, preface by Danièle Masse (Paris: La Boîte à documents, 1990).
  • Un voyage oriental: Sud Oranais, edited by Marie-Odile Delacour and Jean-René Huleu (Paris: Livre de poche, 1991).
  • Amours nomades (Paris: Gallimard, 2003).
  • Editions in English: The Oblivion Seekers and Other Writings, translated by Paul Bowles (San Francisco: City Lights, 1975).
  • Prisoner of Dunes, translated by Sharon Bangert (London: Peter Owen, 1994).
  • Departures: Selected Writings, edited and translated by Karim Hamdy and Laura Rice (San Francisco: City Lights, 1994).


  • Écrits intimes: Lettres aux trois hommes les plus aimés, edited by Marie-Odile Delacour and Jean-René Huleu (Paris: Payot & Rivages, 2003).


When Isabelle Eberhardt drowned in a flash flood in Aïn Sefra, a town in the Algerian desert, on 21 October 1904, she was little more than a "scandalous" woman: she had roamed the Maghreb in male disguise, indulged in drinking and sex, relished the company of the Muslim natives, and espoused their faith. During her lifetime she had published only some short stories and journalism, but at the time of her death she was in possession of a considerable number of manuscripts that were rendered partially or totally illegible by the water and mud in which their author had perished. Her friend and employer Victor Barrucand, the publisher of the newspaper Al-Akhbar (News), reconstituted the damaged texts, substituting his own wording when he could not decipher, or was dissatisfied with, the original and published them as Dans l'ombre chaude de l'Islam (1906; translated as In the Shadow of Islam, 1993).

Isabelle Wilhelmine Marie Eberhardt was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on 17 February 1877 to Nathalie Eberhardt de Moerder. Nathalie de Moerder was a Russian aristocrat who had married General Pavel de Moerder, who was forty years older than she, according to Eberhardt's various biographers, in the late 1850s or early 1860s. In 1871 Nathalie and her three children by Moerder left Russia with the children's tutor, Alexander Trophimovsky. They may have sojourned in Turkey and Italy before settling in Switzerland, where Nathalie had two children. Augustin, who was born in late 1871 or early 1872, might have been conceived during an attempt at reconciliation between Nathalie and her husband, although his older siblings believed that Trophimovsky was the father. At any rate, the general recognized Augustin as his son and granted the boy his name. By the time Isabelle was born, Pavel de Moerder had been dead for four years. The facts that Nathalie and Trophimovsky were seldom separated, that Isabelle's birth had no negative impact on their relationship, and that she was Trophimovsky's favorite among the children are circumstantial evidence that Isabelle was his daughter; but he was not listed as the father on her birth certificate, and she was given her mother's maiden name as her surname. Eberhardt's biographer Françoise d'Eaubonne, however, claims that the French poet Arthur Rimbaud was Isabelle's father. She points to a vague physical resemblance, a similar fascination with Africa and with traveling in general, and the poet's presence in Switzerland at the time Eberhardt was conceived. On the other hand, Annette Kobak notes the improbability of the eighteen-year-old, homosexual Rimbaud being involved in a sexual relationship with a woman twice his age.

Using Nathalie's inheritance from her husband, Trophimovsky bought a large house, the Villa-Neuve, in Meyrin, on the outskirts of Geneva. The children did not go to school but received their education from Trophimovsky. Eberhardt became fluent in French, Russian, and German and knew some Arabic, Italian, Greek, and Latin; she was well read in history, geography, and philosophy and was competent at painting. But her passion was literature. As an adolescent she read the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Émile Zola, Leo Tolstoy , Pierre Loti , and Siméon Nadson, a Russian known for his pessimistic verse. One of her earliest publications was a biography of Nadson that appeared in the journal L'Athénée in 1895.

Trophimovsky's anarchist ideology led him to hold traditional gender roles in contempt. Like her brothers, Eberhardt had to learn to ride a horse and take part in supposedly masculine tasks such as sawing wood. An anecdote reported by several biographers has it that two guests who saw her, short-haired, dressed in male clothes, and carrying a weight that seemed too heavy for a girl, mistook her for a boy. The single sign that betrayed her sex, the guests said, was her soft and refined hands.

In her late teens Eberhardt began to mingle with Russian and Balkan students in Geneva. She wrote a series of mysterious letters to one of them, a Greek medical student named Christos Christidi. Christidi begged the writer either to disclose his or her identity or to cease writing to him. Eberhardt agreed to meet him, and he was immediately smitten. She had many acquaintances among medical students, and she later suggested that she herself had studied medicine. No records support such a claim; nevertheless, it is undeniable that Eberhardt was fascinated by the field. Her fiction teems with physicians, and one of the many divergent accounts she gave of her conception was that her mother was raped by the family doctor. It also seems certain that she had some medical knowledge, which she later used in taking care of her dying foster father and also, according to her own declarations, in helping the natives of southern Algeria.

Eberhardt's first published short story, "Infernalia," appeared in La Nouvelle Revue Moderne in 1895; it was signed "Nicolas Podolinsky," which was her favorite pseudonym until she adopted "Mahmoud Saadi" after her conversion to Islam. She did well not to reveal herself as the author: "Infernalia" recounts a medical student's irresistible attraction to a female corpse, a shocking subject for any writer in the late nineteenth century but especially for a young female one. Equally provocative was her short story "Per fas et nefas" (By Hook or by Crook), which appeared the following year and addressed the theme of male homosexuality. In a different vein, "Vision du Moghreb [sic]" (Vision of the Maghreb), published in 1895, depicts scenes of religious life in North Africa that, albeit rather idealized, are strikingly accurate for someone who had not yet set foot in that part of the world.

Eberhardt shared her passion for literature with Augustin, and he may have been the coauthor of "Infernalia" or "Vision du Moghreb." Augustin, however, had been drinking since the age of ten, used drugs and patronized brothels, and repeatedly absconded with whatever family money he could steal. Kobak and Edmonde Charles-Roux date his first escape to 1888 and say that he went to Algiers to flee creditors--a sojourn that might explain the accuracy of "Visions du Moghreb." Most biographers, however, contend that Augustin first disappeared in June 1894. He turned up in Marseilles, where Madeleine Bernard, a librarian who was infatuated with him, prevented him from sailing to Africa and accompanied him to Corsica. She helped him to recover from a severe depression, and he returned to the Villa-Neuve in the fall.

In November 1895 Eberhardt received a letter informing her that Augustin had gone to Algeria and enlisted in the Foreign Legion, the last resort for debtors, criminals, and social failures of all kinds. Eberhardt sent him reproachful letters but also suggested that he keep a detailed diary of his observations of North Africa and send it to her. Her mother and Trophimovsky saw nothing of which to approve in the runaway's decision, and in early 1896 Nathalie wrote to his commanding officer pleading for his release on grounds of poor health. Instead, Augustin was expelled from the Foreign Legion either for insubordination or involvement in some sort of criminal affair, and he returned home in February. In December he disappeared again, and in March of the following year Eberhardt learned that he had returned to Algeria and reenlisted in the Foreign Legion.

In May 1897 Eberhardt and her mother arrived in the Algerian coastal city of Bône (today Annaba) and rented a house from family friends, the photographer Louis David and his wife. But the Davids looked askance at their tenants' spending too much time with the natives, and Eberhardt and Nathalie disapproved of the superior attitude to the locals that the Davids shared with most of the European settlers. They moved to the Arab quarter, and Eberhardt soon adopted the local men's clothing. Thus disguised, she embarked on discovering how native Algerians lived. Cecily Mackworth contends that she wrote "Yasmina" at that time. The story, which was first published in 1899, addresses a recurring theme in Eberhardt's fiction: the fall into prostitution of a young female native seduced and abandoned--in this case by a French officer.

In Bône, Eberhardt finally met a Tunisian aristocrat, Ali Abd El Wahab, with whom she had been corresponding for some time. In 1896 she had taken the initiative to write to Abu Naddara, a Jewish Egyptian playwright and journalist whose real name was James Sanua and who had gone into exile in Paris in 1878 after criticizing the British occupation of his country. Pleased by her interest in the Orient and her attempts, however shaky, to write in Arabic, Abu Naddara had replied to her letter; Eberhardt had written again and enclosed a picture of herself dressed as a sailor that had been taken by Louis David. The portrait had attracted Abd El Wahab's attention when he visited Abu Naddara's home. Abu Naddara's next letter to Eberhardt explained that a young Tunisian had expressed the wish to start a correspondence with what he had thought to be a male youth, and that Abu Naddara had taken the liberty of giving him her address. The correspondence between Eberhardt and Abd El Wahab quickly grew into a long-distance friendship, and Abd El Wahab became her confidant. She told him about her unfortunate birth; her strange, secluded life in the Villa-Neuve; her devotion to Augustin despite the series of disappointments to which he had subjected her; and, most delicate of all, her short-lived quasi-marital relationship with El Khoudja Ben Abdellah, a clerk she had hired to teach her Arabic in Bône. Her letters usually opened with Islamic greetings in Arabic, and she frequently congratulated Abd El Wahab on being a Muslim and finding strength and serenity in submitting to Mektoub (fate). She also expressed her hope that she would soon receive the gift of faith herself. She placed Augustin, who had been discharged from the Foreign Legion for health reasons, in Abd El Wahab's care. She hoped that the austere Islamic environment of Tunis would cure Augustin of his addictions and motivate him to take up a profession.

Eberhardt's mother, who had been ailing for some time, died on 28 November 1897 and was buried in the Bône Muslim cemetery under the name Fatma Menoubia. Eberhardt returned to the Villa-Neuve. In April 1898 her half brother Vladimir committed suicide by putting his head in a gas oven. He had been living in terror for months, ever since his older brother, Nicolas, had sequestered him in the Russian Embassy, abused him, and threatened to take him back to Russia by force. Nicolas, who had never reconciled himself to the intrusion of Trophimovsky into their lives, had returned to Russia fifteen years earlier.

Trophimovsky was suffering from throat cancer and needed constant care. While nursing him, Eberhardt started working on Rakhil, a tragic novel about a Jewish prostitute in Bône. She returned to it several times during her life but never completed it. Rakhil was published in 1990.

Augustin returned to Villa-Neuve in November 1898. Shortly before Trophimovsky died in May 1899, he arranged for Eberhardt and Augustin to inherit the house. Neither of them was interested in living there, and since Eberhardt was planning to go back to North Africa, she entrusted the task of selling the house and keeping her share of the profits safe to Augustin. He chose, with the carelessness that always characterized him, to wash his hands of the matter and delegated the responsibility to a man named Samuel. Years later, they received the news that the house had been sold at last and that, when all legal fees were paid, they would be left with a debt of sixty francs. Meanwhile, they had spent their money with the abandon of those who are confident of their wealth.

Eberhardt and Augustin left for Tunis together on 12 June 1899, but Augustin soon went back to Europe to settle in Marseilles and marry Hélène Long, whose affection for him had survived his erratic behavior and repeated desertions. Eberhardt lived by herself in Tunis, drinking, smoking hashish, and flitting from one lover to another. This lifestyle proved fatal to her friendship with Abd El Wahab, to whom she had lent a considerable amount of money. He said that the loan had given him the reputation of a greedy man, who tolerated her "looseness" out of interest in her supposed wealth. He promised to repay the money and intimated that her acquaintance was no longer welcome to him. She replied with a letter insinuating that his reproaches were a pretext and that he had other motives for wanting her gone. She probably understood that the friendship of so unconventional a woman threatened his reputation.

Eberhardt returned to Europe and wandered for a while. Her thoughts often turned to the desert, which she had once visited while living in Tunis. It had captivated her, and in 1900 she returned to Ouargla, an oasis town north of the Sahara, intending to isolate herself and collect literary material. The plan fell through when the colonial administration refused her access to the town, citing concern for her safety. Eberhardt went to El Oued, where she met her soul mate, Slimène Ehnni, a spahi. Ehnni was a member of the Qadiriya Brotherhood, the oldest and largest of the Sufi communities, and Eberhardt joined it in the fall of 1900.

In January 1901 a member of the Tijaniya religious community, the chief rivals of the Qadiriya, attacked Eberhardt with a sword in Behima, badly injuring her left arm and wounding her in the head. Her assailant claimed that Allah had ordered him to kill the transvestite woman who had "created disorder in the Muslim religion," but Eberhardt suspected that the colonial authorities had hired him to attack her. Her assailant was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor, and the French authorities ordered her to leave the colonial territories for her own safety. If she could marry Ehnni, who was a French citizen, she would also become a citizen and would be able to remain in the territory. But Ehnni needed his military superiors' authorization to marry, and they refused to grant it. In June, Eberhardt returned to France and moved in with her brother in Marseilles.

Eberhardt discovered that Augustin's family was living in appalling poverty; at one point he was compelled to pawn his baby daughter's coat. She wrote scathingly in her diary about "Jenny l'Ouvrière" (Jenny the Working Girl), as she contemptuously nicknamed her sister-in-law. Despite her injured arm, Eberhardt worked as a porter at the harbor, where she also read and wrote letters for illiterate shipmen.

In late August, Ehnni was transferred to Marseilles. On French soil, the wedding license required in Algerian military zones was no longer necessary. Eberhardt, who had spent most of her life with cropped hair and in male attire, yielded to her fiancé's wish to see her dressed as a proper bride and selected an ensemble that included a long, black wig. The 17 October 1901 wedding made Eberhardt a French citizen and, as such, free to return to Algeria. The couple settled in Bône, where Ehnni's parents lived. They were not fond of their unconventional daughter-in-law, and Slimène, as Eberhardt notes in her diary, was influenced by their opinion.

Thanks to Barrucand's intervention, Ehnni, who had left the army, was soon appointed as a civil clerk in the town of Ténès. Barrucand had first heard of Eberhardt through press reports of the Behima attack and had denounced her expulsion in the newspaper Nouvelles (News), of which he was the editor. Disapproving of the colonial administration's inhumane policies, he planned to defend his "Arabophile" ideas by starting his own newspaper, Al-Akhbar, which would appear in both Arabic and French. He thought that Eberhardt would be useful in such a project: she could write about the effect of colonization on the natives' daily lives and share her knowledge of their culture. At their first meeting, in March 1902, he offered her a job as a reporter, and she accepted. In 1902 and 1903 she published in Al-Akhbar a series of short stories, including "Criminel" (Criminal), "Marabout" (Holy Man), and "Exploits indigènes" (Native Feats), in which she denounced colonial injustices, eliciting strong disapproval from her fellow Europeans.

This reaction was particularly pronounced to "Criminel," in which a native farmer whose land is confiscated sets fire to the new owner's barn. Shortly after the story appeared, an anonymous letter accusing Eberhardt's husband of extorting money from the natives was published in a local newspaper. Although Ehnni was cleared of the charges, he resigned his position in Ténès and took a job in Guergour.

Eberhardt's novel Trimardeur (Vagabond) started to appear serially in Al-Akhbar in August 1903. Trimardeur draws heavily both on Eberhardt's personal history and on Augustin's experiences in North Africa. Russian student Dmitri Orschanov joins the anarchist movement, only to realize that it is as freedom-stifling as the system it seeks to overthrow. He leaves Russia for Switzerland and then Marseilles, where he accidentally kills a policeman during a riot. He flees to North Africa and enlists in the Foreign Legion. Like Rakhil, Trimardeur was never completed, and the book version that was published in 1922 was, to a large extent, Barrucand's work.

South Oran, near the Moroccan frontier, was the arena for frequent skirmishes between the French army and native bands. The clashes reached a peak with the killing of a French captain and most of his detachment--more than a hundred men--in the Battle of El Moungar on 2 September 1903. Barrucand sent Eberhardt to the area to report on the aftermath. She stayed with the soldiers of the Foreign Legion and noted the details of their daily life, including the harshness of military discipline and their occasional recreations. These observations are recorded in Un voyage oriental: Sud Oranais (1991, An Oriental Journey: South Oran). At the Foreign Legion headquarters in Aïn Sefra she met General Hubert Lyautey. She approved of his policy of "pacific penetration," which involved respect for the native culture and relied on economic association rather than military force. Lyautey's methods necessitated a rapprochement with the heads of the local tribes that Eberhardt, with her knowledge of Arabic and Islam and the friendships she had built up during her former stays in the desert, was well qualified to achieve. Thus, Eberhardt, who had arrived in South Oran as a reporter, became a liaison agent between the French general and the marabouts of Knadsa on the Moroccan frontier. Her collaboration with Lyautey led in the 1990s to academic discussions of Eberhardt's complicity with colonialism by critics such as Laura Rice, Julia Clancy-Smith, and Ali Behdad.

In October 1904 Eberhardt, weakened by repeated bouts of fever, left Knadsa and returned to Aïn Sefra. Ehnni, whom she had not seen for several months, joined her there at her request. On 21 October the usually quiet Wadi Safra suddenly released torrential flood waters, and Eberhardt was among the many who drowned. Ehnni, who had escaped from the decaying house where they had spent the night, declared that they had fled together. But the soldiers Lyautey ordered to search the riverbed could not find her body; it was eventually discovered in the house she was supposed to have left with her husband, raising doubts about Ehnni's account of the events surrounding his wife's death. Further doubts arise from the fact that he returned to Guergour without attending her funeral. While pointing out the questionable behavior of her husband, most Eberhardt biographers consider the possibility that she might have surrendered to death. Mackworth, for example, speculates that after a first impulse to run away with Ehnni, she turned back and let herself be engulfed by the water. She had been traumatized by her illegitimate birth and her tragic family history and had expressed a wish to die in her diaries and in her letters to Abd El Wahab.

From the mystery of her birth to the ambiguous circumstances of her death, Isabelle Eberhardt's life was a long series of questions. Shortly after she died, she began to turn into something of a legend. She was celebrated as an icon of freedom; publishers argued over her manuscripts; she inspired musical and cinematographic productions. Yet, beyond the spell of her unusual character and of her eventful, novel-like life, what makes her an interesting object of study is, in her assailant's words, the "disorder she created" in the cultural codes of her time. Academia has recently rediscovered her in this light. Her cross-dressing and her "masculine" lifestyle are discussed in debates on gender, and her simultaneous appropriation of native culture and support for French imperialism in North Africa are analyzed in reflections on colonialism. In a period preoccupied with the complex issues of gender, cultural relations, and identity, she is still a highly relevant figure.


Isabelle Eberhardt's letters and manuscripts are in the Isabelle Eberhardt Collection of the Archives d'outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence, France.




  • Cecily Mackworth, The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951; New York: Echo Press, 1975).
  • Lesley Blanch, "Isabelle Eberhardt: Portrait of a Legend," in her The Wilder Shores of Love (London: Phoenix, 1954), pp. 271-310.
  • Françoise d'Eaubonne, Vie d'Isabelle Eberhardt (Paris: Flammarion, 1968).
  • Marie-Odile Delacour and Jean-René Huleu, Sables: Le roman de la vie d'Isabelle Eberhardt (Paris: Liana Levi, 1986).
  • Ursula Kingsmill Hart, "Isabelle Eberhardt," in her Two Ladies of Colonial Algeria: The Lives and Times of Aurélie Picard and Isabelle Eberhardt (Athens: Ohio University Centre of International Studies, 1987), pp. 71-127.
  • Edmonde Charles-Roux, Un désir d'Orient: Jeunesse d'Isabelle Eberhardt (Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle, 1988).
  • Charles-Roux, Nomade j'étais: Les années africaines d'Isabelle Eberhardt 1899-1904 (Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle, 1995).
  • Annette Kobak, Isabelle: The Life of Isabelle Eberhardt (New York: Vintage, 1988).
  • Mary Paniccia Carden, "Eberhardt, Isabelle (1877-1904)," in Literature of Travel and Exploration: An Encyclopedia, edited by Jennifer Speake, volume 1 (New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003), pp. 373-375.


  • Hedi Abdel-Jaouad, "Isabelle Eberhardt: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Nomad," Yale French Studies, 83, no. 2 (1993): 93-117.
  • Ali Behdad, "Allahou-Akbar! He Is a Woman: Colonialism, Transvestism, and the Oriental Parasite," in his Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 113-132.
  • Denise Brahimi, Requiem pour Isabelle (Paris: Publisud, 1983).
  • Michelle Chilcoat, "Anticolonialism and Misogyny in the Writings of Isabelle Eberhardt," French Review, 77 (April 2004): 949-957.
  • Julia Clancy-Smith, "The 'Passionate Nomad' Reconsidered: A European Woman in l'Algérie française (Isabelle Eberhardt, 1877-1904)," in Western Women and Imperialism: Complicity and Resistance, edited by Nupur Chaudhuri and Margaret Strobel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), pp. 61-78.
  • Marie Delacour and Jean René Huleu, Le voyage soufi d'Isabelle Eberhardt (Paris: Joelle Lasfeld, 2008).
  • Laura Rice, "'Nomad Thought': Isabelle Eberhardt and the Colonial Project," Cultural Critique, 17 (Winter 1990-1991): 151-176.
  • Mohammed Rochd, Isabelle Eberhardt: Une Maghrébine d'adoption (Algiers: Office des Publications Universitaires, 1992).
  • Catherine Stoll-Simon, Si Mahmoud; ou, La renaissance d'Isabelle Eberhardt (Lunay: Emina Soleil, 2006).
  • Lamia Benyoucef Zayzafoun, "Isabelle Eberhardt; ou 'La Roumia Convertie': A Case Study in Female Orientalism," in her The Production of the Muslim Woman: Negotiating Text, History, and Ideology (Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2005), pp. 31-63.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Chouiten, Lynda. "Isabelle Eberhardt." Orientalist Writers, edited by Coeli Fitzpatrick and Dwayne A. Tunstall, Gale, 2012. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 366. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 21 Nov. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200014308