“A nomad I was even when i was very small and would stare at the road…
a nomad i will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places”
“The farther behind I leave my past, the closer I am to forging my own character.”
“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life,
that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”
“For those who know the value of and exquisite taste of solitary freedom (for one is
only free when alone), the act of leaving is the bravest and most beautiful of all.”
The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904)
Eberhardt was born in Geneva, Switzerland, to an aristocratic Lutheran Baltic German Russian mother, Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt), and an Armenian-born father, Alexandre Trophimowsky, anarchist, ex-priest, and convert to Islam. Isabelle’s mother had been married to elderly widower General Pavel de Moerder, who held important Imperial positions. After bearing him two sons and a daughter she traveled to Switzerland to convalesce, taking along her stepson and her own children, with their tutor Trophimowsky. Soon after arriving in Geneva she gave birth again, to Isabelle’s brother Augustin and four months later came the news that her husband had died of a heart attack. She elected to remain in Switzerland and four years later, Isabelle was born and registered as her “illegitimate” daughter to avoid acknowledging the tutor’s paternity.
Her first trip to North Africa was with her mother in May, 1897. On this journey they were attempting to set up a new life there, and while doing so they both converted to Islam, fulfilling a long-standing interest. However, her mother died suddenly in Annaba and was buried there under the name of Fatma Mannoubia. Shortly after her mother’s death, Isabelle took the side of local Muslims in violent fighting against colonial rule by the French.
Two years later Trophimowsky died of throat cancer in 1899 in Geneva, nursed by Isabelle. Following the suicide of her half-brother, Vladimir, and the marriage of Augustin to a French woman she had nothing in common with (she wrote: “Augustin is once and for all headed for life’s beaten tracks”), Isabelle’s ties to her former life were all but severed. From then on, as recorded in her journals, Isabelle Eberhardt spent most of the rest of her life in Africa, making northern Algeria her home and exploring the desert. She also spent some time in Tunisia.
Dressed as a man, calling herself Si Mahmoud Essadi, Eberhardt travelled in Arab society, with a freedom she could not otherwise have experienced. She had converted to Islam and regarded it as her true calling in life.
On her travels she made contact with a secret Sufi brotherhood, the Qadiriyya. They were heavily involved in helping the poor and needy while fighting against the injustices of colonial rule. At the beginning of 1901, in Behima, she was attacked by a man with a sabre, in an apparent attempt to assassinate her. Her arm was nearly severed, but she later forgave the man and (successfully) pleaded for his life to be spared. She married Slimane Ehnni, an Algerian soldier, on October 17, 1901, in Marseille.
On October 21, 1904, Eberhardt died in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria. After a long separation, her husband had just joined her. She had rented a house for the occasion. This house, constructed of clay, collapsed on the couple during the flood; Eberhardt managed to save her husband but perished herself. Slimane Ehnni died in 1907, at the age of 27.
Isabelle Eberhardt is mentioned in Jolie Holland’s song “Old Fashioned Morphine“