About 45 kms east of Morocco is Ain Sefra, Algeria, the gateway to the Sahara Desert. It was once a 19th century French Garrison Town that was destroyed by a flash flood in 1904 – the very same flood that killed the young Swiss explorer and writer Isabella Eberhardt, who had made Algeria her home.
Isabella was a law unto herself. One seldom sees such rare courage in a young woman of twenty, who threw conventional morality to the winds and insisted on her right to be a vagrant with the freedom to wander and to live life according to the dictates of her own conscience.
Isabella Eberhardt was born in Geneva on February 17th 1877, to a German Russian mother Natalie Eberhardt and an Armenian anarchist father Alexandre Trophimowsky. She was registered as an illegitimate child and therefore never needed to recognize Trophimowsky’s paternity. Perhaps her mixed genetic pool contributed to her erratic behaviour which shocked the world.
Isabella was well educated and fluent in several languages like French, German, Russian and Italian. She even learnt Latin and Greek and was specially tutored by her father in Arabic Classics and the Koran. The Koran so influenced her faith that she called Islam her true calling.
In 1897 she moved with her mother from Geneva to North Africa where they both embraced Islam.
Isabella was always dressed like a man to enjoy freedom of movement in Arab Society. She re-christened herself Si Mahamoud Essadi and joined a secret Sufi sect called Qadiriya, to help the poor and needy. She also encouraged Muslim locals to fight against French Colonial rule.
Isabella traveled extensively as a Muslim man. She rubbed shoulders with vagrants and vagabonds and squandered her meager resources on drugs and drinks, and bedded with any man who pleased her. Her endless wanderings gave her intimate knowledge of the lives of the poor and powerless. She believed that vagrancy was deliverance from conformity and freedom from the burdensome shackles of society. It was the route to self-purification.
She said,“Such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream palaces of delight.”
Perhaps the Hippie Movement drew its inspiration from her.
As a creative person, she was a keen observer of people and practices around her. Her experience of low life made her a sensitive human being. Her short stories are so compelling. Her diaries are packed with fascinating information of her life and times. Not for her the beaten track. Derision and ridicule by society left her unfazed.
“As a nomad who has no country besides Islam and neither family nor close friends, I shall wind my way through life until it is time for everlasting sleep beyond the grave,” she wrote.
It is difficult to understand how she reconciled her faith in Islam to her depraved life style.
Isabella was not the darling of Algerian Society and must have earned the ire of many holy men. In 1901, she was attacked by a man who severed her arm. But this magnanimous lady not only forgave him but pleaded for his life.
Later that year in October 1901, Isabella married an Algerian soldier called Slimane Ehnni, in Marseilles. But they were seldom together because of his duties and her wanderings.
However in 1904, her husband joined her for a long break and they rented a house for the duration of his leave. Unfortunately on October 21st 1904, tragedy struck in the form of a flash flood and their clay house collapsed, killing Isabella. Her husband was washed away but he survived.
Isabella Eberhardt was buried in the Muslim cemetery in Ain Sefra, according to Muslim rites. A trip to the cemetery can be made by car or by foot. Here, her restless spirit lies in peace, framed in by Mount Atlas on one side and the golden sands of the Sahara on the other.
Isabella’s “Algerian Short Stories” was published posthumously in 1905 and “In the warm shadows of Islam,” in 1906. A novella was made into a film.
Isabella reached that “sun-drenched Somewhere” which she was always seeking for, sadly at a very young age. She was only 27 years old when she died.