Isabelle Eberhardt (February 17, 1877 – October 21, 1904) was a Swiss explorer and writer who lived and traveled extensively in North Africa. For the time she was an extremely liberated individual who rejected conventional European morality in favor of her own path and that of Islam.
She was born in Geneva, Switzerland to an aristocratic Lutheran Baltic German-Russian mother, Nathalie Moerder (Eberhardt) and an Armenian-born father, Alexandre Trophimowsky, anarchist and ex-priest.
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. Four months later Pavel died of a heart attack. Nathalie elected to remain in Switzerland and, four years later, Isabelle was born and registered as her "illegitimate" daughter to avoid acknowledging Trophimowsky's paternity. Later in life, Isabelle's illegitimacy caused her emotional and financial troubles, preventing her inheritance and contributing to her feelings of estrangement from her siblings, who hated her father. Despite this, Isabelle was well educated, becoming fluent in Arabic and many other languages. From an early age she dressed as a man in order to enjoy the greater freedom this allowed her.
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, and while doing so both converted to Islam, fulfilling a long-standing interest. 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.
In 1899 Trophimowsky, who had been nursed by Isabelle, died in Geneva of throat cancer. She had nothing in common with her brothers and, following the suicide of her half-brother Vladimir and the marriage of her brother Augustin to a French woman ("Augustin is once and for all headed for life's beaten tracks”), her ties to her former life were all but severed. From then on, as recorded in her journals, she 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, she called herself ‘Si Mahmoud Essadi’, and traveled in Arab society with a freedom she could not otherwise have experienced. During 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.
On October 17 1901, Isabelle married in Marseille to Slimane Ehnni, an Algerian soldier. She started working as a war reporter in the South of Oran in 1903 and wrote on her travels in many books and French newspapers, including Nouvelles Algériennes (Algerian Short Stories) (1905), Dans l'Ombre Chaude de l'Islam (In the Warm Shadow of Islam) (1906), and Les journaliers (The Day Laborers) (1922).
She died at age 27 in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria: After a long separation, Slimane had just joined her and she had rented a house for the occasion. The house, which was constructed of clay, collapsed on the couple during the flood; Isabelle managed to save her husband but perished herself. Slimane died in 1907.