Sunday, November 9, 2008

Isabelle Eberhardt

If I could make a movie about anything it would be a movie on the life of Isabelle Eberhardt. I sometimes fantasize about the sets and costuming, picturing it lavish and dark, kind of like the recent The Last Mistress . Isabelle Eberhardt was a woman who lived in the late 1800s and whose story spans many countries and convictions, in an overlapping way that is rarely taught or seen when we look back at history.
Her story begins even before her birth, in Russia, where her mother, Mme de Moerder was married to an elderly general and close advisor to Tsar Alexander II. They had three children together before her mother fell for the children's tutor, Alexandre Trophimowsky. The tutor was an Armenian anarchist, a friend of Tolstoy, and a believer in a new utopia. Mme de Moerder and the tutor soon took off for Geneva, Switzerland -supposedly because she was ill and needed to live in kinder weather. Another child was born four months later and the captain, back in Russia, died a few months after that. So with his money they bought a villa with plenty of land and greenhouses, where they lived never admitting that they were a couple. This was the family that, six years later, Isabelle Eberhardt(her mothers maiden name) was born into. Alexandre raised her on an extensive education of botany, chemistry, philosophy, and anarchy. She spoke French and Russian at home but easily picked up German, Latin, Arabic, Italian, and English. Alexandre insisted that all the children keep their hair cut short and dressed as boys so that as Bakunin said "every child of either sex should be prepared as much for a life of the mind as for a life of work, so that all may grow up equally into complete men". Unsurprisingly, the neighbors were not big fans of the family.

Isabelle grew into an incredibly educated young woman who at 19 began to have fiction published in various literary magazines in Paris. She also worked translating the works of Russian poets for publication. Isabelle enjoyed dressing in a sailor uniform and making out with older men at bars. She was also around this time involved in a group of 'Russian terrorists' as she put it.
However the sailor suit and Russian anarchy were soon replaced with an obsession with Algeria. In 1897, Isabelle and her mother moved to Bone, Algeria where they both converted to Islam. Isabelle continued to write for literary magazines and newspapers, sharing both news and short stories based on her new home. It was at this time that she wrote her first novel, The Vagabond, the story of an anarchist medical student. Her mother died shortly after and a few years later Alexandre also died. She returned to Switzerland for the funeral, next she visited her brother in Sardinia, and then she spent time in Paris socializing with other writers and working as a journalist.
In 1900, Isabelle, dressing as an Algerian man and going by the name Si Mahmoud, returned to Algeria. She bought a horse and traveled the Saharan desert, befriending the Bedouin tribes and learning more of their oppression under the French. She was known as an expert equestrian and no biography goes without mentioning the fact that she drank a great deal, smoke kif, and slept with a wide variety of men.
Around this time Isabelle joined the Qadiriyya, a radical Sufi brotherhood that opposed the French colonial rule of Algeria. She used her writing to expose the cruelty imposed by the French rule and the determined beauty of the Arab culture. The nomadic lifestyle called and even though she had fallen in love with Slimene Ehnni, a naturalized French Arab, Isabelle continued to wander to Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and further. She made friends and lovers and kept extensive journals. Eventually she returned and married Slimene.
At one point, around 1901, a fanatic, upset by her androgynous presence in the Qadiriyya, attempted to kill her with a sabre. He badly wounded her arm, an injury she never recovered from. Yet, Isabelle empathized with the man and defended him in court, pleading for his life.
At 27 years old Isabelle Eberhardt was killed in a flash flood in the Sahara desert. Her husband died a few years later. Her novels and diaries are still easy to find and many biographies have been published about her. This story of her life is incredible in comparison to the restrictions most women at this time lived with. We are generally taught that the girls in Little Women are rebels, and although I do have a soft spot for Jo and the mom, there is something really powerful about learning about the real existence of someone who even today would be a known wild child. Isabelle Eberhardt's life proves the possibilities in thinking outside of your own culture and of being something more than a product of your time.

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