Isabelle Eberhardt: The Explorer That Defied Convention

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The illegitimate, enigmatic, exploring activist; unafraid and undeniably fascinating. This is a story of a woman who was not to be held back by her gender, her parents, her ties to an artificial European culture she didn’t feel a part of, her money, or lack thereof. In the few pieces I’ve read in research of Isabelle Eberhardt, I am quite simply awestruck. Eberhardt, both criticised and praised, was a whirlwind of life and a restless spirit. This incredibly talented woman was fluent in 6 languages by 16, cross-dressed herself into employment and across the seas to land in Algeria where she perhaps either adored or hated life, most likely equal measures of both. Algeria nevertheless was home for Eberhardt, where she finally found some sense of meaning in her existence.

Eberhardt, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian aristocrat, was born in and raised in Switzerland by the family tutor Alexandre Trofimovsky. The illegitimacy surrounding her birth followed her throughout life, tearing her away from convention, introducing an aurora of rebellion that shaped her and her legacy. Trofimovsky raised Eberhardt a boy, dressed in male clothes she wandered around the European towns she grew to despise. Eberhardt was extremely close to her mother who she described in her journals as the ‘white light’; it was perhaps her parent’s abrupt death when she was 22 years old that drove Isabelle’s lust for change: her escape from Europe and from the culture to which she didn’t belong. Due to the illegitimacy of her birth, Eberhardt was left penniless after her mother’s death, and so she returned to cross-dressing, donning sailors clothes, until she was hired at the docks and eventually made her way across the sea to Algeria.

“I will never be content with a sedentary life; I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere,” Eberhardt in The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt.

Eberhardt found freedom from her strives in the isolation of the desert. Here in the emptiness, her youth and sex meant nothing, she just became part of the desert, that’s all she was, a desert explorer. Not a girl, or a crossdresser, or rich or poor, nor the child of an affair. Eberhardt was the desert and the desert Eberhardt.  

I almost feel as if my words cannot do her justice, as a writer herself she so often eloquently painted a story of her life in her diaries, which were published after her death in a freak flood in the desert. Her death as unique as her life. She was strong-minded and independent, way before her time. Here is a woman, dressed as a man, in a blatant defiance against her society.

Whilst I am awed by this woman I can’t help but think was she happy, or was her adventurous life an elaborate disguise against the inner turmoil over identity and anger of societal demands? Personally, I think she was a woman of extreme highs and lows, her personality perhaps a veil for the struggles she may not have even realized she had. Some have even gone further and diagnosed Eberhardt with bipolar posthumously. Either way, Isabelle Eberhardt is an inspiration for fighting against convention, for not letting anything stop you from travelling or doing anything you want. Even though we’ve come a long way inequality since Eberhardt’s time, we could all use a bit of her spirit, her fire that meant she didn’t let her gender hold her back. Everyone can and should travel. Stand proud and explore.

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