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Posted by on Feb 10, 2014 in Articles | 3 comments

A solo female traveler pioneer – Isabelle Eberhardt

A solo female traveler pioneer – Isabelle Eberhardt

Isabelle Eberhard was one of the very first solo female traveler pioneers in history. She left everything behind to pursue her dream to live with the nomadic tribes in North Africa.

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.”
― Isabelle EberhardtThe Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt

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A movie entitled “Isabelle Eberhardt was released in 1991

Isabelle Eberhardt, disguised as a young. Arab man, advances across the southern. Algerian desert toward Touggourt, with an entourage of 100s of men and women dressed in full, elaborate desert costumes.

The smell of gunpowder in the air and the racous noise of pipes and drums accompanies them as they slowly travel on horse back riding and camel to meet the Shiek of a nomadic sufi sect Isabelle had secretly joined.

The crowd hails him with cries of” Ya O Djilani!” as he attempts to control his white steed. The surrounding sterile dunes seem to come alive with people Sevelral entourages of horses, aloof camels and regal desert nomads meet up, as colorful banners are unfurled with shouts and horses stamp with impatience.

Once everyone is assembled, they all move to a vast plain covered with tombs, where riders and horses, quickening to the sense of opening space aead, finnaly let rip into a headlog gallop, racing, Isabelle wrote later, as if… TO THE ENDS OF THIS EARTH….

Video source: http://www.crimethinc.com/old/a/days/flash/dead.swf

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 Isabelle was born in Geneve, Switzerland in 1877  to an Armenian Anarchist, former priest father and an aristocratic Russian Lutheran mother. Isabelle’s mother moved  to Switzerland temporarily in order to recover from an illness taking her tutor ,Alexander along, with which she became pregnant of Isabelle. Isabelle was registered as her  “illegitimate daughter” to avoid acknowledging the tutors paternity.

Isabelle had the privilege of a great education though, being fluent in French, Italian, Russian and German. She was taught latin and Greek and later on fluent in Arabic. She frequently dressed as a man, in order to have access to a level of freedom, women didn’t have at that time. In 1888 her brother Augustin joined the French legion in Algeria and this awoke her interest for Arabic studies and Islam. In 1897, she took her first trip to Africa, in the company of her mother. Her thirst for the desert could never be stopped from that day on.

Isabelle repudiated Europe, the moral and ethical gender restrictions of the time and the whole society structure of the 19th century society. She cut her hair and dressed as a man, she travelled all northern Africa, joining the nomadic tribal people, crossing the desert together with the camel caravans. This is something unique for that time, a woman who not only travels and lives as a nomadic, but also challenges gender roles.

She joined a sufi order, the Qadinyya who were actively involved with helping the poor and needy, as well as fighting the colonial French rule. Isabelle’s strong anarchist roots, which she absorbed from her father, were always present in her short life. This lead to an almost fatal attack, when someone tried to murder her, leaving her severely injured in one arm. Isabelle later on forgave her attacker and even plead for his life to be spared. She married Slimane Ehnni, an Algerian soldier, on October 17, 1901,

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Isabelle dressed as a Muslim man and as a Russian sailor

Isabelle considered herself a nomad and a solo female traveler writer. No doubt the precursor of all travel bloggers, specially female travel writers. During her very short existence, she wrote more than 2 thousand notes, articles and fiction stories 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 started working as a war reporter in the South of Oran in 1903.

Travelling tirelessly on foot, on horseback, alone, and with caravans. She adopted a male identity and called herself Si Mahmoud Essadi, gaining a freedom no other woman, western or not could ever experience and moving freely within the Arab society.

In October 1904, Eberhard drowned in a flood in the desert when she got trapped under the collapsed roof of her house.  She was only 27 years old. She was buried according to the rites of Islam in Algeria.

Her amazing life and works were got their deserved attention. In 1991, a movie with her name was produced, telling her life and her stories. Nowadays, females enjoy a freedom of movement and ability to report their adventures in a way Isabelle could not dream of. I feel quite happy times changed and society evolved into an egalitarian one. Nowadays being a solo female traveler is being part of an extensive community of people, not an outcast.

3 Comments

  1. What an interesting woman, thanks for bringing her to my attention so I can read some more about her life.

    I have to disagree strongly that today’s societies are egalitarian with regards to women. Not in the region this woman travelled in or in most of the rest of the world. I believe discrimination, violence and abuse based on gender is the greatest stain on the soul of humankind in the world today.

    • Unfortunately it will take a couple of generations for women to be as equal as men in every aspect of life and I suspect that in certain cultures, it will take much more than 5 or 6 generations for things to start shifting, specially in Muslim countries… But one things is sure, we now (western women) have the freedom to come and go without needing anyone’s permission. We can travel and experience the world and in certain places you even see more female backpackers than males. But then, of course, we still have the one threat that men will never ever have to face, which is the possibility of rape and it’s always something on the back of my mind wherever I travel. I have to watch out for that…. And rape is considered a normal practice in certain countries by the local people (I think we’ve all seen the news of a young woman who was condemned to get gang raped in India!).

      I have to say I admire Isabelle for her immense courage to go against everything and every norm of the time and travel across muslim countries alone, dressed as a man, and at such a young age, since she died at 27 years old. Even for todays age, she would still be quite ahead of time.

  2. She was in reality a self indulgent freeloader who offended traditional protocols even more profoundly than the hippies on the sub continent during the 60’s.A dug addicted anorexic beggar who actually had inherited assets in Geneva that could have well supported her “vagabond” lifestyle and wanderings. Talk about gilding the liliy

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