10 February 2016

Unlikely Romances: Isabelle Eberhardt and Slimane Ehni

Isabelle Eberhardt
At the turn of the 20th century, what could predispose a young Slavish heiress who had lived all her life cocooned and home-schooled in Switzerland, to shun the allure of the Belle Epoque, abandon her Western roots, convert to Islam and marry her Algerian Sufi master? Far removed from the romantic and orientalist conceptions of North Africa, under the critical and often paranoid French colonial eye, this rare union was born, in poverty, amidst the harsh realities of French-ruled Algeria.

Isabelle and Slimane

The marriage between the fascinating Isabelle Eberhardt and her Algerian lover, Slimane Ehni took place on 17 October 1901.

Isabelle Eberhardt was a Swiss-born explorer and writer. Her writing spanned short stories, manuscripts, travelogues and letters – and provides unique insights into 20th century Algerian culture and French colonialism. When her book, In the Shadow of Islam, was published one year after her death in 1905, it was a best-seller, going into three editions. Her works also include, Au pays des sables, Pages d’Islam, Trimardeur and Mes Journaliers. Her unconventional life has inspired numerous biographies and is depicted in a 1991 Australian-French film.

Isabelle’s tragically fated romance with Slimane Ehni was no less unusual. It brought together two people of vastly different background.  The couple met in August 1900 during Isabelle’s visit to the Algerian city of El Oued, known as The City of Thousand Domes for its mostly domed roofs.  Slimane was both a Muslim, and a marshal of the spahis, a French cavalry unit consisting of indigenous Algerian soldiers. His father was descended from an important maraboutic (holy) family and had been head of indigenous recruiting for the French Army. Isabelle, who originated from an exiled Russian family, acquired the French citizenship through her marriage with Slimane. She described Slimane as her “best friend, chosen brother and profound love”.
Algerian Spahi

Origins, Depression and Sufism

As a child, Isabelle was not foreign to Islam. Her transition to her new life in Algeria likely began in Switzerland during her eccentric home schooling.  Alexandre Trophimowsky, both her tutor and father, was an Armenian anarchist and former Orthodox priest turned atheist. Along with French, German, Russian and Italian, he schooled Isabelle in Greek and Classical Arabic.  Through his tutelage, Isabelle learned to read the Koran. Alexandre’s non-conformity had a tremendous impact on more than his daughter’s linguistic skills and knowledge of Islam.  Alexandre encouraged Isabelle’s affinity for dressing as a man or boy, something she favoured because it allowed her to acquire greater freedom.
Isabelle dressed as a boy

Isabelle, along with many European women saw Algeria as a place where European standards for women did not apply. From 1870, the French had begun encouraging European women to settle in their colonies. They wanted Algeria to become part of Europe. Isabelle’s early writings suggest that she dreamt of living in North Africa where she hoped to find freedom and an escape from the pressures of European society. In 1897, when Isabelle was barely 20, she and her mother made a first visit to Algeria, living in Bone. There, they both converted to Islam.

When Isabelle’s mother died, the young woman was devastated. According to historian Sharon Bangert, Isabelle grew extremely depressed and contemplated suicide. However, when Alexandre Trophimowsky arrived and offered her his gun, she declined and recovered.

Isabelle’s later conversion to Sufism came when she had lost not only her mother but also her father and brother, who committed suicide. Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, nourished her thirst for the absolute at a time when she could have succumbed to depression following the loss of those she loved.

Isabelle’s Sensuality and Complex Identity

Despite her conversion and marriage to a Muslim man, Isabelle was a complex woman who assumed a masculine identity, calling herself by the male name of Sidi Mahmoud Saadi and more often dressing in Algerian cavalier attire.
Isabelle in cavalier attire

In 1901, she wrote to her husband:

“Yes, certainly, I am your wife, before God and Islam. But I am no vulgar Fathma or any kind of Aicha.”

Her expression betrays a profound detachment from other Muslim women that verges on scorn. She believed that Arab women were boring as alluded by her words, “the bleak boredom of life among unintelligent beings, in the midst of the mediocrity and indiscretion of indigenous female.”

Even in her writing about European women she showed little interest and empathy.

Meanwhile, her attitude to the Arab man conformed to the European stereotype of the passionate, impulsive ‘savage’. She was highly promiscuous and sought pleasure from them through an Orientalist lens. She wrote about one of her lovers, “his very harshness and violence are Arabic, in fact. There is also something savage about the way he loves, something un-French and un-modern”.

But even while succumbing to her sexual passions, Isabelle remained firmly attached to her independence. In 1898, long before her marriage to Slimane, when she was the lover of another Algerian named Ali Abdul Wahab, she wrote:

“I allowed this man to be my lover for he was made to give me what I sought – voluptuousness— but now, I do not want to sacrifice the only treasure I have on this earth: my freedom.”

To Ali, she wrote of her disdain for female servitude:

“You cannot imagine the extent of such suffering. I have so much to do, so much to read, so much to study. And instead, one must saw wood, wash the floorboards, pump water!”

Shunning both European and Algerian female roles, Isabelle carved her own identity.  She dressed extensively as a man, even signing all her letters with the name Sidi Mahmoud. At times, as evidenced in her writing, she visited Algerian brothels, invading male space dressed as a man herself.

In social settings, her husband would often introduce her using the following terms:

“Here is my companion Mahmoud and my wife Isabelle.”

Isabelle’s multiple identities is also evident through her writing. Though she was proficient in multiple languages, her travelogues and private letters are written to suggest that she was fluent in none – something that has been likened to linguistic nomadism.

For example, in her correspondence with Slimane her husband, Isabelle weaved Arabic and French, evincing a nomadic identity that mirrored her existence.

Letter to Slimane
A Romance Hindered by French Colonialism

Isabelle was acutely aware of the plight of Algerians under French rule. For example, in her writing she showed extreme disdain towards the ways in which the French authorities collected taxes and engendered misery. Like Europeans however, she maintained a paternalistic overview towards Algerians and did not support Algerian independence. Yet she also did not believe Algerians ought to assimilate into French culture, possibly because this would have deprived her of the cultural escape she cherished.  

Isabelle’s relationship with Slimane, her cross-dressing, her promiscuity and her desire to continue living in the squalid indigenous quarters, well away from the European community that she despised, attracted the unfavourable attention of the French long before her marriage. Her numerous transgressions were seen as odious at a time when European women were the custodians of France’s civilizing mission in Algeria and were expected to demonstrate social distance and political control over Algerians.

The French, repulsed by her reputation as an ‘Arab lover’ and her facility in embracing Sufism, saw her as a spy and an agitator. They also saw her genuine attraction to an Arab as unforgivable to the extent that it contradicted their view of European male superiority. Her relationships were closely watched by the colonial police.

In some ways the Arabs were more accepting of her, even embracing Isabelle’s membership into the restricted Sufi Qadiriyya order. The order leader, Hussein ben Brahim, was so impressed with Isabelle’s knowledge and passion for Islam that he initiated her without the usual formal examinations.

Arabs knew she was a woman dressed like a man but their politeness forbid them to expose someone against their wishes. Still her behaviour would have been shocking to both Arabs and Europeans.

Isabelle wrote, "I had no country, no home, no family. I passed through, like a stranger and an intruder, awakening only censure and antipathy in those around me."

It was the French who made Isabelle’s romance with Slimane difficult.

In 1901, they placed Isabelle on a blacklist and transferred Slimane Ehni to a spahi regiment in a different town, separating the lovers.  Isabelle was too poor to re-join her husband. She turned to the Qadiriyya order for financial assistance. During a meeting, a sabred man attacked Isabelle, severely wounding her before he could be disarmed. She suspected that the French authorities had hired him to assassinate her. She was hospitalised and her survival was deemed a miracle by the Qadiriyya.

No sooner had she recovered, that the French, falling back on her Swiss citizenship, had her expelled from Algeria. Undeterred, Isabelle met Slimane in Marseille where they were soon married. Having acquired the French citizenship, she regained Algeria.

In 1902, a press campaign was launched against Isabelle and Slimane while they lived in the ultra-conservative pieds-noirs town of Ténès. Isabelle was accused of spreading hostile propaganda among the Algerians.

A Free Spirit in Love

To the original question, of what had predisposed a Russian heiress’s journey to North Africa and her marriage to an Algerian, there exists many answers including – her esoteric tutelage, her anarchist upbringing, her inner gender conflict, her rejection of the European society who had once scorned her – both as an illegitimate child (Alexandre was never revealed to be her father) and as an ‘Oriental’ Russian by the Swiss, her intrinsic nomadism, her intense love of Algeria, her sympathy for the colonised Algerians, and her passion for Islam.

But most of all, it was her desire to carve a true identity, unfettered by the constraints of her origins, background, youth and sex, which liberated Isabelle to living the life she had chosen.
Isabelle was fearless in being true to herself. She wrote:

“I am only an original, a dreamer who wishes to live far from the world, to live a free and nomadic life.”

She shunned all herd mentality. In describing European life in Algeria, she wrote, “In Algiers, seeing all the Europeans flocking at the same times to the same side of the arcades, to feel as if they belong, or promenading around the music-filled square, I sense the herd mentality.”

Often those who live fearlessly do so with the understanding that their days might be numbered. Perhaps Isabelle was subconsciously cognizant that she would not live for very long. Some historians have suggested that she was anorexic and possibly syphilitic, and she certainly was deeply addicted to drugs and alcohol.


As we have seen, the remarkable romance between Slimane Ehni and Isabelle Eberhardt had been hindered by the French and her life already once endangered. But Isabelle was determined to cohabit with the love of her life.  

In 1904, the pair was reunited in Aïn Séfra, where Isabelle had rented a clay house. They had barely settled when a flash flood struck the area.

Inundation in 1904
Isabelle found safety, but she swam back in to pull her husband out of the flooding waters. After saving his life, and weakened by repeated bouts of malaria, she drowned, losing her own life. She was only 27.

She had once written, “I am not afraid of death, but would not want to die in some obscure or pointless way.”

Her early death, as tragic as it was, was an homage to her words. For what better death is there than one that permits a beloved to live.


  1. 20th Century North African Colonial History: A Look at Gender and Race through the Cultural Lens of Isabelle Eberhardt, by Stacy Elizabethann Roberts, Spring 2014, Western Oregon University
  2. Isabelle Eberhardt: Portrait of the Arstist as a Young Nomad, by Hedi Abdel-Jaouad, Jan 1993, Yale French Studies
  3. Travelling in Different Skins: Gender Identity in European Women’s Oriental Travelogues, 1850 -1950, by Dúnlaith Bird, Oxford Modern Languages and Literature Monographs
  4. Genealogies of Orientalism: History, Theory, Politics, edited by Edmund Burke, David Prochaska, University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
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  6. En lisant les Ecrits Intimes d’Isabelle Eberhardt, Le Journal de Michel Perdrial, Dec 2013, http://le-journal-de-michel-perdrial.eklablog.com/en-lisant-les-ecrits-intimes-d-isabelle-eberhardt-a108912606, Accessed on 26 Jan 2015.
  7. Unsung Heroes: Isabelle Eberhardt, by Rob Mulligan, Bad Reputation – a feminist pop culture adventure, March 2011, https://badreputation.org.uk/2011/03/31/unsung-heroes-isabelle-eberhardt/, Accessed on 26 Jan 2015.
  8. Isabelle Eberhardt – Wikipedia
  9. Spahi - Wikipedia