October 21 marks the anniversary of the untimely death of Swiss writer and explorer Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), who perished at only 27 in a flash flood in Algeria. This when the Wadi River crested its banks, demolishing the clay hut which Isabelle had rented in anticipation of a long awaited reunion with her Afghani husband. How she happened to be there represented the final chapter in an unusual life — short but filled with adventure. Eberhardt was born into an unconventional household in Switzerland, with a German Lutheran mother of aristocratic descent and a Russian father, a former priest who had renounced the priesthood embracing Islam and political activism. Her parents unmarried status did not hinder her educational formation — Eberhardt was the beneficiary of excellent instruction that gave her fluency in a number of languages, among those Arabic.
In 1897 she traveled to North Africa accompanied by her mother, where the pair converted to Islam. Not long after the conversion Isabelle’s mother died unexpectedly and Isabelle had her buried under the name of Fatma Mannoubia. A fascination with Africa had by then taken hold of the young woman and she stayed on. Particularly entranced by the desert, Eberhardt would make many forays into these regions. Her command of the Arab language and her adoption of male Arabic costume allowed Eberhardt greater freedoms than she would have had as a woman, including participation in local society. Her assimilation of Arabic culture was so complete that she even gained entry to Qadiriyya, the secret Sufi brotherhood, founded by a descendant of The Prophet Muhammad. Isabelle worked with this group to improve conditions of the poor and needy, while combating the oppressive nature of the French colonial rule. Throughout her travels Eberhardt would record her experiences. Her notes of her journeys were recuperated following her death and several books — including In the Shadow of Islam — detailing her experiences were eventually published.