From Indiana Jones to Eagle Scouts, adventuring has always been a bit of a boys’ club. Rack your brains for famous globetrotters and chances are you’ll come up with names like Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, hell, even Steve Irwin—but you’d probably be hard-pressed to come up with a woman to add to the list. Let’ s face it: the only female explorer most of us know is Dora, and ever since her recent tweenage makeover even she would rather go city slicking than spelunking in jungles.
Given the aforementioned, spectators at Ann Demeulemeester’s Spring 2012 show two years ago could have been forgiven for perhaps not quite knowing what to make of Demeulemeester’s comments about looking to Swiss writer and traveler Isabelle Eberhardt for her muse. Rolling Stone’s coverage of the collection referred to Eberhardt as an “urban poetess,” drawing comparisons to Patti Smith, and most other fashion journalists followed suit. In truth, however, Eberhardt was more Lawrence of Arabia than Laurie Anderson—as a matter of fact, she was Lawrence of Arabia before Lawrence himself had ever even set foot in the Middle East.
Born in 1877, Eberhardt was the illegitimate child of an aristocratic German Russian mother and an anarchist Armenian father who raised her to speak several languages. Her father, whom she and her older half-siblings knew as their tutor, also taught her classical Arabic and introduced her to the Koran. when her half-brother Augustin joined the French Foreign Legion, he wound up stationed in Algeria; in 1897, Eberhardt and her mother traveled there to visit him and while there decided to convert to Islam. Her mother died before ever leaving Algeria, however, and over the next several years Eberhardt watched her ties to her life in Geneva wither and fade as her father succumbed to cancer, her half-brother Vladimir committed suicide, and Augustin married a comparatively plebeian French woman with whom she had nothing in common. At the turn of the century she returned to Algeria; donning men’s clothing and adopting the name Mahmoud, Eberhardt set off on her travels across North Africa.
Eberhardt exhaustively documented her experiences in her personal journals, as well as in volumes of short stories, and over time she also began writing for various French newspapers. While journeying throughout the French colonies, she made contact and became involved with the Qadiriyya, a Sufi brotherhood whose members devoted themselves to helping the poor and needy—when they weren’t too preoccupied with their radical anti-colonialist efforts, of course. Eberhardt followed suit, throwing herself and her skills as a writer behind the anti-imperialist cause; given the enemies she must have made in doing so, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to assume this might have had something to do with the assassination attempt she endured in 1901. Not only did she survive nearly having her arm cut off by a sabre—she even went to her would-be murderer’s trial and pled, successfully, for the court to spare his life.
Even in the midst of her innumerable exploits—just like the hero of any dime-store adventure novel too epic to be taken seriously—Eberhardt still managed to find the time for romance, marrying Algerian soldier Slimane Ehnni at age 24. She didn’t let this slow her down, however, and continued to pursue her travels and her work as a writer until settling down in Ain Sefra with her husband in 1904. They had only been there a short time when a freak flash flood struck their house, drowning Eberhardt in the ensuing mudslide, but even then she went out like a true swashbuckler: after initially escaping the disaster, Eberhardt ultimately lost her life only after diving back into the wreck and pulling her husband to safety. Over the course of just 27 years, Eberhardt crammed more adventure into her brief life than Indiana Jones could fit into an entire franchise.