The Queen of the Desert

Just suppose you are able to make an interview with Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904), one of the changed ones or abdal. What would you ask her? Perhaps some of your questions are similar to the ones as given below:

Q: Can you give us some biographical details?
A: My Russian mother was called Nathalie de Moerder-Eberhardt. Trophimovsky, my father, was a remarkable man. My father and mother did not marry one another. My father was a former priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was an anarchist and raised me as a boy. He taught me Latin, Greek, Russian, German, Turkish and Arabic. My father helped me to read parts of the Qur’an in the original. Its teachings gave me a delight and soon I began to take a more than mere intellectual interest in Islam. From my early girlhood on I have dreamed of living in an Islamic country. I shared all my hopes with my elder brother Augustin. We talked about distant voyages to Mecca in order to perform the pilgrimage, we dreamed about Istanbul and Algiers . My brother agreed to all these plans, swept away by my enthusiasm. I was a nomad when, as a little girl, I used to dream and watch the road, the white road that seemed to draw me along it and that wound away… And I shall remain a nomad all my life, in love with changing horizons and unexplored distances.

Q: When did this wish become a reality?
A: On 21 st July in 1900 I sailed for Algiers . I have written some things about this step in my diary: ‘And now I am a nomad with no other homeland than Islam, with no family and no one in whom to confide; alone, for ever alone in the proud and darkly sweet solitude of my own heart. And thus I shall continue my way through life until the time comes for the great, eternal sleep of the grave’.

Q: Why did you dress yourself in the clothes of an Arab man, while using a male name, Si Mahmud, as your name?
A: In such a way I could travel on my own freely to all kinds of places. I made long trips on horseback in the desert of Algeria . Thus I started to love the land, the desert, nature and the people of Algeria . You will find only first-hand knowledge in my diaries, stories, my travel accounts and my novel.

Q: You have been accepted as a disciple in the Qadiriyya order. Was it unusual for a woman to be admitted into an Algerian Sufi order?
A: No! There was nothing very unusual in the acceptance of a woman into the ranks of a Sufi confraternity, since female disciples were even allowed to attain to the rank of a moqaddim and give the initiation to other seekers.

Q: You have become whose disciple?
A: My shaykh is called Sidi Huseyn ben Brahim. He was the moqaddim in the zawiya – a small Sufi centre – of Guemar. He was one of the sons of the great shaykh Sidi Ibrahim, who had recently died.

Q: What happened during your initiation into the Qadiriyya order?
A: I was initiated in the presence of a good number of the local members of the order. The ceremony was simple. First the moqaddim shaved my head and heard me recite an act of repentance and the vow taken by the disciples. Then he placed a coronet on my head, a cloak over my shoulders, bound me with a girdle to the fellow-disciple I had chosen as a sort of godfather. Then he explained something about Sufism to me. Do you want me to continue?

Q: Yes! What happened next?
A: I then received the rosary of the Qadiriyya order and learned the dhikr. It consisted in the recital of 165 times the formula ‘there is no god but God’. It was recited in a special way as prescribed by shaykh Sanusi.

Q: Tell us more about it!
A: You need to sit cross-legged, touch the tip of your right foot and then trace with your hand the principal artery running round the intestines. Then you would place your open hand, with spread fingers, on your knee, while pronouncing the name of God in a deep voice, prolonging the final syllable as long as your breath held out. You were to say this dhikr not only for yourself, but also for all people. You should continue until your heart and spirit attain the sweetness of ecstasy and receive the revelation of the divine light.

Q: What happened next in your initiation ceremony?
A: After this first part of the ceremony, everyone sat down on the carpet, while the moqaddim prepared sweetmeats, which he distributed. Some were sent to absent disciples. Then I had to say this prayer:

‘I seek refuge with God from His anger and ask Him to restrain me from ever casting off the girdle, breaking the pact or disavowing the girdle, breaking the pact or disavowing the confraternity established by God. For whosoever preserves the girdle, the pact and the confraternity, shall be preserved by God and obtain His blessing, but whoever shall cast them off will anger God and on the Day of Resurrection she shall have a blackened face, so that the angels shall curse her’.

Then there was a long exchange of question and answer after which I received the final diploma of a disciple.

Q: There has been an attack on your life. What took place?
A: I had ridden to Behima on 27 th January 1901 with a marabout, who was called Sidi Lashmi, a number of his disciples and my own servant. We entered the house of a certain Si Brahim ben Larbi, and, while the marabout retired to another room for the afternoon prayer, I remained in a large room, which led to an anti-chamber opening on to the village square where a compact crowd was waiting and where my servant was tending my horse. There were five or six Arab notables of the village or its surroundings, nearly all of them disciples of the Rahmaniyya, an important Sufi confraternity which was on friendly terms with our own confraternity, the Qadiriyya.

I was seated between two persons. My head was lowered and my burnoose drawn over my turban, so that I could not see what was happening in front of me. Suddenly I received a violent blow on the head, followed by two others on the left arm. I raised my head and saw an individual – poorly dressed and thus a stranger among us – who was waving a weapon, which I took to be a cudgel, but it was in fact an Arab sabre. I rose suddenly and rushed to the opposite wall to seize Si Lashmi’s sabre, but the first blow had struck the crown of my head and almost stunned me, so that I fell on a coffer, experiencing a violent pain in my left arm. The assassin then rushed out into the crowd, crying: ‘I shall fetch a gun to finish him off’.

Later on the man was caught and he was brought to trial on 18 th June 1901 . He claimed to be on a mission from God. He said that an angel advised him to kill the European who troubled Islam. When he was asked to disclose the nature of the disorders provoked by Miss Eberhardt he answered: ‘She dressed like a man. I also had a suspicion, that I thought she was the mistress of the marabout El Lashmi’. In regard to his accusations he also said that during his attack no one and nothing could have stopped him carrying out this act. ‘Now I feel differently’, he said ‘and I ask the pardon of the woman I struck’. The council retired and returned with the verdict: attempted premeditated murder, and the punishment was hard labour for life. I find the verdict excessively severe and I wish to declare this severity.

Q: Let us turn, once again, to Sufism. After the death of a famous marabout of the Rahmaniyya order, Sidi Belqasim, his daughter Zeynab was believed to have inherited his spirituality and she was very much respected by all the disciples of that order. You have met her. Can you tell us something of your meeting with this very secluded living woman?

Q: Zeynab was a woman of about 50 years of age. Her manner was timid and gentle, like that of other women who have passed their lives in the harem, yet she had about her an air of authority. Her father had trained her from childhood to fill the role that awaited her, so that I realized at once that I was in the presence of a great shaykha. She received me kindly and spoke to me about the spiritual questions, which tormented me. I sat opposite the marabout on a sort of mattress. I was moved by the pale, drawn face of my hostess, that told of a lifetime of fasting and asceticism. Her soft, rather hoarse voice was interrupted now and again by a harsh cough that shook her frail body, fragile as that of a child under its burnoose and veils. I have never revealed the conversation with Zeynab, but I have come from it with a feeling of rejuvenation and renewed force.

Q: You have started to live in the Sahara in ‘Ayn-Sefra. What is the translation of ‘Ayn Sefra?
A: It means ‘Yellow Source’. The river Oued is flowing through ‘Ayn-Sefra.


The river Oued has flooded its banks in October 1904. In a few moments the lower part of the town got covered with a yellowish, destructive mud. In this disaster 26 people have been killed. In the Algerian weekly the ‘Akhbar’ the following news has been given on 27 th October 1904 :

‘The body of Isabelle Eberhardt has been found today at 9.15 A.M. It was covered with the debris of parts of the staircase of her house. Everyone who was present was deeply moved. The military authorities have buried her at the Islamic graveyard’.