Si Mahoud

As promised, I've decided to do my next several posts on 19th-century lady adventurers because I haven't been abroad in a while and I want to live vicariously through them. All info and quotations are from my favorite book of all time, Barbara Holland's They Went Whistling.

Once upon a time in the 1870s, there was a Russian general's wife. Her kids had an Armenian teacher, and since Armenian is the language of love, she and the teacher ran off to Geneva. There they had two kids together, Augustin and Isabelle Eberhardt, the latter of whom would grow up to be Si Mahoud. It was a dramatic way to start life–with runaway parents, both married to other people–and Isabelle's life was nothing else if not unceasingly effing dramatic.

Drama Exhibit A: the siblings, Augustin and Isabelle grew up "passionately in love with each other, an unsettling start in life" (95). Hey, if it's good enough for the Lannisters and Borgias . . .

So, here is Isabelle all grown up.
BABE-TASTIC, AMIRITE? Actually, no. By the standards of the day, she was considered ugly (being flat-chested and tall with slanted eyes and high cheekbones). So, being "ugly" (god, I feel like Shallow Hal right now; I just do not see the ugly), she decided to do something that would make her feel better about herself. She cut off all her hair and start dressing as a boy.


Drama Exhibit B: Out of nowhere, she decided her true calling was in the Algerian desert, so she taught herself Arabic and convinced her mother to move there with her. Why she needed to split up her family, I have no idea. Daddy and Augustin stayed in Geneva, and she certainly didn't need her mother to hold her hand in Africa.

She instantly converted to Islam and called herself a man, "Si Mahoud", which was probably for the best because it meant that she could go places where a woman couldn't, and could walk alone when a woman couldn't, and could strike up friendships with other men.

So then mama flat-lined in the desert from undisclosed causes, leaving Isabelle penniless, so she had to go back to Geneva, where her father was also dying. "Augustin was there too, brooding Slavically. Everyone was miserable and it was all very Chekhovian around the house. As soon as her father died–one biographer suggests she and Augustin poisoned him–she headed for Paris to gather enough money to get back to Africa" (96).

She found the money by lying to little old ladies and fleecing them for all they were worth by telling them she had a husband who had possibly been assassinated somewhere in the African desert, and she needed to go look for him. You know, typical fund-raising stuff that pretty much ensured they'd name an entire street in Hell after her.

She ditched Augustin in Paris and returned to Algeria: "She covered incredible chunks of empty territory alone, with only her horse for company, avoiding the French and hobnobbing only with Arabs, sleeping on the dirt floors of huts among the rats or out in the open, happy as only the happy exile can be" (96). As Jules in Pulp Fiction said, she "roamed the earth, like Caine in the Kung Fu."

It probably didn't hurt that she was drunk and high on pot for most of it. I mean, blazing, dangerous deserts and intoxication don't typically go well together, but she made it work. She also made booze work with her fanatical devotion to Islam, which prohibits drink. She had a very convenient relationship with Islam, believing in it fully, but not believing that all the rules applied to her. "She took dozens, if not hundreds, of casual Arab lovers, summoning them out of the crowds at the market, using and discarding them in true manly fashion, and indeed the Arabs seemed to accept her as a man, or at least honor her disguise" (96).

Her "disguise":
The French there HATED her and were far, far more intolerant of her behavior than the Muslims she lived with. That's not to say that she didn't make some Muslim enemies:

Drama Exhibit C: "she was half killed by a fanatic with a sword who claimed Allah had ordered him to assassinate her" (96). When it went to trial, the assassin got twenty years' hard labor, and she got kicked out of North Africa for being a trouble-maker.

Drama Exhibit D: She went to Marseilles and, being depressed for being kicked out of Africa, decided to flagellate herself by thinking of suicide, living in abject squalor, and working so hard as a dock worker that she basically ruptured her whole body. It was very, "If I can't have the thing I love, I don't deserve even meager levels of comfort". It was all very Russian. Or very pubescent. I can't tell which.

Drama Exhibit E: She remembered that she could get back into Africa if she was married to one of its citizens. There was this guy, Slimene, who she'd gotten freaky with on-and-off for years, so she booty-called him to France where they got married and then went back to Africa. At customs she was all, "Check out this wedding band, suckaaaaaaaaaaaas" and then vanished into the desert, leaving her husband at home.

She got hired by a paper as a war correspondent for some troubles near the Moroccan border, where she finally got paid to do what she did. She got slightly famous and was called "The Cossack of the Desert". Her authority on the land and her friendships with Arab leaders made her hugely valuable, but her skills were recognized far too late.

By this point, "she probably had syphilis as well as severe malaria . . . Too reckless or too lazy to take care of herself, she lost her teeth. Her health fell apart. She was only twenty-eight but people who knew her at the time said she was a wreck of a woman" (98). She wanted to live hard, die young and leave a beautiful well, actually hideous corpse. They finally talked her into going to the hospital, but she was too impatient to do that whole boring "get better" thing. If she was going to die, it wasn't going to be from something stupid, like failing health. That's for sissies.

I guess Allah heard her prayer.

Drama Exhibit F: The very second she sneaked out of the hospital and walked down a nearby ravine, a totally bizarre torrential flash flood sprung up in the exact location she had gone. She died. "Drowning in the Sahara is a rare way to die, but Si Mahoud was always a rarity" (98).

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3 Responses to Si Mahoud

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