The Adventures of an African Explorer
The first man I ever saw dressed as a woman was Uncle Milty (Milton Berle) on his TV show back in the late 1950’s. It was funny, but still a bit strange. The famous French artist Marcel Duchamp created an alter ego that he named Rrose SeLavy.
Others such as comedian Flip Wilson, Actor Divine and actor/comedian Eddy Izzard have all cross dressed in public. Shakespeare had cross dressing in several of the plays. And there has always been a rumor that the great J. Edgar Hoover was prone to sport the latest Oscar De La Renta creation…but only at private parties!
Cross dressing is as old as civilization itself. The Old Testament tells us “ a man shall not wear women’s clothing, nor a woman man’s clothing”. Obviously for this to be written it was indeed going on and well known.
Summa Theologiae II, speaking about cross dressing, states: “Nevertheless this may be done sometimes without sin on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive.”
However, in the case of all of the above they dressed as women. Isabelle Eberhard dressed as a man…and for good reason, she had no choice.
Isabelle Eberhardt had means and motive. Eberhardt was born in Geneva in 1877, educated there and as a teenager wrote short stories under a male pseudonym. She left for North Africa and realizing she could not travel and imbibe the culture freely, changed her name to Si Mahmoud Saadi dressed and adopted a male personality and left us with some of the most remarkable writing about late 19th / Early 20th century North Africa. Her diaries and stories still exist and give us exciting glimpses into the culture and beauty of the great desert.
It has been said of her…
In her short life Isabelle Eberhardt came to be known as the ultimate enigma and representative of everything that seemed dangerous in nineteenth-century society. She was the illegitimate daughter of an Aristocratic Russian emigre, she was a cross dresser and sensualist, an experienced drug taker…a European reborn in the sands of the desert as an Arab and a Muslim…a woman who reinvented herself as a man and rode through the mighty Sahara on horseback…and that’s just the beginning!
Her first diary entry is filled with a serene yet melancholy vision of the sea before her as she awaits her ship for North Africa (January 1, 1900)
“I am sitting alone facing the grey expanse of the shifting sea…I am alone…alone as I have always been everywhere, and I’ll always be throughout this seductive and deceptive universe”
And later while in Algeria (in Hospital, 3 Feb. 1901)
“The mere name Senegal was enough for him to conjure up that infinite expanse of sand again, those languorous crimson twilights and huge sun setting in the desert…He felt curiously attracted to it all especially the Sahara’s edge and impenetrable Moorish frontier”
Her days and nights were spent as a young adventurer writing stories and documenting her trials and tribulations while riding through the massive Sahara on her horse, Souf.
Although her dress and manners were turning more “Moorish”, her love of the religious life of Islam was growing even stronger. She was indeed a Sufi Mystic belonging to several orders. In this simple almost monastic life she realized a way to perceive and function in a world that was hard and often quite cruel.
Although dressing as a male, she was married and continued her observance of the Islamic faith. She was the victim of an attempted assassination and died at the age of 27 in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria in 1904.
Had she spent the same time in the same places without her ‘male drag’, the world would never have seen through her eyes the beauty as she recorded it…nor come to know a brilliant mysterious cross dressing artist and adventurer.
After all, if Hoover could wear a mini skirt what’s a little eye shadow on your grandson!!!
For further reading:
The Nomad is a book of her diary entries.
The Oblivion Seekers..Stories and further journal entries by this Sufi Mystic