Female Islamic Saints


Si Mahmoud Saadi
I. A photo of Si Mahmoud Saadi in typical male attire.

Si Mahmoud Saadi (1877–1904) born Isabelle Eberhardt, was a Swiss mystic of the Qadiri order. Mahmoud was born in Geneva to Nathalie de Moërder, a German woman of Russian Jewish and Lutheran Prussian heritage who had married into a Russian noble family, and Armenian anarchist and former Russian Orthodox priest Alexandre Trophimowsky. While Mahmoud’s birth certificate lists them as illegitimate and without a father (leading them to inherit their mother’s maiden name Eberhardt), Trophimowsky was Moërder’s lover during her marriage and is presumed to be Mahmoud’s father. Trophimowsky was also the Moërder family tutor, and thus tutored Mahmoud and their siblings in lieu of them going to public school. Mahmoud spoke Russian, French, German, Italian, and Arabic, and they could read Greek and Latin as a youth.

Mahmoud had begun corresponding by letter with a military officer in the Sahara, and he convinced them that they should come to North Africa. They were further convinced by Louis David, a French photographer interested in their writings on Arab culture, as he had asked them to come to Bone, Algeria. They persuaded their mother, and in 1897, the two relocated to Bone, and they both converted to Islam, with their mother taking on the name Fatma. They had left their father behind, but Trophimowsky would soon follow them from Switzerland when Mahmoud’s mother died. Mahmoud would return to Geneva as well to mourn their father’s death in 1899. Their mother had decided to live in the Arab quarter after moving away from Louis David, but in Mahmoud’s independent life, they further avoided French Algerians, going about taking on lovers, delving into religion, drinking absinthe and smoking cannabis. They had earlier in life taken on male dress and short hair, often dressing as a sailor, even writing under the pseudonym “Nicholas Podolinksy,” but this was when they nearly permanently adopted the dress of an Arab man, a turban and a burnous cloak with shaven hair, and took on the male name Si Mahmoud Saadi.

When Mahmoud’s misadventures in Algeria ran their pockets dry of their mother’ inheritance, they returned to Geneva to attend to the selling of their father’s estate. Trophimowsky’s legitimate Russian wife, however, produced legal obstacles. It was suggested by a couple of friends to pursue writing and to take their writing to Paris, but, attendees of the Paris Exhibition of 1900 largely went unimpressed with Mahmoud, who presented themself in simple feminine garb. It was in Paris, though, where they met the Marquise de Mores. Mahmoud was hired by her to investigate the death of her husband in El Oued, Algeria. Mahmoud returned to Algeria, bandying about on their horse Souf, but failed to put a valiant effort into the matter, and so the Marquise dismissed them, though they had already spent the funds allotted to them.

In El Oued, an Amazigh cavalry sergeant of French nationality, Sliman Ehnni, caught Mahmoud’s eye, and, despite Mahmoud’s male presentation, the two fell in love. In addition, Mahmoud came into contact with the Qadiri order, whose local zāwiyah, or Sufi lodge, was headed by Ḥusayn bin Brāhīm. They would soon be initiated into the order after being acquainted with the shaykh, despite the fact that westerners and women were never ordained, even if Mahmoud assumed a male persona. This initiation caused Mahmoud to be blacklisted by the French, and, perhaps in retaliation, the military transferred their partner Sliman to Batna, miles away, leaving the in-debted Mahmoud with no way to reach him.

It was at a conference between the local Qadiri and Rahmani orders when Mahmoud was attacked by an assassin with a rusty sword. Members of the Qadiri order came to see Mahmoud as a marabout, or holy man, and viewed their survival of the attack as a miracle. Indeed, of the Amazigh people of the Aures Mountain region, few knew of Mahmoud’s assigned sex, but they acknowledged their male identity irregardless. After this incident, Mahmoud was forced out of Algeria as an illegal immigrant, only being made to return for the trial of their assassin, before being made to return to France again. There, they lived and worked as a man and dock worker in Marseille with their brother Augustin. Sliman was soon transferred near Marseille, and in 1901, after Mahmoud used funds they acquired in writing to buy feminine clothes, the two were married, and in 1902, when Sliman was discharged, the two immigrated to Bone, where Sliman’s family lived. Sliman had insisted, though, that Mahmoud wear the expected feminine clothing when going out in public. It was in Algiers, where they were hired under Victor Barrucand at Al-’Akhbār, “The News,” a North African newspaper, which facilitated their meeting with Lalla Zaynab, a female mystic from El Hamel, who became their good friend and spiritual guide, and they would return to visit her again.

Si Mahmoud Saadi’s tomb
I. Si Mahmoud Saadi’s tomb in Ain Sefra.

In 1903, Mahmoud fell into a bout of malaria, something they suffered from chronically, and they were taken to the military hospital at Ain Sefra. In 1904, Sliman came to Ain Sefra to meet with them, but much of the city was destroyed in a flash flood which spared Sliman but crushed Mahmoud under a beam, killing them. Mahmoud’s friend Colonel Lyautey had them buried in the Muslim cemetary at Ain Sefra, having their marble tomb stone bear their preferred name “Si Mahmoud.”

Not necessarily considered a saint.

Photo Reference

I: “A Portrait of Jahanara Begum.” Fine Art America, MotionAge Designs, fineartamerica.com/featured/a-portrait-of-jahanara-begum-motionage-designs.html.

II: “Tombe Isabelle Eberhardt.” Wikimedia Commons, 4 Jan 1913, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tombe_Isabelle_Eberhardt.jpg.

Other Reading

Bodley, R.V.C. “Isabelle Eberhardt.” The Soundless Sahara. Robert Hale Limited, 1968, pp. 141–166

Clancy-Smith, Julia A. “The Shaykh and His Daughter: Implicit Pacts and Cultural Survivor, c. 1827–1904.” Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populists Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800–1904). University of California Press, 1994, pp. 214–253.

Garber, Marjorie. “The Chic of Araby: Transvestism and the Erotics of Cultural Appropriation.” The Transgender Studies Reader. Routledge, 2006, pp. 641–645.

Husayn ben Brahim • Slimane Ehnni • Slimène Ehnni

EuropeQadiri OrderSufiAuthorMystic.