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Book Reviews

Radical reinventions

Samantha Ellis  |  Autumn 2005  -  Number 199


Tom Reiss,The Orientalist: In Search of a Man Caught between East and West (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005, £12.99)

When the American journalist Tom Reiss went to Baku in 1998 to report on the city’s new oil boom, he took with him a 1937 German novel called Ali and Nino. (It was reprinted in English by Vintage in 2000.) This Romeo-and-Juliet tale of a Muslim boy and a Christian girl falling in love in Baku on the eve of revolution is something of a cult book. Visitors to Azerbaijan read it as if it were a guidebook and Azeris call it their national novel. Reiss was enchanted.

No less fervent were the discussions about the author of Ali and Nino. According to the cover, he was called ‘Kurban Said’, but Azeris dismissed this as a pen-name for, variously, an Austrian baroness, a playboy from the Caucasus, an Azeri Muslim. Reiss discovered that Said was something even more improbable: his real name was Lev Nussimbaum, and he was the cossetted son of an Ashkenazi oil tycoon named Abraham Nussimbaum. As well as Kurban Said he had at least one other name, Essad Bey, and had apparently convinced many people (including his wife) that he was not a Jew at all but a Muslim grandee.

Intrigued, Reiss set about finding out more.

His first task was to separate fact from fancy and work out a plausible story for Nussimbaum’s life. It took five years of determined sleuthing in ten countries and involved some improbably lucky discoveries (including a secret deathbed memoir) and encounters with nonagenarian Azeris, the dapper heir to the Ottoman Empire as was and an Austrian baroness who was writing the text for an Israeli-German rock musical. But his dogged detective work unravelled an extraordinary story.

Nussimbaum was born on a train in tsarist Russia in 1905. His father made a fortune out of the oil boom (oil was so plentiful in Baku that hillsides occasionally burst into flame) while his mother was a radical who siphoned off her husband’s money to support Stalin. The tensions drove her to kill herself by drinking acid.

With the Bolsheviks at the gate, Nussimbaum and his father fled East, across Turkestan and Persia then briefly back to Baku until it became necessary to flee again, this time across the Caucasus to Constantinople and Paris and finally Berlin. There Nussimbaum settled down in a school for Russian émigrés, studying alongside Nabokov’s sister and Chagall’s future wife. But his journey had given him an obsession with the East and, while still at school, he secretly enrolled at the university to study Arabic and Turkish. In 1922 he converted to Islam and took a new name: Essad Bey. The conversion was motivated less by spirituality – he carried on eating pork and drinking wine – than by a mystical idea of the Orient. In 1929, still only 24, he published Blood and Oil in the Orient, a pseudo-autobiography which claimed that his father was a Muslim baron, his mother an aristocratic Russian. He followed it up with Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, an equally fantastical travelogue, then started turning out best-selling biographies of Muhammad, Stalin and the last tsar. The darling of Weimar Berlin’s cabaret scene and the slickest, smartest writer in the city, he posed for pictures in a turban, hooped earrings and kohl-rimmed eyes. A jazz poet and heiress named Erika Lowendahl found his Valentino-esque looks irresistible, and they married in 1932.

It seems to have been true love, which makes it all the more perplexing that, when their divorce hit the headlines, she claimed: ‘He told me he was of princely Arabian lineage. I learned after our marriage . . . that he was just plain Leo [sic] Nussimbaum!’ It seems unlikely that she could have been misled (particularly as Abraham Nussimbaum lived with them for some of their marriage, blatantly not a Muslim aristocrat), but so she claimed. Whatever he may have felt about the tabloids trumpeting his secrets, Nussimbaum brazened it out.

Even the Nazis seemed convinced; Goebbels put Nussimbaum’s books on a list of recommended reading, attracted, presumably, by their horror of Bolshevism. But as it became harder to publish in Germany, Nussimbaum left for Vienna, took on a new identity as Kurban Said (‘joyful sacrifice’) and wrote Ali and Nino. For a while it must have seemed as though he could, for once, escape the chaos of revolution and war, but then the Nazis took Vienna. This time he fled to Positano, on the Amalfi coast. Still heartbroken over Lowendahl’s betrayal, nearly penniless and unable to publish anything, he found himself wasting away from a rare blood disease that left him gaunt, frail and howling with pain. He started writing the memoir Reiss would find, the most truthful account of his life but full, nonetheless, of holes and startling inventions. He gave it a title, The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love. Towards the end, he wrote a sentence, then crossed it out:

The author of this book is dead. He was the victim of an airplane crash that occurred when he wanted to cross the short stretch that separates southern Europe from Asia.

In fact, his illness killed him in 1942. He was only 35.

Yet his attempt at describing his own death is telling. Nussimbaum’s entire life could be seen as an attempt to straddle the gap between Europe and Asia. It was a peril of growing up in fin-de-siècle Baku, which Reiss describes as ‘equal parts Dodge City, medieval Baghdad, industrial Pittsburgh, and nineteenth century Paris’, a city poised between East and West. In Ali and Nino a teacher solemnly tells his class that it is their responsibility to decide where their country will go, to Europe or to ‘backward’ Asia. Ali, unsurprisingly, chooses Asia.

Reiss locates Nussimbaum’s fascination with the East in a tradition of Jewish Orientalism. Acknowledging that ‘Orientalism’ is a difficult word to use since Edward Said’s 1978 book pegged it to the colonizing, patronising West’s view of the East, he goes on to describe the Jewish Orientalists: from Disraeli, who fictionalized his romantic East from within the heart of the British establishment, to Martin Buber, who wanted Jews to return to the East in order to keep alive ‘the ancient Oriental spirit’. Nussimbaum had the edge on Disraeli and Buber, having been born in the Orient. As a child, he would wander around the old Muslim walled city of Baku, and the crumbling palace of the khans, around which stretched the desert that he called ‘the epitome of peaceful, ancient, silent grandeur’.

His flight from the Bolsheviks fuelled his passion by taking him into the heart of the wild East. It also taught him the benefits of being a chameleon; in a time of such constant and unpredictable upheaval, it was impossible to know from one moment to another what the safest disguise might be. There were numerous close shaves and eleventh-hour escapes, and without quick wits and a talent for shapeshifting, Nussimbaum would not have survived. At one point, separated from his father and travelling with a spurious document that declared him to be on an urgent fishnet-purchasing expedition for the Association for the Promotion of Fishery in Azerbaijan, he was captured, chained and threatened with torture by a makeshift anti-Bolshevik militia formed by peasants on the Azeri-Georgian border. He produced the fishnets document, but the peasants were illiterate, suspicious and spoiling for a fight. Just as everything seemed lost, a village elder appeared to say that a nobleman recently arrived from Baku had offered to examine the prisoner. The nobleman turned out to be none other than Nussimbaum’s father, disguised in full Caucasus national gear, complete with high fur hat, double bandolier and dagger. Nussimbaum’s disguise may have backfired this time, but his father’s had saved him; it was another lesson in the importance of being as protean as possible.

The world around Nussimbaum seemed equally fluid. Empires were collapsing, borders dissolving, loyalties shifting, refugees criss-crossing continents and whole cultures vanishing before the forces of revolution, modernity and war. In the context of such violent change and chronic uncertainty, the question of why Nussimbaum became first Essad Bey and then Kurban Said is chicken-and-egg. Was he a compulsive fabulist or an opportunistic man of his times? It is a question that Reiss never quite answers. In an interview on  the website Nextbook (, he posits the theory that Nussimbaum’s self-inventions were a radical form of assimilation:

One definition of assimilation – a negative definition – is that individuals were supposed to cower and lose themselves to the machine, whereas Lev said, ‘I'm going to assimilate as a kind of weapon. You can't define me, I will define myself. If I need to, I will become you even as you attack me.’

It is tempting to read his life backwards, making Nazism the reason for the myths he made, but the stories Nussimbaum told about himself could not all have been about survival; they were too outrageous for that, and, besides, he courted danger rather than fled it. While in Italy he wrote a bizarre letter to a sometime benefactor explaining that

The documentary airtight evidence of Aryan background back to the third generation in my family is extremely difficult to obtain, as all the relevant papers are in the hands of the Bolsheviks

and therefore requesting a recommendation of ‘a competent anthropologist, who after appropriate examination can produce a definitive verdict as to my racial composition’. He also launched a sustained campaign to be appointed Mussolini’s official biographer, an act, as Reiss points out, of ‘almost suicidal chutzpah’. What is not clear is whether Nussimbaum really did sympathize with the Fascists. Reiss emphasizes that antisemitism came late to the Italian Fascists, and that Nussimbaum's fear of the Bolsheviks might well have pushed him into the arms of the far right, but he never quite confronts the possibility that he may simply (and less attractively) have been in flight from his Jewish identity.

A week after his death, a long black sedan drove up to Nussimbaum’s home in Positano and men in black fedoras got out. Some of his neighbours must have assumed that they had come to take him to a concentration camp – by then Nussimbaum’s father had almost certainly been murdered in Treblinka – but this was not the case. Nussimbaum had secured an invitation (brokered by Ezra Pound) to record propaganda speeches in Persian for broadcast on the Fascist Colonial Service. The men in fedoras had come to drive him to the recording studio in Rome.

It is an amazing story, and Reiss tells it with verve and a flamboyance that suits his subject, even if his research sometimes clutters the narrative. Nussimbaum is a difficult subject for a biography – slippery, infuriating, sometimes opaque – but Reiss’s affection for him shines through. At a time when the divisions between East and West, Jew and Muslim, are seemingly becoming calcified, this is a heartening book to read, a reminder that the world is more contradictory, complex and strange than it may seem. But what is most inspiring about The Orientalist – and a reason not to read Nussimbaum’s life back through the distorting lens of Nazism – is Nussimbaum’s idea that we can create ourselves through an act of imagination or will. In Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, he describes a ‘political Switzerland of the Caucasus’, an imagined haven he calls Khevsuria:

A gigantic wall of rock surrounds Khevsuria and separates it from the rest of the world . . . From the cliff wall down into the void there hangs a long rope. Whoever has the courage can catch hold of the rope and let himself down to the Khevsurs. The police never follow . . . Only the refugee dares use the rope, to be accepted if he is so inclined into the society of the Khevsurs and protected for ever from all dangers.

It is easy to see how such a place might appeal to a man who had rushed harum-scarum across the world to escape revolution, war and chaos, but it is also dazzling to watch him invent a place of safety, a state of the stateless, populated only by those courageous enough to take a leap in the dark. To read Nussimbaum’s life only in terms of his evasions and escapes would be to miss out on the wild joy he took in outrageous reinventions. Nature, nurture or the terrible times may have forced him into fabulism, but Reiss’s book reveals what wondrous fables they were, and manages to retell them without dissipating any of Nussimbaum’s much-cherished mysteriousness.

Samantha Ellis is a playwright and freelance journalist.

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