This book traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. Born in 1905 in Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the names Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution, became celebrated across fascist Europe. But his life grew wilder than his wildest stories. He married an international heiress who had no idea of his true identity--until she divorced him in a tabloid scandal. His closest friend in New York was arrested as the leading Nazi agent in the United States. He was invited to be Mussolini's official biographer--until the Fascists discovered his "true" identity. Under house arrest, he wrote his last book, helped by a mysterious half-German salon hostess, an Algerian weapons-smuggler, and the poet Ezra Pound. As he tracks down the pieces of Lev's deliberately obscured life, Reiss discovers a series of shadowy worlds--of European pan-Islamists, nihilist assassins, anti-Nazi book smugglers, Baku oil barons, Jewish Orientalists--that have also been forgotten. The result is a thoroughly unexpected picture of the twentieth century--of the origins of our ideas about race and religious self-definition, and of the roots of modern fanaticism and terrorism.
Reiss has a done a great job of unraveling this complicated and mysterious life that bordered on danger and illusion throughout Lev's relatively short 35 years. Lev was driven to write and he did so incessantly. He lived larger than life in many ways, but was ultimately felled by political currents that he could not work around as he had so many earlier in his life. Reiss also provides very good context in describing the Russian revolution, the life of Russian emigres in Constantinople, Paris and Berlin, the post-WWI revolutions in Germany, and the rise of Nazism. The Orientalist reads like a biography, a mystery, and a history book, all at the same time.
I found the book full of interesting tidbits and anecdotes. One of the most chilling was an interview of Hitler by George Sylvester Viereck who defended the contributions that Jews had made in all walk of life to which Hitler replied, " The fact that a man is decent is no reason why we should not eliminate him". As Reiss, notes, at a time when other interviewers were focused on the Versailles Treaty of the situation in Austria, Viereck got to the core of Hitler.
As he headed toward the city of Baku in Azerbaijan, in 1998, to write about the new oil boom there in the southernmost stretches of European Russia, Tom Reiss was offered the romantic novel "Ali and Nino" as an introduction to the Caucasus 'that would be more useful than any guide' he might read for the city he would shortly be visiting. The Introduction to the novel had said that "Kurban Said is a pen name and no one seems to know for certain the real name of the man who chose it." In Baku, Reiss noticed another novel in a book rack, "Blood and Oil in the Orient" by "Essad Bey (Lev Nussimbaum)," which said on the cover that it was"written by the author of 'Ali and Nino' " Intrigued by the multiple names, Reiss began his search and eventually discovered over 300 private letters, unpublished book manuscripts, six hidden death-bed notebooks with Kurban Said's final account of himself, "The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love", and then interviewed many people, then in their 80's and 90's, who had known him.
Kurban Said was born Lev Nussimbaum, in Baku, in October 1905, during the turbulence and pogroms of the Revolution of 1905, when the Czar signed the October Manifesto ceding some power and creating an elected Duma. He lived his early life there in a culturally diverse, but overwhelmingly Islamic Baku, until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution sent him and his father fleeing for their lives via the Southern route that many emigres followed out of Russia, first to Paris, and then onto Berlin in 1921. His wealth and his Jewish birth left him vulnerable to the ism's of the day, Communism in Russia earlier and Fascism in Berlin later, but he managed to skirt the dangers and survive. His attraction for the Orient had begun during his childhood school days and continued throughout his life, finally forming the springboard for his career as a literary figure during the 20's and 30's when he wrote numerous books and articles about the Orient for the benefit of a Western audience. In 1922, he formally converted to Islam and soon thereafter styled himself Essad Bey, recreating himself as an Oriental prince, complete with Caucasian Muslim garb. When he was finally banned in Germany because of his background, he became "Kurban Said" and went on writing under his new name. After visits to the United States and Hollywood in 1932-38, from his home in Vienna, he finally retired to live out his now near-destitute days in Positano, Italy. He died there of a chronic disease, still a young man, in 1942.
Of at least equal interest in the book are the detailed descriptions of the historical environments in which Lev/Essad/Kurban lived his life. Germany of the 20's, especially, was the prequel to the horrors of the modern history that we are perhaps much more familiar with, which Hitler would unleash with his rise to the Chancellorship in 1933. For this reader, the detailed description of the political, social and intellectual chaos during the 20's almost beggars the imagination in terms of anything I have read before. It was a period when Dorothy Thompson, writing for Cosmopolitan as late as 1932, could obtain an interview with the future Fuehrer and come away saying: "He is inconsequent and voluble ... ill-poised, insecure. He is the prototype of the Little Man. . . When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler's salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than 50 seconds I was quite sure I was not." It was a period when Communists and Fascists, bitter enemies, would put previous enmity aside, and unite forces to demonstrate jointly to bring down the Weimar government. It was a period when many people actively favored Nazism because it was seen as preventing the greater evil of Communism from engulfing Germany. It was a period, as late as 1933, when "Even Walter Lippman, probably the most influential Jewish writer in America at the time, warned readers of his nationally syndicated column that to judge Nazi Germany by its concentration camps was to judge Protestantism by the Ku Klux Klan or the Jews by their parvenus." It was a period difficult to imagine, even with all we know, and this book sheds glaring invaluable light on it.
Now, finally, Muslim Kurban Said rests in a cemetery in Positano, Italy, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, facing Mecca from under a headstone bearing a carved turban, after having been born Jewish in Baku, Azerbaijan, as Lev Nussimbaum, and converted to Islam as an adult, and having lived under the guise of an Arab prince Essad Bey. He rests now, the Orientalist, as Muhammed Essad Bey, mysterious when he was alive, finally known and understood through this amazing investigative biography written by Tom Reiss.
It is very well worth reading for the history of a life and the unimaginable times that the Orientalist endured. Let them never be forgotten.
Essad Bey is a colorful character who the political realities could adapt to most. With this fictional character he could move on all parquet. There were moments where I was not sure if he had his Jewish past stripped completely or just covered. In any case I got the feeling to be met by a fantastic charlatan who tried to survive the events and to find his place among the authors.
Thankfully, this was a book that was actually compelling. It's a biography heavily placed into historical context, during the rise of the Soviet and the rise of the Nazis. The subject is Lev Nussimbaum, later known as Essad Bey (among other things), who was a successful and established author with a seriously intriguing and painfully tragic life story. From a wealthy Jewish family in Azerbaijan, he and his family flee the Russians as refugees and finally end up in Berlin, just in time for Hitler. Having spent his childhood in an Muslim country, he converts to Islam and takes up a new identity. This is the kind of book where there is a main point on every page, so it's nearly impossible to sum up his story because it's all the nuances and details that make it so noteworthy. The concept that struck me the most was the observation that now in the present day, we have this idea that the conflict in the Middle East between Islam and Judaism is this historical, established, inevitable clash of culture and concept, but that ignores the reality that Jews and Muslims had previously shared a long tradition of co-existing pretty darn successfully as two aspects of a shared "Oriental" identity.
Recommended: Oh yes, this is very good. I will note that it's more heavy on the history than its marketing would lead you to believe.
Leo/Lev Nussimbaum was born to Jewish parents in October 1905, but presented himself as a Muslim aristocrat of Persian and Turkic heritage, or whatever he felt was most advantageous to him given his geographic, economic and political circumstance. What is true is that he was the author of Blood and Oil in the Orient and Ali and Nino, as well as dozens of other works, while surviving in one of the greatest war zones in one of history's most volatile times. He died at the age of 36, impoverished, in Positano.
Read this book also if you're interested in the history of Judaism, early Nazi Europe, Russia, Central Asia, the oil industry -- late 19/early 20C -- or fraud versus imagination, survival versus ambition.