Just finished reading Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist. Reiss follows the trail of Kurban Said, who was a penname of Essad Bey, the mysterious and popular Weimar-era writer, who turns out to have been a Jew named Lev Nussimbaum. “Essad Bey” — “Kurban Said” was a popular writer of numerous books, orientalist fiction, most importantly Ali and Nino, and non-fiction, biographies of Tzar Nicholas II, Stalin, and the Prophet Mohammed. Born in 1905 to a Ukrainian Jewish family who migrated to Baku, Azerbaijan to make it rich in the oil business, Nussimbaum flees with his father after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Instead of travelling west, they cross the Caspian Sea and take flight through modern-day Turkmenistan, down into Iran, back to Baku, and finally to Constantinople. There, under the spell of the Ottoman Empire in its final days, Nussimbaum contemplates a full blown romance for the Orient and Islam. Father and son settle in Paris, leave Paris, and continue on to Germany in the 1920s, right back into the maw of revolution, in order to go to school. It’s where he decides to convert to Islam, transforms himself into Essad Bey, becomes a writer.
One of the serious sides to this great yarn is the decadence of empires in their death knells, and the sheer wanton violence of revolution, in Russia and then in Germany in the 1920s. Essad Bey was, we learn, one of those popular writers of mid-brow stuff who eventually fade into obscurity. Attracted to wealth, glamour, and stability, he was always a monarchist, and, as Essad Bey, flirted briefly with extreme rightwing elements in Germany and with the fascists in Mussolini’s Italy. He winds up his last days in exile hiding out in a little Italian village on the Amalfi coast where, impoverished and alone, he develops some fatal disease that was to end his life. This is a tragic tale of the 20th century, told from the perspective of one of its victims. It’s a lot like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. All three texts link up Soviet communism with Nazi fascism, to see them as two parts to a single phenomenon, often allied in the early years in opposition to the liberal West and to western liberalism.
The other serious side to the story of Essad Bey has actually less to do with Jewishness and self-creation of Lev Nussimbaum and more to do with Islam and with an image of Islam. For Essad Bey, as told by Reiss, Islam and the Orient represented a human alternative to communism and Nazism. Despite his training at a Berlin institute for oriental studies, Bey is not so much an “orientalist” as much as an auto-orientalist. In contrast to the mix of local ethnic and religious nationalism developing at this time in the Caucuses, in the Orient of Essad Bey’s imagination, Islam is a full dress-up of the true religion of multiethnic tolerance and glittery cosmopolitanism. The Orient from which Nussimbaum came and of which he dreamed was “a mountainous realm insulated from political and ethnic conflict, a refuge where no secret policeman can follow and where anyone with the courage to climb down a rope into the abyss is accepted –in short, the Orient of the imagination” (p.225).
In tracking down and in the telling of this tale, Reiss tries to do justice to fantasy and fact. I’m not sure when this happened, but at some point in the reading, I began to get annoyed by the author continuing to refer to his subject as Lev or as Nussimbaum. Mirroring both the tabloid press of the day as well as the Gestapo and Italian fascist police reports, Reiss keeps coming back to Essad Bey’s “true identity” as Lev Nussimbaum, seeking to unmask the author as an uncommon Jew, not the exotic oriental sheik whom Essad Bey pretended to be. That doesn’t seem right to me. He spent his last days with a Koran by his bed, in cahoots with an equally obscure Oriental in a paratrooper’s uniform by the name of Ahmed Giamil Vacca-Mazzara, a fascist Italian fellow convert to Islam, who provided the money for Essad Bey’s gravestone.
So my problem with Reiss’s telling is why Reiss continues to refer to his subject as Lev or as Nussimbaum, as opposed to Essad Bey. On the one hand, maybe this had to do with the abiding isolation and danger which Essad Bey suffered in his final years, the fate of a Jew in Europe. This is to say, Essad Bey was (really) Lev Nussimbaum. There was no way he was not going to suffer the fate of the Jews in Nazi occupied Europe. On the other hand, we lose sight of the transformation, the fact as much as fantasy that Lev Nussimbaum was, in the end, Essad Bey. At some point in his telling, Reiss fails to make over the cultural transfer from Judaism to Islam, a particular invented sort of Islam peculiar to the author who the world knew by and who died under a name different than the one he was born into. The inability of Essad Bey to shake that Jewish identity reflects not so much masquerade as much as a historical tragedy.