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The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

4.0 22
by Tom Reiss

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A thrilling page-turner of epic proportions, Tom Reiss’s panoramic bestseller tells the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany. Lev Nussimbaum escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan and, as “Essad Bey,” became a celebrated author with the enduring novel Ali and Nino as well as an adventurer, a


A thrilling page-turner of epic proportions, Tom Reiss’s panoramic bestseller tells the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany. Lev Nussimbaum escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan and, as “Essad Bey,” became a celebrated author with the enduring novel Ali and Nino as well as an adventurer, a real-life Indiana Jones with a fatal secret. Reiss pursued Lev’s story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal–and sometimes as heartbreaking–as his subject’s life.


Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Spellbinding history . . . part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga . . . The Orientalist is completely fascinating.”
–The Dallas Morning News

“Rarely in the literary annals of identity confusion has there been a tale as gripping. . . . A captivating and disquieting parable of the mystery of identity . . . truly page-turning.”
–The Miami Herald

“Sympathetic, elegant, and extraordinarily affecting . . . Reiss’s storytelling panache [is] spellbinding.”
–Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Thrilling, novelistic and rich with the personal and political madness of early-twentieth-century Europe.”
–Entertainment Weekly

“A brainy, nimble, remarkable book.”
–Chicago Tribune

“A wondrous tale, beautifully told . . . mesmerizing, poignant, and almost incredible. Reiss, caught up in the spell of Essad Bey, has turned around and worked some magic of his own.”
–The New York Times

“For sheer reading pleasure . . . this book cannot be bettered.”
–The New York Sun

Los Angeles Times
Tom Reiss furnishes not only the riveting story of how Lev Nussimbaum became Kurban Said but also a sympathetic, elegant and extraordinarily affecting account of how his protean identity arose from a climate of near-constant upheaval... Reiss' storytelling panache and wry narrative voice make even his 10-page histories of White Russian émigré politics or Baltic German treachery in interwar Berlin spellbinding
Chicago Tribune
A brainy, nimble, remarkable book...what boosts this account above a mere true-mystery yarn is Reiss' dead-on cultural analysis, his record of the failed ideas that almost destroyed the world.
The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Reiss's book fills the reader with admiration. Tracking a life across so many cultures and disguises, far-flung places and languages, he must have endured an odyssey comparable to his subject's... The modern world had given up on [Lev Nussimbaum]. It had, as Mr. Reiss says, 'left him without an audience.' He has one now.
The Miami Herald
Rarely in the literary annals of identity confusion has there been a tale as gripping as Tom Reiss' far-reaching detective work exploring the life and times of Lev Nussimbaum... a captivating and disquieting parable of the mystery of identity...endlessly fascinating... a truly page-turning meditation on the meaning of homeland and the endless capacity of the imagination to transcend the violence of society's capricious labels.
The Dallas Morning News
Tom Reiss has written a spellbinding history of Mr. Nussimbaum's deceptions... Mr. Reiss has uncovered diaries and letters and Nazi collaborators. He takes us with him as he follows shadowy leads through the streets of Vienna, interviewing relatives and publishers. It may be part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga, but The Orientalist is completely fascinating.
The New York Sun
For sheer reading pleasure, for insights into the biographer's world, and for the rediscovery of a major literary figure, this book cannot be bettered.
The New York Times
A wondrous tale, beautifully told, that took the author five years and patient detective work in 10 countries to reconstruct... Mr. Reiss's quest takes him right through the looking glass [and] what a tale it is-mesmerizing, poignant and almost incredible. Mr. Reiss, caught up in the spell of Essad Bey, has turned around and worked some magic of his own.
Library Journal
The Orientalist of this detailed biography is Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who became a Muslim prince. Reiss (Fuhrer-Ex) was able to flesh out Nussimbaum's mysterious life after discovering a cache of unpublished letters he wrote to a friend. He was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1905 to a Jewish oil baron father and a Bolshevist mother who committed suicide when Nussimbaum was still a child. The Soviet takeover of Baku's oilfields sent him and his father fleeing into the Persian deserts, and thus began his lifelong infatuation with the Middle East and eventual conversion to Islam. He was a nomadic soul whose only constant was his gift as a writer. By the late 1920s, he had become a best-selling author in Weimar Germany under the pseudonyms Essad Bey and Kurban Said (his works of fiction and nonfiction are still considered minor classics), but he was forced to flee when Hitler gained power and died in Italy in 1938. Unfortunately, Reiss gets bogged down in tangential details while trying to place Nussimbaum in early 20th-century context, but this is still an important work that sheds light on the pre-Zionist phenomenon of Jewish Orientalism that led many Jews to embrace Muslim culture. Recommended for academic and public libraries with strong 20th-century literature or history collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/04.]-Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The intriguing search for the true identity of a 1930s cult novelist (published here, by Random, in 1971) whose obscure working life was based entirely on escapist subterfuge. Readers who wonder why they would want to follow Reiss through a convoluted trek in the footsteps of one Kurban Said (also writing as Essad Bey), author of the still celebrated 1937 romance (published here, by Random, in 1971) entitled Ali and Nino-star-crossed lovers embracing across the gulf between Islam and Christianity-need only take a step or two into the setup. After an introductory blind alley in which a German baroness is falsely identified to Reiss as the real author of Said's works, he gives us turn-of-the century Baku on the Caspian Sea, where petroleum leaks out of the ground in profusion and Russia's soon-to-be oil millionaires are arriving daily along with the same camel caravans that have passed this way for a thousand years. There, Reiss's account of the real Kurban Said begins with the 1905 birth of one Lev Nussimbaum to the Jewish oil Minister of Baku and his wife, a woman from an obscure Russian village who harbors Revolutionary tendencies. Comes the Revolution, the comfortable haut capitaliste milieu of Baku implodes around the teenaged Nussimbaum and, as usual, when things turned bad for Russians they turned worse for Jews. Skipping forward, one finds Lev ensconced in a seething Germany, hobnobbing with nascent Nazis as a self-vested Muslim prince, author, and Orientalist-one steeped in the mysteries and cultures of Asia Minor, the Levant, etc.-known as Kurban Said. Further, his pose incorporates denial of his mother's Jewishness, making her a Russian noblewoman (false) who sold her diamonds tofinance Stalin's-then Josef Dugashvili-rise to power (probably true) and committed suicide by drinking acid. Nussimbaum eventually married an heiress who never knew his real identity; he died tragically in Mussolini's Italy. Marvelously written, and imbued with scholarly thinking on a forgotten tradition of Jewish-Islamic accord. Agency: Janklow & Nesbit

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

On the Trail of Kurban Said

On a cold November morning in Vienna, I walked a maze of narrow streets on the way to see a man who promised to solve the mystery of Kurban Said. I was with Peter Mayer, the president of the Overlook Press, a large, rumpled figure in a black corduroy suit who wanted to publish Said’s small romantic novel Ali andNino.Mayer tended to burst into enthusiastic monologues about thebook: “You know how when you look at a Vermeer, and it’s an interior,and it’s quite quiet, yet somehow, what he does with perspective, with light, it feels much bigger–that’s this novel!” A love story set in the Caucasus on the eve of the Russian Revolution, Ali and Nino had been originally published in German in 1937 and was revived in translation in the seventies as a minor classic. But the question of the author’s identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese café-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot. In the jacket photograph of a book called Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, the mysterious author is dressed up as a mountain warrior–wearing a fur cap, a long, flowing coat with a sewn-in bandolier, and a straight dagger at his waist. Mayer and I were on our way to a meeting with a lawyer named Heinz Barazon, who was challenging Overlook over proper author credit on the novel.

Barazon claimed to know the true identity of Kurban Said, and as the lawyer for the author’s heirs, he was insisting that it be acknowledged in the new edition of Ali and Nino or he would block publication. At the lawyer’s address, next to a shop where some old women were bent over tables with needle and thread, we were buzzed into a lobby that could have had the grime of the Anschluss on its fixtures. Mayer squeezed my arm with excitement and said, “It’s The Third Man!” Barazon’s appearance didn’t do anything to dispel the atmosphere of a Cold War thriller. He was a small man with a gravelly voice, a stooped back, and a clubfoot that made a tremendous racket as he led us down his book-lined hallway. “You have both come a long way to discover the identity of Kurban Said,” he said. “It will all soon become clear to you.” He ushered us into a room where a gaunt and beautiful blond woman with enormous glassy eyes was lying motionless on a couch. “Pardon me, this is Leela,” said Barazon. “I hope you’ll forgive me,” Leela said in a fragile, precise voice. “I must remain lying down because I’m ill. I can’t sit for long.” Barazon came directly to the point: the novel Ali and Nino was written by the Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, the second wife of Leela’s father, Baron Omar-Rolf von Ehrenfels, and when Baroness Elfriede died, in the early 1980s, having outlived her husband, all rights to the work had passed down to Leela.

Barazon produced a thick file of documents that backed up this story: publishing contracts, legal papers, and author lists from the late thirties, stamped with Nazi eagles and swastikas. Under the entry for “Said, Kurban” in the author’s section of the 1935—39 Deutscher Gesamtkatalog–the Third Reich’s equivalent of Books in Print–it said, in no uncertain terms, “pseudonym for Ehrenfels, v. Bodmershof, Elfriede, Baroness.” The Nazi documents seemed to tell a clear story–that Baroness Elfriede had been Kurban Said–but it was one that I believed to be untrue. I had become interested in the identity of Kurban Said in the spring of 1998, when I went to Baku to write about the city’s new oil boom– virtually the first signs of life since the Russian Revolution made time stop there in 1917. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, a tiny country that prides itself on being the easternmost point in Europe, though most Europeans wouldn’t know it. Its proximity to Iran and the fact that the majority of its citizens are Shiite Muslims can dominate your vision of Azerbaijan until you realize that the most impressive public building in Baku is not a mosque but a copy of the grand casino at Monte Carlo. Baku is the sort of city that has been beyond rigid ideologies and religions for a thousand years. Its name is said to derive from a Persian expression, baadiyekubiden, or “blow of the winds.” Being situated at the head of a desert peninsula jutting into the sea, the city is in fact one of the windiest places on earth–one dapper ninety-seven-year-old man told me how, as a young man, he and his family had worn specially made goggles with their evening clothes to stroll along the boulevards without being blinded by the sands.

Just before I left for Baku, an Iranian friend had recommended Kurban Said’s novel Ali and Nino as a kind of introduction to the city and the Caucasus in general, saying that it would be more useful than any tourist guide. I had never heard of it, and when I tracked down a 1972 Pocket Books edition, I was a little surprised by the cover. It featured two airbrushed lovers and an endorsement from Life: “If Kurban Said can’t push Erich Segal off the bestseller list, nobody can!” But there turned out to be something of the eighteenth century about the book, as if Candide had been written with realistic characters and the intention of sweeping readers off their feet. Each scene continued only long enough to spring some miniature gear that moved the mechanism forward. The reviewer in The New York Times had written, “One feels as if one has dug up buried treasure.”The novel revolves around the love between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl and the progress of their relationship as they grow up; in the culturally tolerant world of old Azerbaijan, their courtship seems blessed, though they are constantly bickering: “ ‘Ali Khan, you are stupid. Thank God we are in Europe. If we were in Asia they would have made me wear the veil ages ago, and you couldn’t see me.’ I gave in. Baku’s undecided geographical situation allowed me to go on looking into the most beautiful eyes in the world.”

Over the course of its history, Azerbaijan had been conquered by Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Ottomans, and the Persians. Finally, its “undecided geographical situation” was resolved when the Russians captured it in 1825. During the period of czarist expansion in the Caucasus, so vividly recounted by Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin, Europe discovered Baku and Baku discovered Europe. And everyone discovered oil. Lots of it. In Baku you did not need to drill for the stuff–it sat on the surface of the earth, in black ponds,sometimes enormous lakes–and the flow could be so strong that crude occasionally swallowed wholehouses along the Caspian shore. The walled caravan outpost soon became the center of the burgeoning global oil industry–supplying more than half the world’s crude–and the result was a fabulous nineteenth-century city built on the profits: extravagant mansions, mosques, casinos, and theaters from the period when the city was home to the Rothschilds, the Nobels, and dozens of local Muslim “oil barons,” as they were called. There was Mir Babayev, a popular singer who, after discovering oil on his land, spent the rest of his days searching out his record albums and destroying them because he preferred to be remembered as an oil magnate. And there was Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev, who made his fortune when an earthquake struck his land, flooding it with oil; he built the first school for girls in the Muslim world. Building wars sprang up. Moorish palaces still sit next to Gothic manses, and Byzantine cupolas next to bejeweled rococo pavilions. The locals styled themselves cultured Europeans and “modern Muslims,” right up to the point when the Bolsheviks decided they were decadent bourgeois and swooped in to crush them.

But Baku oil fueled Stalin’s Five Year Plans, and during the Second World War, Hitler wanted Baku’s oil so badly that he redirected the entire Russian campaign to get it. In September 1942, his general staff presented him with a giant cake in the shape of the Caucasus. A newsreel of the occasion shows the führer cutting himself the piece with baku spelled out in frosting. “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost,” Hitler shouted at a top commander, and he sacrificed the entire German Sixth Army at Stalingrad rather than redirect a single division out of the Caucasus to come to its aid. If they had succeeded in grabbing Baku, the combined Nazi armies would have controlled one of the greatest strategic energy reserves in the world–not to mention one of the most strategic pieces of territory, the land bridge between Europe and Asia–and, with the Soviet Union deprived of its oil, the Nazis would have for all purposes won the war. Instead of victory, the push for Baku brought utter defeat on the Russian front, and less than three years later, Soviet armored divisions, tanked up with Baku oil, were at the gates of Berlin. After 1945, rather than being rewarded for having fueled the Russian victory, Azerbaijan saw many of its citizens deported to Siberia and its oil industry allowed to languish. The fin de siècle oil-boom city was deliberately ignored, forgotten, taking on a deserted, vaguely eerie quality, so that even today it is possible to imagine that one has wandered into some unusually sooty Right Bank neighborhood in Paris, mysteriously abandoned by its inhabitants.

My guide to Baku was Fuad Akhundov, a muscular young fellow who worked as an agent of Interpol, the international police agency, but seemed to spend most of his time sleuthing his city’s hidden past. Growing up in the Soviet era, Fuad had always wondered about the lost culture that had built the decaying mansions all around him, so he began investigating the city’s history, mansion to mansion, house to house. Fuad seemed to know the decaying mansions of Baku like members of his own family. “I entered these edifices, asking if anyone knew the descendants of the owner,” he told me as we drove around the city in his battered Russian car. “As a policeman, I knew that often people who think they know nothing can provide vital information, so I used the crafts of interrogation, getting people to recall things their dead grandparents or parents mentioned to them over the course of the years.” Fuad spoke fluent English that made him sound a bit like a nineteenth-century novel. When he needed to go somewhere, he would say things like “Now your humble servant must beg to take his leave, as he must attend to some pressing police matters.”

As we explored Baku’s medieval ramparts, nineteenth-century mansions, Zoroastrian temples, and palace gardens straight out of The Arabian Nights, Fuad rarely stopped talking. “From here I could see my world, the massive wall of the town’s fortress and the ruins of the palace, Arab inscriptions at the gate,” he rhapsodized. “Through the labyrinth of streets camels were walking, their ankles so delicate that I wanted to caress them. In front of me rose the squat Maiden’s Tower, surrounded by legends and tourist guides. And behind the tower the sea began, the utterly faceless, leaden, unfathomable Caspian Sea, and beyond, the desert–jagged rocks and scrub: still, mute, unconquerable, the most beautiful landscape in the world.” It took me a while to realize that he was quoting, and that the passage was from Ali and Nino. The mere smell of the air in a certain part of town would cause Fuad to launch into a quotation from the novel, and often we would stop in front of some Viennese imperial-style edifice–with holes where stone portraits of famous Communists had once been added to the design–and he would say, as though describing an event from history: “That is the girls’ school where Ali first saw Nino with his cousin Ayeshe. We can be sure because of this doorway, which is approximately four hundred paces from the original door of the old Baku Russian Boys Gymnasium, which was destroyed during the fighting in 1918 . . .”

It could have been like one of those morbid literary tours of places mentioned in Chekhov or Pushkin, but Fuad’s love of Ali and Nino seemed of an entirely different order. “This novel made me discover my country, it made me discover the whole world that lay beneath my feet, buried by the Soviet system,” he told me one night as we sat in the empty Interpol headquarters at three in the morning. “Only this one book–this Romeo and Juliet story at the height of the oil boom, between a Christian girl and a Muslim boy, it tears away the fabric which has covered me growing up here in Soviet Baku like a shroud, like a funeral veil dropped by the bloodiest version of the West, the inhuman Bolshevik Revolution, upon this fantastic world of the highest cultural and human aspirations– the hope of the total merger of East and West into something new and modern–which existed for but a moment in time. Can you imagine it?” Fuad said. “Kurban Said is like my lifeline. Without him, I would be trapped here in my own city and not really be able to feel or understand the beauty and yet tragic forces that are beneath my very nose.” Fuad’s obsession with Ali and Nino was shared by many people in Baku.

Educated Azeris I met seemed to consider it their national novel, telling me that they could show me the street, square, or schoolhouse where almost every scene had taken place. There was a resurgence of interest in the late 1990s in this small romantic novel from the late 1930s, though nobody seemed exactly sure why. I paid a call on an Iranian film producer who occupied a lavishly refurbished suite in a collapsing old mansion, and who explained to me his plans to make a movie of the book. (When the money didn’t come through, he instead produced the Baku location scenes for a James Bond movie.) Another day I visited the National Literary Society, a Stalin-era building, where the chairman filled me in on the simmering dispute in Azeri academic and government circles over the novel’s authorship. Kurban Said’s identity had long been a subject of speculation, he explained, but fortunately, the issue had now been resolved: Kurban Said was the pseudonym for Josef Vezir, an Azeri author whose sons, the Veziroffs, had been very active in making sure his memory was preserved, and that he receive credit for Azerbaijan’s national novel.

But when I got a copy of some short stories and novellas by Vezir, I was surprised that anyone could give this theory credence. Vezir was clearly an ardent Azeri nationalist whose novellas openly stated that ethnic and cultural mixing was a bad idea and a betrayal of the motherland. In Ali and Nino, Kurban Said offers nothing less than a passionate endorsement of ethnic, cultural, and religious mixing. The warmest passages in the novel describe the cosmopolitan Caucasus on the eve of the revolution–when a hundred races and all the major religious groups fought together only in battles of poetry in the marketplace–and the message seems to be that the separation of peoples is hideous and genocidal.

A few nights later, while I was supposed to be in a disco hanging out with young oil boomers from London and Moscow, I convinced Fuad to let me use the Interpol offices to interview one of the Veziroff brothers. The brother had gone so far as to appear before the Azeri Parliament to insist that his father had written Ali and Nino and that the scenes about interethnic love had been slipped in by a malicious translator. I had the vague hope that the atmosphere of the interrogation room might help get at the truth; however, my meeting with the bald, serious fellow in a sagging gray Soviet-style suit produced only an endless stream of documentation that proved nothing but that most everyone in Baku wanted to claim the novel for his or her own reasons.

The introduction to the English copy of the novel I had wasn’t much help, either: “ ‘Kurban Said’ is a pen-name and no one seems to know for certain the real name of the man who chose it. . . . He was by nationality a Tartar [who died] . . . where, and under what circumstances, I do not know and I do not think anyone knows.”Wherever I went, Kurban Said seemed to pursue me.

The single book for sale in English in the gift shop of Baku’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, where I was staying, was a smudgy-looking paperback called Blood and Oil in the Orient. On its cover, printed just above a sepia photo of a Caspian gusher and a bunch of oilmen in fur hats, the text stated that it was by “the author of Ali & Nino,” whose name was given as “Essad-Bey” and beneath that, in parentheses, as “Lev Naussimbaum.” What happened to Kurban Said? A foreword by an Azeri scholar attempted to clarify matters: Essad-Bey, the narrator of the tales in this book, eventually converted to Judaism and chose the name Lev Naussimbaum. . . . He then moves on to Berlin where he joins a circle of German intellectuals. In the early thirties, he travels to Vienna. Eventually, he publishes his beautiful novel, “Ali and Nino,” under the pseudonym of Kurban Said. . . . In 1938 he tried to escape the German onslaught. Soon he was arrested and moved to Italy. There, in 1942, he stabbed himself in the foot and died of this self-inflicted wound.

I doubted that anyone would convert to Judaism just before moving to Germany in the late 1920s. But why would this Essad Bey change his name to “Lev Naussimbaum” and then Kurban Said? Could the national novel of Azerbaijan have been written by someone named Naussimbaum? And what did either of these people have to do with Kurban Said? Blood and Oil in the Orient carried the subtitle “Petroleum Industry and Trade in Azerbaijan”–it was hard to imagine that this was the same author who had written Ali and Nino. But then I noticed odd similarities between the novel and the oil book–of village duels between fighting poets, in which beggars and aristocrats, Christians and Muslims, would meet on an appointed day and recite insulting doggerel at each other, all the while sweating and cursing, until one was declared the victor. (In the novel, the winner spits when asked how it feels to have prevailed: “There is no victory, sir. In former times there were victories. In those days art was held in high esteem.”) Though the narrative style of the novel was more assured, the almost Ozlike quality of prerevolutionary Azerbaijan was vivid in both. Their poignancy was amplified by the fact that the villages of the fighting poets were in Nagorno Karabakh–a place virtually destroyed in the 1990s by a vicious Muslim-Christian border war, where the weapons were anything but similes and metaphors.

One day, when we were touring the decayed grand mansion of Teymur Bey Ashurbekov, with its peeling stairwell frescoes of cavorting maidens, Fuad asked me if I would like to meet the daughters of its original owner–the two surviving members of the Ashurbekov family, Sara and Miriam (now Ashurbeyly, since the post-Soviet Azeri government was Turkicizing everyone’s names). Aged ninety-two and ninety-four, they were among the only surviving children of the oil millionaires still alive in Baku, I thought we would find them here, in some dank corner of the mansion, but instead we got back in the little white car and drove to a depressing late-Soviet-era building, where we climbed the back stairs and were ushered into a tiny flat by the younger of the ancient sisters, Miriam. Her sister, Sara, sat waiting for us next to a pot of tea and a very dustylooking box of chocolates. The sisters’ extensive library was crushed into a tiny living space along with their laundry, pantry, dining table, and twelve cats. Despite the opposition of the state, they had carved out distinguished careers for themselves: Miriam was a geologist, and Sara was Azerbaijan’s leading medieval historian.

Speaking to me in the German and French they had learned as children, the sisters recalled their lives before the revolution. They told me how their father had invited people of all nationalities and stations of life to their mansion, preferring to acknowledge an elite based on intelligence and education rather than social status, even though he had been born into privilege and come upon great wealth (the family had financed two of Baku’s four mosques). They showed me stacks of dusty photographs–men in fezzes and evening dress on the way to the opera, camels walking alongside Rolls- Royces–and they described the wide circle of friends their parents entertained at home, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews, all the children of the capitalist set, mixed at banquets, games, and lavish parties. Most of all, Ashurbekov had valued European culture. His daughters remembered their Baku as a place where Islam and the Orient were filtered through a multicultural European lens polished by frequent trips to the West.

“My father often had to work,” said Sara, “but he always said to my mother: ‘Take the children to Europe!’ ” She showed me a photo of herself surrounded by little blond children in Germanic costume.

“This is me in Baden-Baden in 1913. I had just won the beauty contest,” said Sara. “My sister, Miriam, started crying, and she said to our mother,

‘But you always said I was the most beautiful one, how come Sara won?’

‘Because you are too small,’ replied our mother. ‘When we come back next year, you will win.’ But next year was the First World War, and then the Bolsheviks came, and none of us ever went back to Europe again.”

The Ashurbekovs brought out a final picture, a group photo of their last Christmas party, on the eve of the Great War. Sara’s bony finger pointed to the faces as the sisters recalled the names, nationalities, and religions of every child in the room, children of the oil barons, drillers, and servants alike–Azeri, Armenian, Muslim, Jewish, German, French, Russian–and what happened to each of them after the invasion of the Red Army in 1920: the pretty pink-cheeked girl in a gypsy headdress in the second row, the gangly boy with Indian features dressed like a Cossack in the back next to the tree, a little blond boy in a tightly buttoned suit who was probably one of the Nobel brood, though they couldn’t quite see his face. Then, seated in the middle, in the third row, was a little boy with big ears and a rather arrogant but bold and open expression, staring directly into the camera, his arms crossed defiantly, a velvet jacket buttoned over a floppy Lord Fauntleroy collar.

“That was little Liova Nussimbaum,” Sara said. Her sister nodded and smiled, remembering. “He was a Jewish boy about two years our junior.” Really? I asked, remembering the name on the jacket of Blood and Oil. Are you sure the name was Liova–the Russian diminutive for Lev– Nussimbaum? Exactly that name?

“Yes, Liova, Liova, little Liova Nussimbaum. He was the smartest of all the children, a very smart little Jewish boy whose father was a rich businessman in town. He never had a mother, and the family tried to compensate for this. He was a very nice and a very well-mannered boy, and since his earliest childhood, he was fluent in German. His governess was a German lady, I believe.”

“Probably a Baltic German,” Fuad put in. “It was very common to have a Baltic German governess here then–also French.” I noticed a pair of stout fräuleins flanking the children, slightly rough-looking women incongruously dressed in sequined evening gowns for the occasion.

“He left Baku,” said the ancient lady, “and we heard he later died in Italy.”

What People are Saying About This

Paul Theroux
I greatly enjoyed Tom Reiss's The Orientalist, for its mingled scholarship and sleuthing, and for so elegantly solving the puzzle of one of the Twentieth Century's most mysterious writers.
Jonathan Rosen
'The Jew is most happy when he remains a Jew,' Albert Einstein is quoted as saying in this fascinating story about a man who extravagantly rejected this principle. Lev Nussimbaum didn't so much embrace a new religion as invent one. Tom Reiss's investigation into how he did this, and why, reads like a thrilling detective story peopled by unforgettable character and shadowed by the dark forces of 20th century history and, above all, by the mystery of human character.
Azar Nafisi
Mixing memory with desire, this marvelous and original book once more reminds us of ways through which the imagination becomes a refuge from the uncontrollable cruelties of reality.
Kevin Baker
Tom Reiss's The Orientalist is a remarkable story of East meeting West, and the fantastic historical figure who stood astride both worlds, during an almost equally fantastic moment in time. This is history and biography that reads like a great novel.

Meet the Author

Tom Reiss has written about politics and culture for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.  He lives with his wife and daughters in New York City.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
May 5, 1964
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
A.B., Harvard College, 1987; M.A., University of Houston, 1991

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Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿The Orientalist¿ by Tom Reiss is one of my all time favorite reads! What a great book. As a former student of Soviet studies, a fan of `Essad Bey¿ and `Kurban Said¿ (how could I have known they were the same person!) as well as an enthusiastic consumer of all things Middle Eastern, political and philosophical I found this book with its twists and turns and jaunts into our not so distant history fascinating. It is an exhilarating read! Don¿t try to read this in pieces¿pick it up stick with it and in the morning on the second day you too will sigh in breathless disbelief! This is not just the journey of one amazing Baku Jew¿it is the journey of us all as we seek to fit in, to create, to understand and to be someone. But unlike most of us `Lev Nussimbaum¿ was not satisfied with the lot life had dealt him. So with delft cunning and a personal bravado he did something few even imagine¿he reinvented himself, time and again! Tragic and touching. The only thing better than the story-line is Tom Reiss¿ style¿and his amazing detective work that allows this enigmatic young ¿Orientalist¿ to come alive on the pages. On the wings of Nussimbaum¿s life Tom Reiss soars with the reader through the turmoil in Baku, plunges downward into the belly of the Nazi Beast¿to snatch a fascinating glimpse at Lev¿s interaction with Ezra Pound, Vladimir Nabokov, Franz Kafka, even Mussolini¿Then Reiss effortlessly glides up and up with this rising star only to nose dive into an ending that can only be described as ¿stranger than fiction!¿ Interspersed throughout are interviews with real and astonishing personages! If you think you know the history of Nazi Germany, of the Soviet Revolution, of the pre-World War II Middle East, you need to read this book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before Madonna started re-inventing herself into various personae, there was Lev Nussimbaum. What would compel a Jew from Baku, Azerbaijan to chameleonize himself into Essad Bey, cosmopolitan Muslim writer and Nazi supporter? THE ORIENTALIST is the fascinating tale of just how this transpired. Along the way, the reader is taken on a wild magic carpet ride through the first half of the twentieth century. There are unforgettable, eccentric characters and an intricate weaving of the overview of history with small details. Tom Reiss is both sympathetic and relentless in tracing the life of Nussimbaum. This book has beautiful prose with an intriguing story, which does have a bearing on the world readers live in today. ¿ Leslie Strang Akers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It revils history that intentionally is forgotten and disclose complexity of the world.Brilliant.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tom Reiss's 'The Orientalist' is a superb exploration of the enigmatic author Lev Nussimbaum and of the malign Chaos that is History(the History they don't teach you about in classrooms). This book is at times awe-inspiring and perhaps even a little frightening. Lev Nussimbaum's attempts to submerge himself in the ideas of(and his conception of) another culture are examined here with perception, wit, and honesty. You very much perceive that Lev was forever being tossed about by the malevolent tidal waves of history yet never quite going under. I smiled when I saw Death robbing the Nazis of their final victory over the man. What a remarkable human being and what a strange shadow he casts upon our crazy, hate-filled time. Nussimbaum's ideas may seem a little absurd these days, but all of us are absurd in the final analysis. Reiss's eye for the changing tides of history and the unlikely interconnections between people and ideas is wonderful. His eye furthermore doesn't flinch at human hypocrisy , the horrible ironies of human affairs, or the Void itself. The great Terry Southern once observed the first point to appreciate about an enigma is that it is indeed an enigma. Tom Reiss never quite penetrates to the heart of the enigma that is Lev Nussimbaum - but could he? There will always be some irreducible and perplexing element in all people that will evade the rational eye. Read this book and wonder. And be afraid....
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most intriguing true-life tales I¿ve ever read. I generally prefer novels to nonfiction, but this book held my attention in the same way that The DaVinci Code did. I¿m a history buff who usually reads cloak-and-dagger mysteries. This book had it all for me!
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a rich and compelling and frankly wondrous book. It's the story of a Jew, Lev Nussimbaum, born in the oil-rich town of Baku, who flees the Bolsheviks as a young man, and in a sense never stops having to flee the forces of extreme ideology thoughout his life. He turns up in Berlin during the upheaval of the 20s and 30s and re-invents himself as a Muslim princeling, and under a new name writes a dozen or so best-selling books. When Nazi racism threatens, he takes on yet another name, and writes a minor classic -- whose real authorship has been in dispute ever since. Until now. He then becomes still another figure, one who meets a tragic end. In many ways, it's the story of loss, and Lev's nostaligic, ongoing attempt to recreate something that may never have even existed. As Reiss's tapestry of the complex time begins to show, there's a sense that the easy histories we learned in school never really existed either. The effect for the reader, however, is never one of nostalgia for our old assumptions but of vastly gained insight into and the actual, often strange workings of political, ideological and, most especially, personal belief.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author obviously devoted much effort and time to get this history together. Yet I never came to care about the main subject. Someone who went by several names and posed as a Muslim? Never felt I cared.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading the book about a European author and finding out about some of his friends and family members. I'm glad I had a chance to read Tom Reiss's biography.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Within the first five pages, I began reading The Orientalist aloud. Why? Perhpas it was like the concept of the 'radio of the mind,' where your mind supplied the images. And in the reading of The Orientalist, the images and sounds of my childhood came flooding back in Tom Reiss' narrative. I was eight and a half when the Japanese bombed Peral Harbor. Although my mother and father only had basic educations they read Time, Life, Collier's, The Grit, and others, two newspapers a day, and listened to the radio throughout the day and evening. Each evening, of course after The Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, Sgt. Preston et al, we'd listen to Edward R. Murrow, whom my father knew, and other Network correspondents report the national and World War II news. At age 11 I got an evening paper route. My coustomer always got their papers late--I always took time to read the war correspondents' columns and the news and maps about the progress of the Allies against the Axis before I began my route. The Orientalist brings a very important era of human history to life. It should be required reading for both those who don't know the past and those who've forgotten it. If those in charge at Random House are wise, then they will nominate Tom Reiss and The Orientalist for the Pulitzer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Every corner of this book is filled with interesting details and stories they never taught you in history. The story of Lev's life is almost unbelievable, but the wonderful footnotes paints a full picture of the time and situation that makes the seemingly impossible journey possible. The author's attention to detail and persistence in pursuing this story is incredible. I admire the commitment that was require thoroughly research this topic and how carefully it was laid out to take the reader through the same journey of Lev¿s life. I highly recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this gripping account of an Azeri Jewish writer named Lev Nussimbaum who reinvented himself as a Muslim Caucasian prince named Esad Bey and became the toast of Weimar Berlin, Tom Reiss sketches a parallel history of Europe and Asia between the wars. Nussimbaum was both a walking clash of civilizations and a talented writer who left us one great romantic novel, Ali and Nino, the story of a doomed love affair between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl set in Baku during the final years of World War I. Nussimbaum himself came of age in Baku, a cosmopolitan, oil-fuelled boomtown poised between Christian Europe and Islamic West Asia. To the people of this region, history itself must have seemed to be dissolving along with the Romanov and Ottoman Empires. It was the perfect era for a master shape changer whose own biography is no less fantastical than those of his characters. After a comfortable childhood in Baku, where his father made his fortune in the oil industry, Nussimbaum spent the remainder of his brief life as a stateless refugee. Reiss follows the young writer from Baku to Iran, Istanbul, Germany, Austria, the United States and finally the resort town of Positano on the Italian Amalfi coast, where Nussimbaum died penniless and alone after experiencing international literary celebrity while still in his twenties. Reiss definitively solves the 80-year mystery of Esad Bey's identity. His intimate, ironic portrait turns many histories on their heads, not least the beginnings of Soviet communism and German fascism. But in the end, 'The Orientalist' is a tragic story of one man's doomed effort to transcend history. Like some Hegelian surfer dude, Nussimbaum was ultimately crushed by the same wave that had carried him to stardom.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Orientalist combines history, religion, drama, romance and intrigue to form one of the most exciting and page-turning books of nonfiction I've ever read. It's a masterpiece!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I don't have the background to assess the historical accuracy of this book.  If you can suspend disbelief for a few days, you will be taken on a journey you will not soon forget.  The story is mesmerizing, unlike anything I have ever read.  You must read this book.  
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A detailed biography and adventurous life of a Jew who through strength of will overcame adversity, prejudice and danger to live an unusual existence.
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speculative pretension
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book should be entitled 'The Disorientalist'-not 'The Orientalist'. To start with Tom Reiss completely dismisses any serious role for Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels in her involvement in writing two novels under her pseudonym Kurban Said, one of which is the world-class novel 'Ali&Nino' published in German in 1937. Note that at the time all official book registries in Germany identify 'Ali&Nino' with Elfriede Ehrenfels, not Essad Bey, not Lev Nussimbaum. But Reiss' attempt at sleuthing out the details in the guise of scholarly research is also responsible for his not being able to furnish one single substantial proof in the process of trying to uncover Essad Bey's true identity. Instead Reiss transforms Essad Bey into a Jew, who he insists was forced by circumstances to disguise himself into numerous identities throughout his life. Reiss doesn't seem aware that by dealing with a biography of an unfathomable personality in a strictly sensationalist and superficial manner, he is contributing even more to building up barriers. This, in a time when real understanding between different peoples and their respective cultural and religious heritages is of vital necessity to us all.