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.”