Book Review: The Orientalist
Last year for Christmas, my father & mother-in-law got me, amongst other things, a giftcard for Barnes & Noble. Clearly they know me well, because there are fewer pleasures I enjoy more than goinig into a bookstore with an open mind and a few dollars in my pocket and perusing the aisles for my next reading endeavor. Any book is fair game, so long as it grabs my attention and finds me in the right mood to pick it up. That day I felt a tug toward the biography section and as I glanced over it, one title stuck out to me as interesting and unique. It was The Orientalist by Tom Reiss. As I began to read the back cover, I knew immediately that it was a forgone conclusion that this book would be coming home with me. After a year of digging through its interior, I have finally reached the conclusion of a fascinating biography of a most unusual life.
The account is that of one Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish boy from the city of Baku, Azerbaijan in the early 20th century. You’ve probably never heard of him, and with good reason: Lev was a chameleon who sought to blend in, transform his identity multiple times, and hide in plain sight during a time when Jews were under intense persecution. He had done such a good job of masking his identity and going mostly unnoticed by the world at large that he was lost to time, his life’s literary work buried under rumors, assumptions, and tall tales. It wasn’t until journalist Tom Reiss was traveling in Baku on business and heard about their “lost” national hero, an author named Kurban Said that wrote fantastic hisorical tales about the city’s hey-day fifty years prior, yet virtually nothing was known about him. Reiss’ curiousity was piqued and he began a multi-year journey around the globe, piecing together bits and pieces about Kurban Said, an alias that led him to its owner, Lev Nussimbaum.
Lev was the son of a rich Jewish oil-man and a Russian revolutionary, born in Baku in 1905. His mother committed suicide shortly after his birth and he never knew her, but as a young boy he spun tales about who she was to his classmates, his first endeavor in reimagining aspects of his life for an audience. Lev had the misfortune of coming of age as a boy around the time of the Russian Revolution, swept up in the political turmoil of the times. (He claimed that Stalin had been a friend of his mother and had visited them once for dinner.) Because of his wealth & his ethnicity, his father was forced to flee Baku with Lev during his childhood twice, the first time through Turkmenistan & Persia, where Lev got his first glimpse of the exotic Muslim world. It would impact him for the rest of his life. After returning to Baku, they were forced to flee again, this time to Constantinople and then Paris, leaving the Russian empire behind for good as the Bolsheviks finally achieved control. Constantinople proved to be another shaping influence for Lev as he witnessed the waning Ottoman Empire for all of its unique blending of wild Turkish & modern European influences.
Eventually Lev and his father would relocate to Berlin, the center of the Russian expatriate society. Here Lev makes his home and begins to build a career for himself as a writer, and a new theatrical identity as a wild Azeri Muslim prince, dressing up in Arabic garb, bandoliers and daggers, turbans and fez. He changed his name to Essad Bey and became a prolific author at a young age, with over a dozen successful works produced in his twenties on a wide range of topics. He covered everything from the history of the oil industry in Baku to the Russian Revolution, fictional novels of love and adventure, and biogaphies on Czar Nicholas II, Joseph Stalin, and Mohammed. He gained a sort of cult fame in Germany and ran amongst a distinguished crowd of the intellectual elite in Berlin. Part of his appeal was his foreign exotic atmosphere that he never let down in public. This identity switch was done more out of a fascination with the exotic Muslim lifestyle than any real spiritual conversion or desire to hide his Jewish background. In fact, his cover was paper thin, with a bevy of public accusations of his true Jewish heritage flung at him to cause some scrutiny. Yet he was so persistent in his potrayal of who he was that he seemed to have believed his own lies, and he created enough doubt so as to cause confusion and misdirect. Even Goebbels for a time was fooled by his act.
The biography depicts Lev’s literary rise to fame, his short-lived marriage to a German heiress, his travels to America and his return to Europe where he would finally face the reality of his veneer fading away amidst growing German hatred. He moved around for a spell, living in Vienna and then Italy and crafting a second identity, Kurban Said. As World War II began, he tried to ingratiate himself with Mussolini, even lobbying fanatically to write his biography. Positano, Italy would turn out to be his final home, as he crafted more myths about being an American citizen. Lev lived only to the young age of 36, and the book ends in a rapid manner as it quickly builds to the conclusion of the still young Lev Nussimbaum’s life, creating an air of anxiety as the pages grow fewer far too soon.
The book unravels in a fascinating manner. More than just an account of the life of Nussimbaum, The Orientalist details the investigative process of Reiss as he pieces together information from documents, interviews, and exhaustive research. It reads as part exotic biography, part modern European history, and part detective story, with Reiss on the ever elusive trail of his prey. Reiss really fleshes out the time period of the rise of Nazism in post World War I Germany, pulling back the curtain on this unstable, violent time period in the 1920’s as Communists and Fascists fight openly in the streets for control of Germany’s future. He really digs deep and examines the politcal, economic, military, and social atmosphere that paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Orientalist is learning the original amicable brotherhood that used to bond Muslims and Jews in a bygone era. Prior to the creation of the new state of Israel in 1948, there was a whole movement amongst ethnic Jews away from the European mindset toward reestablishing ties to the Asian world. Many Jews identified a lot of commonality with the world of Islam and sought to nurture that bond. These Jews were known as orientalists, an apt title for a biography about a young Jew who saw himself as a Muslim.
Overall, this was a fantastic read. It was very indepth in painting the picture of the historical context Lev found himself in as he escaped from one political upheavel to the next throughout his life. For anyone like myself who finds themselves fascinated by the World War II era, this book is a must read for the insight into the pre-war period. It was a well-written biography that tackled a seemingly impossible past of piecing together the background of a man lost to the turmoil of history.