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Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

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On Sale: February 15, 2005
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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 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.



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.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Tom Reiss|Author Q&A

About Tom Reiss

Tom Reiss - The Orientalist
TOM REISS is the author of the international bestseller The Orientalist. He lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Tom Reiss

1.) Who was Lev Nussimbaum? What was he really like?

At his height he was a kind of jazz age/Weimar media star, a professional “Orientalist” who liked to play up his exotic childhood, and was part of the café society that included people like Walter Benjamin and also the brilliant Russian exiles, like the Nabokovs and the Pasternaks. It was during the whole “Cabaret” period in Berlin, but it was much much wilder and stranger than it was even presented in that film. But what was amazing to me was that while most Jews in the 20’s and 30’s tried as hard as they could to assimilate, Lev did everything he could to make himself stand out. In the cafes of Berlin and Vienna he was sporting flowing robes and a turban, and the same thing on his book jackets. And he continued this wild career into the Nazi era, at times confusing the Nazis so much that he had Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry writing to defend him against another Nazi agency that wanted to persecute him as a Jew. He then went to Italy where he became close to Mussolini’s inner circle, cultivating a group that pushed a liberal, non-racist form of Fascism. He was either incredibly brave or incredibly suicidal, maybe a bit of both.

2.) In an era when most Jews were trying to run away from fascism, what do you think drove him to work his way back to the heart of fascist Europe, when he had many chances to escape?
In some ways, the world Lev grew up in resembles the one we may be facing now. The global order that had held for many decades was crumbling. It was startling for me to realize how much terrorism was a fact of life when Lev was growing up, even more than it is now. In a city like Baku, under the influence of pre-revolutionary Russia, you had dozens of terrorist groups at work–bombing buildings, kidnapping people. Terrorism was in fact in his own house in a bizarre way, because it would turn out that his mother was secretly using her husband’s money to fund Stalin and the other Bolsheviks. So for the rest of his life, Islam and some of the wilder politics he would get into were his refuge from all that.

All his Orientalist dreams and disguises were ways of making sense of and escaping the violence–the Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire, World War I. He came to see Islam as the ultimate Third Way between bloody ideologies like Communism and Nazism, and the bloodless consumer culture of America (symbolized by his father-in-law, a Czech shoe millionaire who became a Hollywood producer). He converted to Islam when he was 18, and to him it was a faith of languorous government and ethnic diversity, represented by a romanticized view of his native Caucasus and even moreso by his time spent in the last gasps of Ottoman Constantinople. It’s bizarre in today’s climate to think of the call to Jihad as an appeal for tolerance and a counterweight to violent extremism, but that is exactly how Lev saw it.

3.) In uncovering the story of a forgotten man, you also uncovered a great deal of forgotten history. What are some of the surprises you found?
Some of the American connections to Hitler and Mussolini are bizarre. For example, Hitler’s first press secretary Putzi Hanfstangl turns out to have been a Harvard man, class of ’04, who played in the college band. In his memoirs, he describes how Hitler would go wild with excitement when Putzi played the football marches and recounted how the hysteria the pep rallies could whip up in the stadium–Fight Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight! Later Putzi turned against Nazism and helped Roosevelt, but he always claimed that that was where the inspiration for the “Sieg Heil!” chants and the mass Nazi rallies came from–the Harvard-Yale games.

But for me personally, it was fascinating to discover that for almost a whole century before the founding of the State of Israel, there was this strong identification felt by many Jews in Europe for Muslims and the Islamic East in general. Many of the early Zionists felt a deep kinship for their “oriental cousins” the Arabs, who, as Disraeli famously put it, were “merely Jews on horseback.” There was this idea that the return of the Jews–not only to Palestine but to the broader Muslim world in general–would bring on a kind of modern Jewish-Muslim symbiosis. The reason so many German-Jewish synagogues built in the 19th century were “Moorish” in style was because of this dream of pan-oriental unity–this idea of symbiosis. But you also had all these Jewish experts in Arabic translating the Koran and promoting Muslim revival.

I was having lunch with a Pakistani newspaper editor while working on all this and, by way of making a point about liberal, educated Islam in South Asia, he recommended to me the greatest English translation of the Koran, by Muhammad Asad. I believe I gave the man the shock of his American visit when I told him that the great Muslim scholar and statesman he knew as “Muhammad Asad” was in fact born Leopold Weiss and was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who converted to Islam on a trip to Arabia in the 1920s. “If you were to publish that in Pakistan,” the editor said, “about the man whom every educated Pakistani considers the greatest Koran translator, you would start riots.” There are many characters like that that I write about in The Orientalist.

It’s a whole side to Orientalism that people have no understanding of largely because the late Edward Said painted such a powerful version of a different idea in everyone’s minds. In fact, in many ways the Jewish orientalists were every bit as important or more than the French or English orientalists he focused on–and unlike gentile European orientalists, the Jewish orientalists weren’t trying to discover the exotic other in the mysterious East, they were trying to discover themselves.

4.) What drew you to this story?
Many members of my family, of my grandparents’ generation, were German-speaking Jews trapped in Nazi Europe. After college I lived in Germany for a while and wrote some articles about the phenomenon of neo-Nazism, but when I was growing up, I mainly had fantasies about going back in time and outwitting the real Nazis. From the moment I first discovered Lev–when I went to Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1998–it seemed like I had found a character I had been waiting my whole life to meet. He had the temperament and, for a while anyway, the luck to live out that fantasy.

5.) How did you find Lev Nussimbaum in the first place?
I had gone to Baku to write a travel article about the new oil boom on the Caspian Sea. But what really got me interested was what I’d heard about the city itself–like 19th-century Paris dropped into the desert or something, with old casinos, opera houses, elegant mansions, all in a state of gothic decay. Azeris, I discovered, consider their country–which borders Iran and Dagestan–to be part of Europe. And from the moment I got to Baku, I found it somehow deeply poignant what a century of war and revolution had destroyed. The city is half out of the Arabian nights, with medieval walls and minarets, but it also does kind of feel like Paris, perhaps combined with Naples–with very dusty streets.

I basically found Lev because there were no guidebooks to Baku–Azerbaijan was one of only two or three countries in the world at the time that had absolutely no guide in English. So the main book Westerners visiting Baku seemed to read was a 75-year-old novel, called Ali and Nino. I started asking around about the author and found out that no one knew who it was, but everyone seemed to have a passionate opinion. The name on the cover of the book was “Kurban Said”–who was supposedly an Austrian baroness in real life, or maybe an Azeri poet who died in the gulags. By the end of my stay I had to get to the bottom of the mystery.

6.) Tell us about your journey.
In trying to reconstruct Lev’s life I also learned a lot about the worlds he traveled in–fascist intellectuals, European pan-Islamists, and revolutionary terrorists (including Stalin, who lived in Baku when he was young). The most fun part of the book for me was describing some the characters I met–the Austrian Baroness, who would only talk to me in the middle of the night, when she wasn’t working on a rock opera, in her freezing castle, in the middle of winter!… two ancient sisters in Baku, who had spent every summer with their mother in Baden-Baden until WWI and the Russian Revolution, and never went back again; and most crucially, a fierce old Austrian publisher with four passports stamped “Aryan” and Lev’s deathbed notebooks in her closet, which she gave to me. I realized how I was extremely lucky that I had learned fluent German in my 20’s; I don’t think I could really have gotten to know these people if I had had to have an interpreter.

7.) What happened to Lev’s deathbed notebooks?
I don’t know where they will end up. I hope that there will be new interest in his work, and that this last “Kurban Said” book, in many ways the most interesting one–a hybrid novel/memoir–will finally be published. I’ve put the notebooks themselves in a safe deposit box. I don’t know where they should go. Lev has no heirs. And they shouldn’t go back to the Aryanizer of his publisher — which is what the lady in Vienna was. I’m grateful she let me read the notebooks, but at the same time she absolutely couldn’t face the fact of what had become of the Jews who rightfully owned the company, never mind her Jewish authors, “who left without saying a word,” as she put it to me, remembering 1938, “leaving me to take care of their affairs.”

So I hope some museum or library will start a collection of Lev’s manuscripts and will protect them and display them. They are an incredible artifact–in a way they sum up the most important thing about Lev to me, which was the way he responded to the face of evil closing in around him and kept himself alive through writing.

8.) You seem to have resurrected Lev’s life from oblivion. Why do you think you were able to solve the puzzle of his life after it had remained a totally confusing mystery for so long?
I don’t think I’ve solved the puzzle of Lev Nussimbaum–I think that would be impossible, for in some way the man is just a Gordian knot of contradictions–but I do think I have resurrected him from oblivion and also resurrected his legacy from others who wanted to claim it for their own. An old Indian man who helped me on the project insisted that I’d been reincarnated to save Lev’s life, to bring him back from the void. I don’t know about that, but I do think it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime confluences of biographer and subject. I’d come along at exactly the right time–the last possible moment. It was as though all these ancient people–these ancient women, mostly–had been waiting for decades for me to find them, so they could pull out a ragged photo album, a box of love letters not opened since 1952, or a cluster of deathbed notebooks. The widow of one of Lev’s school friends produced a photo album that had survived a concentration camp and an escape through the Pyrenees, and it was filled with candid photos of Lev in his orientalist costume in 1920s Berlin.

Often I arrived just in time to meet someone–if I’d come a year later it would have been too late. In England, I found the woman who’d discovered Ali and Nino in a postwar Berlin bookstall and done the first translation of it into English in the 1960’s. But she was in the hospital, having just had two strokes, and she was unable to communicate with anyone because she’d lost her power of speech. I showed up at the hospital, which was an open ward, like something out of Dickens’ England–where she was driving everyone crazy, howling all the time because she couldn’t express herself… but then I tried talking to her in German. And it turned out that somehow, the strokes had knocked out her English, her main language for almost fifty years, but she hadn’t lost her first language, German. She was shocked that she could answer me that way, and talking to her I found out that she’d changed her identity herself–she’d been a stage dancer in the Third Reich with an entirely different name.

Part of writing this book felt like detective work 101, just following every lead, most of them being dead-ends since I’m dragging up a case that was closed a half a century ago. But every now and then I would have a breakthrough, and it just kept happening.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


“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


FINALIST 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

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