[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
Some biographies are as much about the era or the milieu as the man. The Orientalist is one of them.
This is not to say that Tom Reiss has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is an enlightening and informative one, even for someone well read in the history of Russia and Germany in the twentieth century, will find that The Orientalist has a rich store of little known anecdotes. In an effort to unlock the mystery of “Kurban Said“, the alleged author of the modern Azeri national epic, Ali and Nino: A Love Story, whose identity is hotly disputed, Reiss became a cultural archaeologist excavating the graveyards of Empires, Tsarist, Wilhemine and Ottoman. It was a search that brought Reiss to a remarkable character, Lev “Essad Bey” Nussimbaum, who had narrowly escaped the Bolshevik CHEKA, made fame and fortune as a literary freebooter in Weimar Germany only to sink into obscurity during WWII, dying in poverty and illness in Fascist Italy.
Lev, who was the son of a millionaire Russian-Jewish oil magnate from Baku, was a cultural chameleon, reinventing himself numerous times, converting to Islam, passing himself off variously as Muslim prince, a Transcaucasian “Wild Jew”, Orientalist scholar, monarchist and anti-Communist writer, briefly a literary star on Germany’s radical far Right. Even in the early days of the Third Reich, despite accusations of being a “Jewish story-swindler”, the many anti-Soviet books of “Essad Bey” were warmly endorsed by Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda for reading by the Nazi Party faithful. The famous individuals who reputedly crossed Lev’s path are remarkable – Joseph Stalin, Fyodor Vinberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin, Giovanni Gentile, Walter Mehring, Benito Mussolini, Egon Kisch, George Sylvester Viereck, Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Max Brod, Stefan Zwieg, Hertha Pauli, and Ezra Pound among others. ”Essad Bey” was the denouement of the respectable intellectual tradition of 19th century Orientalism, particularly that of Jewish European scholars and ethnographer-explorers. Lev Nussimbaum was less a Martin Buber (whom Lev knew) than he was the Karl May of the East, a dime store mythologizer of Transcaucasia, old Qajar Persia and Islam for popular audiences accustomed to a tabloid press.
Essad Bey as a character reflects the contradictions and juxtapositions of an interwar Europe, especially Germany, ravaged by the Great War and Communist Revolution in ways that would be highly improbable today. Lev was a talented writer, a Jewish refugee who was an exponent of Islam and an admirer of Fascism, more glib than insightful, more clever than wise, at home playing the outsider but his place never secure. When the official black sedans of the Fascist secret police rolled up to an ailing Lev’s hotel and found him dead, villagers assumed the OVRA men where there to arrest “the Muslim”; in reality, it was to take Lev to make wartime propaganda broadcasts for Italy in Persian.