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Strange and dangerous life
Jewish Muslim, Lev Nussimbaum



February 16, 2006

The Orientalists: Solving the mystery of a strange and a dangerous life
by Tom Reiss
New York : Random House, 2005.

Tom Reiss's book is a fascinating account of the life of Kurban Said who also used the name Essad Bey. However, he was neither Kurban nor Essad but Lev Nussimbaum, the author of the romantic novel Ali and Nino. He was born in Baku 1905. He published sixteen books altogether, most of which became best sellers. But Ali and Nino is his enduring masterpiece, a much-loved book by many in Baku, considered as a timeless classic and a national novel. 

Reiss reviews the history of Baku during the upbringing of Lev, giving his readers a taste of perhaps the most turbulent time in the history of Azerbaijan and the world in general. Lev Nussimbaum along with his father are forced to leave and wander the world in the hope of one day returning to their beloved country.

There are many interesting references to Persia where one can easily see the strong cultural links between the two ancient lands. Even the name Baku is "said to derive from a Persian expression 'baadiyekubiden', or blow of the winds." And "azer" is also a Persian word meaning fire. Azeris believe their land is the birthplace of Zoroaster, and was the centre of Zoroastrians. And the first oil tanker supplying the world with Baku's oil was aptly called "Zoroaster".

Lev was born a Jew but embraced Islam and the Orient affectionately. He tried to promote Islam among Europeans. He wrote books on Islam and the life of Mohammed, under the name Essad Bey. He even wrote a book on Reza Shah, originally published in German, during the Nazis era in Vienna. Lev was specially intrigued by Eastern leaders who used the West to their advantage, eiss tells us, and people like Ataturk and Reza Shah Pahlavi became a subject of his fascination for a while.

He always denied or hid his Jewish identity. Reiss tells us that many Jews at that time identified themselves with the Orient and Islam. He writes,

In his influential book Orientalism, the late Edward Said tended to ignore the Jewish contribution to Islamic studies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, presumably because it would have complicated his arguments about Zionism and imperialism: as a rule, the early Jewish Orientalists took either a scholarly, neutral tone or a downright admiring one toward Islam, regarding it as a great religion and the Muslim world as a noble example, rather than an inferior heresy, which was the attitude taken by so many Christian scholars.

To find out who the real author behind these books was, Reiss travels to countries like Azerbaijan, England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Turkey, America and others. By sleuthing through manuscripts, letters and talking with any remaining acquaintances of Lev he hopes to track down the illusive person.

Reiss' detective work pays off when he finally meets Frau Therese Mõgle. At ninety six she remembered him well, because he left him six leather notebooks when she went to see him in Postiano. He wanted her to publish them but she never did. The first line that grabs Reiss's attention is: "Pain is stronger than life, stronger than death, love, loyalty, duty."

The Orientalists is about a complex man with great creative impulses to reinvent himself every time his world is turned upside down. Reiss' thorough research and lucid writing has done a great justice to this amazing story.

For letters section
Farid Parsa

Farid Parsa


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