The Orientalist

by Marc W on 3/12/2008 · 2 comments

As I promised, today’s post has nothing to do with protests. Instead, I wanted to write about one of the books that got me interested in the Caucasus, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. It’s the story of Essad Bey (nee Lev Nussimbaum), a man who was born Jewish in Baku in 1905. The first part of the book describes Lev’s childhood and his journeys with his father during the chaos of 1918-22. The events are quite remarkable, even if the author, Tom Reiss, believes most of them are highly exaggerated. Most of them are taken from Nussimbaum’s book Blood and Oil in the Orient, which was a bestseller in 1930. Interestingly, I just found out that the book was re-released in January, with Reiss as an editor.

The book talks about journeys from Baku through Turkestan, Persia, the Caucasus, back to Azerbaijan, and then to Istanbul before finally heading west to Paris. Even if many of the wild stories in the book are exaggerated, his portrayals of some of the tribal peoples are still quite interesting.

The second part of the book describes Essad/Lev’s life in Paris, and later Berlin, where he becomes a famous author, an “orientalist,” and converts to Islam. Personally, I didn’t find this half of the book terribly interesting, though perhaps that’s just because it could not possibly match the action of the first part.

There’s also an underlying narrative of Reiss’ efforts to research the story. Again, I didn’t find these asides all that interesting, and found them a touch self-indulgent (said the blogger).

Reiss does do a good job discussing the context of the events, and one point I found particularly interesting was that there was a lot of good research being done in the Muslim world by western Islamophiles, many of whom were Jewish. I must admit that I haven’t done any additional research to examine this claim, but it puts an interesting spin on Said’s Orientalism theories.

The Orientalist is definitely worth picking up, if just for the first part, and I’ve just moved Blood and Orient to the top of my shopping list at Amazon.

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R March 13, 2008 at 9:44 am

Lev Nussbaum (aka Kurban Said) is also known as the author of the novel Ali & Nino

Forrest March 13, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Another great (if, I suspect, highly imaginative) book of his on the Caucasus worth seeking out is “Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus”, by “Essad-Bey”, published in 1931. Full of exotica about the various peoples living in the region, it’s a great read, although I suspect pretty hard to come by outside of libraries these days.

Another novel of his in English (under the pen-name Kurban Said) is “The Girl From the Golden Horn”, published in English translation only a couple of years ago.

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