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Title: The Orientalist: Solving The Mystery Of A Strange and Dangerous Life

Title: The Orientalist: Solving The Mystery Of A Strange and Dangerous Life
Author: Tom Reiss
Publisher: Random House, New York, NY

 

This biography/adventure story of Essad Bey, nee Kurban Said, born Lev Nussimbaum, creatively ties together many disparate elements in a wonderful tour de force that is both enchanting and spell-binding. Reiss masterfully covers many subjects including the fin de siecle, the Russian Revolution, Berlin of the Weimar Republic, the oil discoveries, the exploration of Baku, and many others.

Reiss’ story introduces the reader to a young boy, the son of a landed multi-millionaire and oil-baron, who has a tremendous affinity for language acquisition and a voracious appetite for reading literature in numerous languages. Having had a German nanny at an early age, Nussimbaum easily achieved mastery of various European languages, as well as his native Georgian (southern Russia), Persian (Farsi), Russian, and Polish.

Baku, previously a walled caravan outpost that always contained a Jewish population, became the center of the early twentieth-century’s burgeoning oil production industry and supplied more than half the world’s output of crude oil. The profits were enormous, and Baku soon became home to the likes of the Rothschilds, the Nobels (yes they were Jewish) and dozens of others. During World War II, Hitler’s covetousness for this oil-rich region caused the sacrifice of his entire Sixth Army. He sent troops to Stalingrad where they faced disaster at the hands of the defending Russians.

After the war, rather than being rewarded for fueling the Russian victory, the Azerbaijan area’s citizens were deported to Siberia by Stalin, and this area and its oil industry were allowed to languish.

Reiss’ story begins with his meeting with Peter Mayer, the director of Overlook Press, who wished to publish a romantic novel by Kurban Said named “Ali and Nino.” The setting was in the Caucasus on the eve of the Russian Revolution, and the book was originally published in German in 1937.

The book was revived in English and other languages in the ’70s, but the question of the real identity of the author had never been resolved. The only common agreement was that “Kurban Said” was the nom de plume of a writer who was variously described as having come from Baku and was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulag; the dilettante son of an oil millionaire; or a Viennese café-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot.

Absolutely no one had guessed that “Kurban Said” was really Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew, who during his short life, acted out a real-life “Walter Mitty” existence that was more unbelievable than that recounted in his nearly 40 famous books and biographies.

Mayer needed Reiss’ assistance to research Said’s background because he was being challenged by a Viennese lawyer over the proper author credit. After attending this meeting together with his publisher friend – Reiss was “hooked,” and thus began his five year journey toward the truth.

That he was exploring a truly fascinating individual may be exemplified by his discovery that Nussimbaum theorized (and even tantalized the Nazis) with the speculation that the Jews of Azerbaijan were descended from the Khazar tribes (see Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, and Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe) and thus were Aryan allies rather than Semitic enemies. The Khazar Kagan became a crucial buffer state between the Muslim and Christian worlds during the 7th century, C.E., and were pagans and shamanists (even practicing human sacrifice) until they decided to convert en masse to Judaism.

This richly annotated volume introduces us to many footnotes of history, including such tidbits that the modern Israeli Navy was born of a 1930s Italian Fascist training program, and that the Italian dictator Mussolini endowed a Fascist chair at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The Orientalist is as much a history of a certain period as it is the story of a life, and Reiss makes a yeoman’s work at determining the various influences of history that came to bear upon his protagonist, clearly humanizing his character and separating fact from fiction.

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