Twelve years ago I read an article in The New Yorker about 1930s writer Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said. What stayed with me all these years was that Tom Reiss, the author of the article, revealed that Bey/Said was in fact a Russian Jew named Lev Nussimbaum.
Reiss expanded the article into The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life (Random House, 2005), which I read last week.
I just love how Reiss describes Lev as “a kind of ethnic cross-dresser”. He elaborates:
Many Jewish journalists and scholars were writing books on the Middle East at the time…but they did not tramp around Berlin dressed in turbans, speak of their filial ties to warrior chieftains, and call themselves by fancy Turkish names.
Lev’s life was just as colorful as his eccentricities.
Although he was born in Kiev, Lev spent most of his childhood in Baku, Azerbaijan. Lev’s mother was friendly with a pockmarked Georgian named Ioseb Jughashvili, who would later be known as Joseph Stalin. On the other end of the spectrum, Lev’s father, Abraham, made his fortune in Baku oil.
As you can imagine, the Bolshevik Revolution would forever change the Nussimbaums. After Lev’s mother commits suicide, Abraham and a teenage Lev escape through the Caucasus to Persia, back around to Constantinople, and finally end up in Germany.
I enjoyed how Reiss seamlessly weaves modern Near East history into Lev’s story. By the time Lev settles into Berlin, Hitler comes into power and thus begins a new chapter in tragic 20th century history.
Rather than run away from the problems brewing in Germany, Lev converts to Islam and flaunts his (faux) Eastern roots, as described in the excerpt above. Interestingly, Lev continues to hang around Jews in Berlin and marries a Jewish shoe heiress. And they all know his true identity.
He would become a famous memoirist, biographer (of Czar Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin, and Mussolini), and novelist. When Jews are prohibited from publishing in Germany, Lev writes under the name Kurban Said and publishes an international best-seller, Ali and Nino.
By the time he settles in Positano, Italy during the war, he’s simply known as “the Moslem”. (John Steinbeck traveled to Positano in the early 1940s to write an article for Harper’s Bazaar and mentions a “Moslem”, not knowing Lev’s true identity.)
I loved so many aspects of Lev’s story: how he looked east, not west; how he believed in Muslims and Jews living together in harmony as they had in the Baku of his youth; how he found himself in the middle of early 20th century history, be it in the USSR, Western Europe, or the US.
Reiss uncovered Lev’s story from scratch, traveling to the places where Lev lived and interviewing the handful of people still alive who knew Lev (many have since passed away). It’s a haunting and tragic story, but one that shouldn’t be forgotten again.