Saturday, May 19, 2007

Disorienting the Occident

I have just finished reading two of the most delightful books I will possibly ever read. The first - Ali and Nino - recommended to me by SNG, is the story of love between an Azeri boy and a Georgian girl, set in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. [Warning: plot spoilers follow, but I am so enthusiastic about this book that I cannot resist retelling the story.] Reading this book, I am reminded that the imaginative boundary between Europe and Asia doesn't just hang over the Bosphorus - it slices through the Black Sea and the city of Baku itself, so that Professor Sanin can say to his students in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia:

The natural borders of Europe consist in the north of the North Polar Sea, in the west of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the south of the Mediterranean. The eastern border of Europe goes through the Russian Empire, along the Ural mountains through the Caspian Sea, and through Transcaucasia. Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia's cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia.'

When Ali and Nino decide to get married, the initial reluctance of Nino's parents is overcome only through the mediation of their Armenian friend Nachararyan. But the apparently well-meaning intermediary himself falls in love with Nino and abducts her in a rutput car. An incredibly cheesy scene follows, in which Ali gallops behind said car on a horse with supernatural powers, kills Nachararyan and takes back Nino. He loves her too much to kill her in defence of his honour (in accordance with the supposed tradition of his place). Instead, they flee to the mountains of Daghestan to escape inevitable retribution from Nachararyan's family. There follows a period of chaos in which rulers seem to change every few weeks. The Czar is deposed, the Russians retreat, the Ottomans advance, the Armenians flee, so it is safe for Ali and Nino to return to Baku. But it is not long before the Russians recapture Baku, forcing them to run to Persia, where Ali has wealthy relatives. Persia is a land of dreamy poets lounging around on divans reciting the Rubaiyat, oblivious to the machinations of Great Powers around them. Ali is perplexed by this state of denial, although he is happy enough with the luxurious life into which he has parachuted. Nino, on the other hand, is miserable - cooped up in the harem with only her terrifyingly efficient eunuch for company ('I'll wash and shave her myself. I see she has even got hair in her armpits. It is really terrible how in some countries women's education is neglected.') Fortunately for her, the situation on the ground changes again - following their defeat in the Great War, the Ottomans leave Azerbaijan and Azeri nationalists obtain Allied recognition for the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic - the first secular, democratic republic in the Muslim world (pre-dating Turkey by a few years). Ali and Nino return to work for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs; things go so well, that Ali is offered a posting in Paris. Nino is thrilled at the prospect, but Ali says -

Look - I would be just as unhappy in Paris as you were in Persia. This time it would be I who would feel exposed to some malignant force. Remember how you felt in the harem of Shimran. For me it would be just as impossible to live in Europe as it was for you to live in Asia. Let's stay in Baku, where Asia and Europe meet. I cannot go to Paris where there are no mosques, no old wall, and no Syed Mustafa. I must feel Asia once in a while if I have to bear with all these strangers who are coming here. I would hate you in Paris as you hated me after Moharram. Not immediately when we get there, but some day, after a fancy dress party, or a ball, I would suddenly start to hate you in this strange world you're trying to force me into. And that's why I want to stay here, come what may. I was born in this country, and I want to die here.' She had not said a word. When I stopped she bent over me, and her hand caressed my hair: 'Forgive your Nino, Ali Khan. I have been very stupid. I don't know why I should think it would be easier for you to change than for me. We'll stay here, and not say another word about Paris. You keep your Asiatic town, and I'll keep my European house.'

Arre, kya baat hai! If, like me, you are a sucker for love across boundaries, this is a novel that will stay with you forever. The style is simple, almost naive. There's little detachment or irony, the characters are almost childlike in their innocence and stubbornness, and even their frequent essentialisations are honest, endearing, sweet. To my immense good fortune, I picked Ali and Nino off the shelves of Daunt Books in London, where the books are arranged, not by subject or author name, but by country. Sitting next to it on the shelf was The Orientalist - Tom Reiss's gobsmacking biography of the author of Ali and Nino. The authorship of the novel was, for long, shrouded in mystery. It had been penned under the pseudonym Kurban Said, but no one knew who that was. An Austrian countess named Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, who had signed the original publishing contract, claimed to be the author. But Reiss has now shown compellingly that Kurban Said was in fact a Jew named Lev Nussimbaum, who later converted to Islam to become Essad Bey (OLIS - the Oxford Libraries Information System - lists Kurban Said's works under all three names).

Although he would later spin fantastic yarns about his genealogy, claiming to be descended from Muslim and Russian aristocracy, Lev's father Abraham Nussimbaum was an oil baron and his mother Berta Slutzkin a Stalinist revolutionary who committed suicide in his childhood. Father and son fled the Bolshevik terrors unleashed in the wake of the Revolution, travelling through the very places in which Ali and Nino is set - Turkestan, Persia and the Caucuses. In the course of the flight westwards, Lev encountered strange lands and peoples whom he would forever be captivated by - 'wild' mountain Jews, Central Asian tribesmen, even ethnic Germans who had lived in the Caucuses for centuries. Following a brief return to Baku after the declaration of the ill-fated Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, they would flee again - this time to Constantinople with thousands of White Russian refugees. It is here that Lev's self-reinvention seems to have begun ('I believe that my life began in Istanbul. I was 15 then. I saw the life of the Orient and I knew that as much as I yearned for Europe, I would be forever captivated by this life.') Constantinople was, however, a brief stopover en route to Paris - the capital of the Emigration - but for reasons of Lev's education, the father-son duo eventually went to Berlin. Here Lev enrolled in the Russian gymnasium in Charlottenburg, where he would sit in a classroom with Zozefina and Lydia Pasternak (sisters of the more famous Boris) and 'the great blonde beauty of the class' Elena Nabokov (sister of, yes you guessed it, Vladimir).

Unknown to Lev's classmates and, indeed, anyone else in his Russian emigre life in Berlin, Lev had also enrolled himself as a student in Turkish and Arabic classes in the Seminar for Oriental Languages at the Friedrich Wilhelms Universitat, having successfully concealed from the university authorities the minor detail that he had not yet completed high school. As he puts it somewhere, 'While the teacher was explaining a geometric theorem, the Arabic grammar lay on my knees.' So much so that he would almost certainly have flunked his high school exams were it not for a particularly memorable viva in which, when asked to say something about the dominion of the Tartars and Mongols over Russia, he astounded his examiners by quoting Arabic, Turkish and Persian sources in the original languages!

Even as he was transforming himself into a professional Orientalist, Lev converted to Islam in the presence of the imam of what was then still the Ottoman embassy in Berlin. Reiss doesn't tell us much about his motivations for the conversion, but it seems to have come not just from a long-standing fascination with the Muslim world, but from a nostalgia for the cosmopolitan Ottomanism that was fast crumbling under the weight of defeat in war and nationalist revolution. I am reminded of Craig Calhoun's genealogical analysis of cosmopolitanism, which reminds us that although progressive liberals today would like to align cosmopolitanism with all things nice, historically, it seems to have flourished in multiethnic empires and come under stress from democratic revolutions demanding self-rule for the empire's various 'nations', which tended to be defined in exclusivist terms (the argument is, essentially, that democracy requires the creation of solidarity amongst strangers or, in a word, community, which is more easily constructed in exclusivist, homogeneous terms). This nostalgia for a fast-disappearing imperial cosmopolitan world made Lev an unabashed monarchist. But his political views contained rather more discomfiting inflections - his lifelong antipathy towards Bolshevism would bring him into association with all sorts of proto-Nazi groups.

The Orientalist succeeds fantastically in providing a flavour of Weimar-era Berlin, which seems to have been a fascinating, dangerous and tragic place - wracked by fighting between the Freikorps and Communist groups such as the Spartakasbund (of Rosa Luxemburg fame), but also the setting for an exciting literary and caberet scene in which Lev became increasingly prominent. Writing for Die Literarische Welt, Lev (now Essad Bey) made a name for himself as an interpreter of all things 'Oriental' - early contributions included pieces on the poetry of Genghis Khan, the Eunuch Congress in Istanbul (former palace and harem eunuchs of the Ottoman sultan, now out of work, had formed a trade organisation), Ataturk, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the visit of the Afghan King Amanullah to Berlin in 1928. Alongside these, major book-length works - Blood and Oil in the Orient (a semi-autobiographical work) as well as biographies of such disparate characters as Stalin and the Prophet Mohammed - began to appear (mostly between 1929 and '33). In short, Essad Bey became something of a literary sensation in Weimar Germany. It's not entirely clear to me who knew what and how much about his Jewish origins - he seems to have been enigmatic rather than secretive on the point, continuing to tell tall tales about his background, but not doing very much to counter the frequent allegations of fraud that were hurled at him by Muslim nationalist emigres, upset by his cosmopolitan representations of the Orient, and German right-wing nationalists, increasingly keen on outing the 'Jewish swindler'.

The pace picks up from 1933 onwards - marriage to the wealthy Erika Loewendahl shortly before Hitler's assumption of the Chancellorship, emigration to the US (where port authorities duly record the entire party as being of 'Hebrew' race - this is the era of official race quotas), boredom and heartbreak in the US, and - incredibly - return to fascist Europe. Reiss points out that while Lev excoriated Bolshevik crimes, he was not particularly disturbed by Hitler - indeed his deep abhorrence of Bolshevism seems to have blinded him to the horrors of the far-right. Listen to him say in 1933 -

Considering the present political and economic constellation, a successful communist revolution in Germany inevitably would have led to the spread of Bolshevism all over Europe and would have resulted in the destruction of traditional European culture as well as the spreading of the bolshevist wave to the United States...Germany alone was able to erect the impenetrable wall of modern nationalism stopping the conspiracy against the world hatched by the red rulers of Russia, where within fifteen years ten million people have lost their lives through revolution, hunger, civil war and is impossible to pass final judgment on Germany without bearing in mind that the National Socialist revolution has saved Europe from a catastrophe.

Most readers today will find that bizarre and deluded, but in fact - as Reiss reminds us - opinions of this sort were unremarkable in their time. In 1934, the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for the 'unbiased reporting on Germany' of Frederick T. Birchall who, as late as 1936, could find 'not the slightest evidence of religious, political or racial prejudice' at the Berlin Olympics. Whatever the credibility of that opinion, by 1938, it had become impossible for a Jew to continue to live in German-controlled Vienna - hence Lev's flight to Italy. From here he continued to publish under the name Kurban Said, which was registered as the pen-name of his Austrian countess friend (Baroness Ehrenfels), who would later falsely claim authorship. The reason for this rather complicated arrangement was that by this time, Jews were forbidden to publish in the German Reich, but for anyone writing in German, this was the only market. Lev died of a rare blood disorder in Italy under house arrest in 1942, aged thirty six.

This post has ended up being far too long, so just read the damn book. I am still trying to make sense of the complex, fertile, tragic and profoundly disorienting life of this Jew in Weimar Germany who converted to Islam, not because he wanted to escape the Nazis (the dangers of whom he grossly and fatally underestimated), but because he truly loved and identified with the Islamic Orient. Lev was a Jewish Orientalist in the sentimentalist sense of that word (he was a William Jones rather than a T. B. Macaulay) - a sense that remains virtually unexplored in Edward Said's otherwise groundbreaking work on this subject. The story of Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said has taught me more about politics in the interwar world that any history book I have ever read. Great books should be like this, throwing you into the hurly burly of the world and helping you make sense of it.
[For a review of Kurban Said's The Girl from the Golden Horn, see here.]

What amazing reviews. It shows that you've somehow 'felt' these two books. I will definitely pick up Ali and Nino, and it should be fascinating to read it in light of the biographical notes you share with us. Thank you :)
Both the books sound excellent. And my library has a copy of Ali and Nino, so I'm running off to borrow it now.

Also, I haven't been to a bookshop where books are arranged by country(I'm trying to think if I have, but I can't remember any such case - except in the library). But I really wish they did. Some of the most interesting books I've read have been picked up like that.
ok, so I just had to leave another comment. I was borrowing Ali and Nino from the library and came across Said's Girl from the Golden Horn which I had to read first because I'll be in Istanbul in a couple of weeks. Though I have read only some 60 pages of it yet, it is terribly interesting and (as you said in reference to Ali and Nino) endearing.
So, thank you for pointing me here :)
good good szerelem, tell us what it's like when you're done!
done! I was actually going to leave a comment...but it got too long and I just decided to post about it. here.
Also I blogrolled you and I hope you don't mind?
wow, that's really fascinating!! many resonant themes and autobiographical elements. i think i will read girl from the halic. he is beginning to become my patron saint of cross-cultural love.
i am so charmed by everything about this review. i will read them all posthaste.
hi: came across this old post of yours whilst trawling through another blog. nice piece! wondered if you read wendell steavenson's stories i stole, which has a whole chapter on ali and nino. she says (and i agree, having read ali&nino) that it reads quite like a tourist guide, checking off each famous name in the baku area as though pointing out landmarks. i also felt that it seems to display the usual caucasian stereotypes: manly azeris, effete georgians, cunning and untrustworthy armenians. but the story itself is lovely and lyrically written - i agree! perhaps you'd like to take a look at this related post of mine?
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