Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Occidental Tourist

When I was a precocious teenager (see the Bookstore blog below) I bought a copy of a book called Ali and Nino by someone called Kurban Said. The paperback had a schmaltzy cover and the blurb shrieked “Guaranteed to knock Eric Segal’s Love Story off the bestsellers charts.” A and N is well crafted love story set in the Caucasus and tells a Montague and Capulet version of Muslim-Christian love at the turn of the century. One day, having returned from university in London, I ran into Anatol Lieven who was then posted as the Times correspondent to Pakistan. He mentioned that he was being relocated to cover Central Asia. I mentioned Ali and Nino and that was the last I saw of my copy.

Cut to 2005. I am rummaging at my local bookstore and I come across a copy of a book called “The Orientalist” by Tom Reiss which purports to tell the story of Kurban Said. And what a life it was. Kurban Said, it transpires, was really Lev Nussimbaum, a European Jew whose family settled in modern day Azerbaijan. Nussimbaum senior was an oil man (oil being more readily available than water in that part of the world) and did fairly well by all accounts. Lev’s hometown Baku is situated on the fault lines of several worlds – East and West, Orient and Occident, Muslim and Christian. These divisions rocketed Lev into a world of revolution. Each city he arrived at seemed to be on the point of disintegration: Constantinople, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and (via a brief stint in New York) Positano on the Amalfi coast in Italy where he died at 34. Either his luck was out or his choices extremely poor or, perhaps, that part of the world was in utter turmoil. In this time, Lev populated a world of luminaries (the Pasternaks and the Nabokovs are close friends) and wrote over a dozen books – of which Ali and Nino survives as the most well known. The new edition thankfully deletes the Segal blurb and has a respectable introduction by Paul Theroux.

What fascinates me about Lev’s life is his decision to take on a Muslim persona. This was in part derived from living among a predominantly Muslim population in Baku and partly to avoid extermination in Hitler’s Germany. However, a large part of this stemmed from Lev’s highly romanticized vision of Islam – white chargers, daggers, turbans, opium, baggy pants and all the rest of it. Perhaps this romantic picture made life seem more exciting in troubled and revolutionary times. Perhaps the image gave him exposure he would never have had as a little known novelist - the streets of Berlin were lined with unpublished manuscripts. Lev's assumed Islamic persona fell apart on occasion when zealous journalists would expose his (far less romantic) Jewish origins. Lev made a career of being a professional Muslim in terms of the trappings rather than the substance. This is a far cry from the less-than-romantic trappings available today : a scraggly beard, shalwar flapping way above the ankles and a firearm replacing the ornate (but deadly) dagger. Reiss is at pains to point out that there was a breed of “Jewish Orientalists” who insisted on their “Asiatic” origins as providing them with identity – Palgrave and Disreali among others. Lev refused to join their club, preferring the mystique which came with his fabricated Islamic identity. I recommend this as a quick but fascinating read. Available now at your local bookshop – if you have one!


Blogger Sin said...

I found the fact of his identity politics to be more interesting than the book itself, personally. But it was a good, quick read.

2:17 pm  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

Yes. But in the process I taught myself how to post a picture. I deserve that espresso shot now :)

2:47 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home