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by Bamber Gascoigne

Lev Nussimbaum (1905-1942) - pseudonyms: Essad Bey; Kurban Said


Jewish writer of fiction and non-fiction, who published his most famous novel Ali und Nino (1937) under the pseudonym Kurban Said. This Azerbaijan Romeo and Juliet story has been translated into over 25 languages. For decades, the true identity of the author remained a mystery, until it was revealed by Tom Reiss in his book The Orientalist (2005). Kurban Said was not Yusuf Vezir Çemenzeminli, as it had been claimed, or Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfehls von Bodmershof, but Lev Nussimbaum, a right-wing monarchist, who published more than 12 books between 1929 and 1938 under the name Essad Bey. Nussimbaum converted to Islam in Germany in the 1920s and died in poverty in Italy at the age of 36.

"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." (from Ali and Nino)

Lev Nussimbaum was born in Baku, Russia, into a well-to-do family. His father, Abraham Nussimbaum, was an Ashkenazic Jew, born in Tiflis, who got rich on oil. The origins of Nussimbaum's mother, Berta Slutzkin, remain obscure. She committed suicide when Lev was a young boy, possibly by drinking acid. Of his family Nussimbaum has said in autobiographical writings that his father was an industrial magnate in the oil industry and his mother was a radical revolutionary.

Nussimbaum was first tutored at home by a German governess. Later he studied at the Imperial Russian Gymnasium. Much of his time he spent daydreaming, absorbed in books from his mother's personal collection. Nussimbaum's carefree youth ended abruptly when the Russian Revolution broke out. Baku was held by the whites for a period during the civil war, but in 1920 the city was occupied by the Red Army and later it became the capital of the U.S.S.R.'s Azerbaijan SSR.

In the revolutionary upheavals, the Nussimbaums lost their property. Lev fled the Bolsheviks with his father to Istanbul, where he took the name Essad Bey. "I think my life began in Istanbul," Nussimbaum wrote later. "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." (We are All Moors: Ending Centuries of Crusades Against Muslims and Other Minorities by Anouar Majid, 2009, p. 89) From Istanbul they continued to Paris, filled with other émigrés and their own relatives.

Eventually Nussimbaum ended up in Berlin, where he atteded the Russian Gymnasium and at the same time was enrolled as a student in classes in Turkish and Arabic at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. During these years he created a new personality for himself. He started to wear a turban, he hang out in cafes, and became a founding member of the Islamic commnity in Berlin.

At the age of twenty-four, Nussimbaum established his reputation as a writer with Öl und Blut im Orient (1929), an autobiographical work which weaves together personal and family history with the history of the Caucasus. The book, published under the name Essad Bey, gained an international success, although in Germany it was attacked by anti-Semites and Muslim nationalists. Nussimbam continued to write prolifically. In addition to numerous articles and two novels, he wrote anticommunist books and biographies of Stalin, Mohammed, Nicholas II, Reza Shah, and Lenin. When it was revealed that he Essad Bey was a Jew, he was expelled from the Reichsschrifttumskammer.

In 1932 Nussimbaum married Erika Loewendahl, the daughter of a wealthy shoe wholesaler. They divorced in 1938, after she started an affair in California with the Austrian writer named René Fülöp-Miller. Their breakdown made headlines in American and European tabloids, including the Sunday Mirror Magazine, which wrote of Erika. She called herself a "poetess", and her "picturesque husband", who was for her disappointment "just plain Leo Nussimbaum!": "The broad-minded poetess didn't object to her Mohammedan Husband's having multiple wives---but when he insisted on reading her his horror stories, she fled to America---and a divorce." (Sunday Mirror Magazine, January 2, 1938)

Ali and Nino, written under the pen-name Kurban Said, came out in Vienna in 1937. The book published by E.P. Tal & Co., but copyrighted by the Austrian baroness Elfriede Ehrenfehls. She served as a front to Nussimbaum. Jewish writers were prohibited from publishing anything in Nazi-Germany. It is possible that Nussimbaum and Ehrenfehls shared the pen name.The Azerbaijani novelist Yusuf Vezir Çemenzeminli never claimed being the author.

The central characters are a young Muslim prince, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, and a Christian girl, Nino Kipiani, his childhood love. After the outbreak of WW I, they travel to the mountains of Dagestan, where they marry and then settle in Persia. Eventually the forces of history break them apart. When the last days of the Azerbaijani republic are at hand, Nino decides to travel with their young child to Paris and Ali joins the army to defend his country and fight against the approaching Red army.

Ali and Nino is both a lesson in geography, pan-culturalism, and tribal traditions, and an answer to Kipling's lines, "Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Oil is a curse that touches everyone. When the two lovers leave Baku, they see the town disappearing in the night. "The black oil derricks looked like grim prisob guard."

"The novel is so informative and self-consciously Asiatic that you know it could only have been written by a brilliant outsider observing the society from a distance and you guess an exile," Paul Theroux has said. "That it was a Jew who converted to Islam, who lived in Germany and Italy in the 1930s makes sense." ('Introduction' by Paul Theroux, in Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated by Jenia Graman, 2000, p. 6) In Azerbaijan the book was banned until it appeared on the  pages of Azerbaijan, starting January 1990. Ali and Nino has been hailed as the national novel, but the exact identity of the author has been disputed.

A film adaptation of the book by the writer Christopher Hampton and the director Asif Kapadia premiered in 2016. Adam Bakri and María Valverde played the title roles. "Mr. Bakri and Ms. Valverde have chemistry — their dance sequences at the beginning and end are especially lovely, as is everything else onscreen, from the majestic shots of highlands and deserts to the interiors of lavish homes." (Ken Jaworowski, The New York Times, November 17, 2016)

Nussimbaum's second novel, Die Prinzessin vom goldenen Horn (1938, The Girl from the Golden Horn), about a young Turkish woman torn between two men and two cultures, was a bestseller at the time of its initial publication,  but it has never attained the same popularity as the first one.

From the mid-1930, Nussimbaum had lived in Vienna, but after Austria was incorporated into the Third Reich in March 1938, he escaped to Mussolini's Italy, settling in Positano, a small town on the Amalfi coast, where he was known as "the Muslim." In 1939 he was hospitlized in Naples for several months due to a blood disease, which could not be cured. Upon returning to his last refuge, he used morphine to treat his chronic pain. When the authorities confiscated his typewriter, he continued to fíll his diaries in longhand. Goebbels' ministry  responded negatively to the request of Amadeo Tosti from the Ministry of Popular Culture (MPC) to allow publishers to print his works. Kurban Said-Lev Nussimbaum died of blood-poisoning disease in September 1942. He was buried in the cemetary in Positano. Nussimbaum's father Abraham died in Treblinka.



KUKA oikeastaan kätkeytyi salanimen Kurban Said taakse?
--Kirjailijan bestseller Ali ja Nino julkaistiin suomeksi vuonna 1972 Gummeruksen kustantamana. Alun perin teos oli ilmestynyt Wienissä 1930-luvulla. Saksassa se oli jopa Joseph Göbbelsin propagandaministeriön laatimalla suositeltavien kirjojen listalla.
--Luin romaanin aikoinaan uteliaisuudesta. Silloin se vaikutti lähinnä itämaiselta versiolta Romeosta ja Juliasta, päähenkilöinä nuori azerbaižanilainen muslimiylimys ja kristityn kauppiaan tytär. Heidän suhteensa kautta haluttiin totta kai kertoa jotain yleispätevää idästä ja lännestä, mutta allegorian tuoreus oli minusta umpeutunut jo ennen muinaisia persialaissotia.
--Laajassa, yli 900-sivuisessa Otavan kirjallisuustiedossa sittemmin paljastettiin, että Kurban Said oli Azerbaižanin lyhytikäisen tasavallan ulkoministeriön virkamies nimeltään Yusuf Vezirov-Cemenzeminli.
--Vai niin: arvoituksellinen kirjailija osoittautuikin valtion byrokraatiksi, jonka muihin saavutuksiin kuului tympeän nationalistisia romaaneja ja novelleja. Ei siis kovin kiinnostava tapaus.
--Paitsi että Otava oli väärässä. Kuten olin itsekin.

AMERIKKALAINEN JOURNALISTI Tom Reiss on selvittänyt, että Alin ja Ninon tekijä oli todellisuudessa juutalainen, Bakussa syntynyt Lev Nussimbaum, öljypohatan poika. Kirjailijan äiti, radikaali sosialisti ja mahdollisesti Stalinin lähipiiriläinen, teki itsemurhan ennen Venäjän vallankumouksen alkua.
--Nussimbaum kääntyi islamin uskoon jo nuoruudessaan ja rakensi vähitellen itselleen täysin uuden identiteetin nimellä Essad Bey. Hänestä tuli vankkumaton orientalisti, joka piti arabeja ja juutalaisia veriveljinä.
--Saksassa asuessaan Nussimbaum käytti toisinaan fetsiä, kaukasialaista karvalakkia tai valkoista turbaania. Natsien noustua valtaan hassuissa hatuissa esiintyminen tosin loppui.
--Esikoisteoksensa, Öl und Blut im Orient, Nussimbaum julkaisi 24-vuotiaana. Ties mistä syystä eräät islamilaiset organisaatiot tuomitsivat sen "pornografiaksi". Kaikkiaan Nussimbaum kirjoitti 16 teosta, mm. elämäkerrat Leninistä, Stalinista ja profeetta Muhammedista.
--Toisen maailmansodan aikana Nussimbaum päätyi pieneen italialaiseen rannikkokaupunkiin Positanoon, jossa hän kuoli vuonna 1942 infektioon. Toiveensa mukaisesti hänet haudattiin kasvot kohti Mekkaa.
--Vuosikymmentä myöhemmin kirjailija John Steinbeck ryhtyi levittämään merkillistä juttua, että kyläläiset olivat katsoneet ilmansuunnan väärin. Essad Beyna tunnettu vainaja oli mukamas jouduttu kaivamaan haudasta ylös, asettamaan oikeaan suuntaan ja peittämään jälleen multiin.

OHIMENNEN todettakoon, että merkittävin suomalainen orientalisti oli Arabian niemimaalla reissannut August Wallin alias Abd Wali (1811-1852). Itämainen eksotiikka kiehtoi myös Mika Waltaria, kuvittaja Rudolf Koivua sekä Pekka ja Pätkä Suezilla -elokuvan tekijöitä, mutta taitaa olla paras jättää aitojen orientalistien joukosta pois ne kolmea Nokia Siemensin työntekijää, jotka pidätettiin kesäkuussa Persianlahdella Dubain edustalla.
--Nyt lukiessani uudelleen Alin ja Ninon tarinaa, huomasin kuinka ajankohtaisesti siinä selvitetään sitä sekavaa Lähi-idän vyyhtiä, joka koostuu öljystä, hiekasta, aseista, lännen intresseistä, uskonnosta, kameleista ja alistetuista naisista.
--Lyhyessä kolumnissa ei voi siteerata kirjaa niin pitkälti kuin haluaisi. Tyydyn siksi vain repliikkiin, jossa eräs sivuhenkilö luonnehtii tuossa levottomassa maankolkassa kohtaavien kulttuurien ydinolemusta: "Fanaatikko tulee erämaasta, luova mies metsästä. Ehkä siinä on tärkein idän ja lännen välinen ero."
--(Kouvolan Sanomat, 22.6.2007)

For further reading: Approaches to Kurban Said's Ali and Nino: Love, Identity, and Intercultural Conflict, edited by Carl Niekerk and Cori Crane (2017); Ali and Nino: Literary Robbery! by Tamar Injia; edited by Evan M. Hanczor, Irene Machavariani (2009); The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss (2005); Alias Kurban Said, dir. by Jos de Potter (documentary film, 2004); Etot zagadochnyi Kurban Said, ili Zhizn' i tvorchestvo Mukhammeda Asad-beka by Gasan Guliev (2002)

Selected works:

  • Öl und Blut im Orient, 1929 (as Essad-bey) - Blood and Oil in the Orient (translated by Elsa Talmey, 1931)
  • Zwölf Geheimnisse im Kaukasus, 1931 (as Essad-bey) - Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus (translated by G. Chychele Waterston, 1931)
  • Der Kaukasus: Seine Berge, Völker und Geschichte, 1931 (as Essad Bey)
  • Stalin, 1931 (as Essad-bey) - Stalin: The Career of a Fanatic (translated by Huntley Paterson, 1932)
  • Das weisse Russland: Menschen ohne Heimat, 1932 (as Essad-bey)
  • Die Verschvörung gegen die Welt, 1932 (as Essad-bey) - OGPU: The Plot Against the World (translated by Huntley Paterson, 1933)
  • Mohammed, 1932 (as Mohammed Essad-bey) - Mohammed: A Biography (translated by Helmut L. Ripperger, 1936)
  • Flüssiges Gold: ein Kampf um die Macht, 1933 (as Essad-Bey)
  • Russland and Scheideweg, 1933 (as Essad-Bey)
  • Nikolaus II: Glanz Und Untergang Des Letzten Zaren, 1935 (as Essad-bey) - Nicholas II: Prisoner of the Purple (translated by Paul Maerker Branden and Elsa Branden, 1936)
  • Allah ist Gross: Niedergang und Aufstieg der Islamischen Welt, 1936 (as Essad Bey) 
  • Reza Shah: Feldherr, Kaiser, Reformator, 1936 (as Essad-bey) - Reza Shah (translated by Paul Maerker Branden and Elsa Branden, 1938)
  • Lenin, 1937
  • Ali und Nino: Roman, 1937 (as Kurban Said) - Ali and Nino (translated by Jenia Garman, 1970) - Ali ja Nino (suom. Irmeli Sallamo, 1972)
  • Die Prinzessin vom goldenen Horn, 1938 (as Kurban Said) - Das Mädchen vom Goldenen Horn: Roman (mit einer biographischen Notiz des Autors und mit einem Nachwort von Radhia Shukrullah, 2001) - The Girl from the Golden Horn (translated by Jenia Garman, 2001)
  • Giustizia Rossa, 1938 (translated by Mario Bacchelli)

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