Alias Bey and Said

When my mother was nine years old, she had read all the books in the small country school. The teacher recommended her to read something from her father's library and so she did. I don't think she asked her father for permission, because the first two books she picked are not especially suitable for young children. "Blood and Oil in the Orient" and "Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus" namely contain stories of genocide, rape, war, murder and so on. They also include wonderful fairy-tale-like stories about knights and castles, heroism and bravery, strange customs and remote villages, sunny deserts and stormy seas - all though the eyes of a young boy. They were so exciting that my mother has yearned to visit the Caucasus ever since.

When I started to read these books this spring, I became interested in the author Essad Bey, since especially the first book was supposed to be a kind of autobiography. However, when I looked it up on Wikipedia it turned out that it was a pen name and behind it was a man called Lev Nussimbaum.

I was a bit weary to tell my mother this, since the books had meant a lot to her. As it turned out, the story of Lev Nussimbaum was even more intricate than the two books. His story has been captured by Tom Reiss in The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. Amazon describes his book like this:

"A thrilling page-turner of epic proportions, Tom Reiss’s panoramic bestseller tells the true story of a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany. Lev Nussimbaum escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan and, as “Essad Bey,” became a celebrated author with the enduring novel Ali and Nino as well as an adventurer, a real-life Indiana Jones with a fatal secret. Reiss pursued Lev’s story across ten countries and found himself caught up in encounters as dramatic and surreal–and sometimes as heartbreaking–as his subject’s life."

During his short life, Lev Nussimbaum managed to produce an astonishing number of articles, novels and biographies. He depicted Stalin, Lenin, Mohammed, Reza Shah of Iran and many more. For some he used his first pen name Essad Bey. Towards the end of his life, he wrote his most famous book: Ali and Nino. According to Tom Reiss, that is, who claims that Nussimbaum is the man behind the pseudonym Kurban Said.

In her review of Reiss' book, Veronica Horwell ends with these words:

"Reiss, through obsessed sleuthing, has retrieved a believable liar and revealed a secret, the last notebooks of Lev-Essad-Kurban, purportedly a novel called The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love. He decently respects the connections inconsequence can make, from the Interpol officer who hooked him on Ali and Nino to the chance arrival at his Manhattan dinnertable of the last heir to the Ottoman sultanate. And his descriptions of cities of exile resonate so in a time of transit that I hope his next book will be a history of diaspora capitals."

Criticism of the sources was apparently not so important in Sweden in the 1930s, because when I look at the cover of the Swedish edition of "Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus" it includes three positive reviews of "Blood and Oil in the Orient". Among them one by Professor Carl Skottsberg, the creator of the Göteborg Botanical Garden. Somewhat of an adventurer himself, he still had time to write book reviews for the former newspaper Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning, renowned for its anti-Nazi profile. I'm not sure what Skottberg would have written, had he known the true identity of the author and of his ambivalent attitude towards the developments in Germany and Italy.
From Azaleadalen Botaniska 2013
I'm sorry that I didn't know all this when I visited Positano in 2001 with my mother. Then we surely would have visited Lev-Essad-Kurban's grave like Elizabeth Kiem did:

"But one headstone prefers the direct exposure of Tyrrhenian sun. It wears a turban in place of a cross. It faces away from Positano, south towards the next outcrop of a town. It is the resting place of Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said, author of that tale of Azeri star-crossed lovers, Ali and Nino. In Positano he is known as “The Muslim.” Thanks to Tom Reiss, he is also known by his birth name, Lev Nussimbaum.

I like to think of him as the Weimar Scheherazade."

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