The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
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The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

3.88 of 5 stars 3.88  ·  rating details  ·  1,101 ratings  ·  210 reviews
"Lev Nussimbaum was a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. Born in 1905 to a wealthy family in the oil-boom city of Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the names Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable b...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published March 14th 2006 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published 2005)
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The Orientalist is, in the end, the story of one man’s accidental obsessive search for another man’s story. While in Baku (present day capital of Azerbaijan) writing a story about the revival of the oil business, Tom Reiss is handed a copy of Ali and Nino by a person called “Kurban Said,” and told that this book is both the Azeri “national novel” and the best introduction to the city he could possibly have. Soon, he finds that there is a huge controversy over the identity of the author- despite...more
Tom Reiss tells a fascinating story of his search for the elusive author Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said. Nussimbaum, a famous writer (“Ali and Nino”) during the 20’s and 30’s, was a Jewish writer who converted to Islam and spent much of his life in Berlin during the formative Nazi years. His life was one of reinventing himself, either out of some yearning for a simpler pre-revolutionary time or for self-preservation.

He grew up in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan. His mother was a Russi...more
Oct 09, 2011 Chrissie rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Chrissie by: Inder
Having recently completed Ali and Nino: A Love Story and having given it 5 stars, I wanted to know more about the author. The author Lev Nussimbaum, born a Jew, used the pen name Kurban Said. Actually both this book and The Girl from the Golden Horn were registered under the author Elfriede Ehrenfels in the German Nazi document Deutscher Gesamkatalog for the years 1935-1939! Who was this guy?! Why all the different names? He left Judaism and converted to the Islamic faith. This was not motivated...more
I'd give this more than 5 stars if I could. It was so unusual. It is written as a biography, but really more of a history. I learned so much fascinating stuff about Central Asia, about which really very little great material is written these days (Baku, in Azerbaijan, has been an oil boom town from the ancient to the modern world.) It also dealt heavily on the influence of the Bolshevik revolutions on the rest of Europe and how that played into WWII, which was still well done though more well kn...more
Carl Rollyson

"Who is this Essad Bey?" Trotsky asked in a 1932 letter to his son. By then, this mysterious writer had written bestselling biographies of Mohammed and Stalin, a book on the oil industry in Baku (in the early 20th century the Texas of the Caucasus), and a steady stream of articles on literary and political subjects from Tolstoy and Dreiser to the Ottomans and Americans ("American History in Five Hundred Words").

In one photograph he appears as a sporty figure in a fez; in another he is dressed as...more
Jul 23, 2008 Steve rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Moors, lovers of history
The Orientalist was a fascinating portrait of the son of a Jewish oil millionaire from Azerbaijan, Lev Nussimbaum, who reinvents himself as Essad Bey and becomes a best-selling author. There is interesting consideration of a lost, benevolent form of Orientalism, pan-semitism, the longing some Jews once had to close the gap with their Muslum brethren. Lev/ Essad was witness to the horrors of the Bolshevik revolution, and linked to it via his mysterious, revolutionary mother who killed herself by...more
I was captivated by the first 150 pages of this book, with its descriptions of 19th-century Baku. It made me really want to visit Azerbaijan and Georgia. The second half was a disappointment, though I don't think the author is wholly to blame. Reiss clearly worked very hard to find out everything he could about his elusive subject, and I credit him for sticking to facts even when it meant leaving gaping holes in the story. Unfortunately, I don't think he turned up enough material to carry a 340-...more
Entirely engrossing, but be warned...there's a lot of history in this book. A lot. Mr. Reiss moves from one war-torn country to another in his quest to hunt down Kurban Said, and along the way gives the sweeping history of Lev Nussimbaum.

While the history is relevant to Lev's life, there's a lot more history of the country, the politics, the people and the literary movements. I enjoyed the glimpses into the exotic places that I didn't really know a lot (or in some cases, knew nothing at all) abo...more
Feb 14, 2008 Charlaralotte rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Charlaralotte by: The NY Times Books Review
Shelves: read-in-2007
I picked this book up in Newark Airport & read it all during my trip to Portugal. What a find!

Suddenly all the history preceding WWI & II & the creation of Israel was spelled out for me. Fascinating story of solving the mystery of Lev Nussbaum's eclectic life as a Jew, as a Muslim, as a writer...

Just learning that at the turn of the 20th Century, the British proposed moving Jews into Palestine to "stabilize the situation."???!!!! Lord, everything we have been taught to think today a...more
It is was revealing to see a book that breaks so many modern days assumptions and shows that there is more than one way of seeing the world and explaining people behaviors.
People in the past had not have had benefits of our knowledge of how historic events have developed, and we cannot judge them based on what we know now.
This book is about a fascinating (stranger than in a novel) life of Jew from Baku who as teenager ran for his life from red army, converted to Islam and pretended to be a Musli...more
On the surface this is a biography of an enigmatic man named Lev Nussinbaum who lived through the turbulent first four decades of the twentieth century. Lev was the jewish son of an oil millionaire from Baku, Azerbaijan. While the Bolshevik revolution forced he and his father to flee westward, eventually to Germany, he always identified with Central Asia, and Islam. He re-invented himself several times, usually masquerading as an Arabian prince. He became a famous author of the time under the na...more
Lev Nussimbaum was a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany. Born in 1905 to a wealthy family in the oil-boom city of Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the name of Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution became celebrated throughout fascist Europe. His enduring master...more
Nicholas Whyte[return][return]This is a biography of the author of Ali and Nino, the insufficiently famous great romantic novel of the South Caucasus. Although Ali and Nino was published under the pseudonym of "Kurban Said", the author was born Lev Nussimbaum, apparently on a train in 1905, and grew up in Baku where his father, a minor oil magnate, was doing good business with the Swedish Nobel brothers (of dynamite, and the Nobel Prizes); his mother may well have invited...more
Lev Nussimbaum...upper-middle-class Ukrainian Jewish boy raised in Baku just before the Great War...who reinvents himself as Kurban Said, a Muslim Azeri Turkish princeling, a right-wing journalist in Weimar Germany, society husband, friend of a host of shadowy political and high-society figures, and who ends up in Mussolini's Italy as a pro-Fascist targeted by the Nazis as a Jew...and as the author of "Ali and Nino", a world-famous novel of love and war in the Caucasus, a book regarded as the Az...more
The main reason I didn't rate this higher is that although it is a nonfiction book, the review quoted on the book's cover, "Spellbinding history...part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga...The Orientalist is completely fascinating" does not ring true for me. It was more spinach than dessert for me. Although there were some fascinating bits, it certainly did not for me rise to the level of another promotional quote used by the publisher "For sheer reading pleasure...this book...more
Bookmarks Magazine

Reiss persistently peeled away layers of fact and fiction to recount a remarkable life. He was also lucky: his subject's elusiveness made ferreting out truth difficult, but Reiss discovered six of Nussimbaum's notebooks in the possession of his last editor. Critics agree that The Orientalist fascinates from both a biographical and cultural perspective-it's rich in exotic settings and characters, from an Austrian baroness to a former Hollywood starlet. Despite its charm, the book has some faults.

Jul 29, 2011 HA added it
At some point in his young life, someone must've stood over Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey/Kurban Said and issued the age old curse, "May you have an interesting life", because the subject of this book certainly fulfilled that fate. "The Orientalist" is part detective story- unraveling the question behind the authorship of Azerbaijan's defining novel ("Ali and Nino") and part history of Jewish identity and the Russian Revolution in the Caucuses. The book also examines the intellectual, cultural and in...more
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
Part biography, part history. I enjoyed it at first and felt like I was learning a fair bit. Then the chapter on Weimar Germany happened and for me it never really got better--possibly just because life intervened and I wanted to get done with the book already, which is never the best mood for reading, but possibly because the history was explained in too dense a fashion, with too much time spent on the life stories of people who encountered Lev Nussimbaum at some point, or didn't but were impor...more
I need to re-read this as the history is worth the book alone. While the theme is based around a search for the "truth" behind Lev Nussimbaun aka Essad Bey, the actual book's value is in its history of multiple revolutions mid-19th and early 20th century plus description of the Jewish, Muslim, Christian context during this time. Lev is born Jewish but is constantly reinventing himself, eventually converting to Muslim and passing off as "the Orientalist." I had to read it in chopped up segments a...more
Gela Tevzadze
A must-read for everyone who is familiar with "Ali and Nino" and is interested in the true identity of Qurban Said (aka Essad Bey, aka Lev Nissimbaum). This is one of the few cases when the adventures and exploits of an author are no less - may be quite a bit more - entertaining and exciting than the life of his heroes.
Tom Reiss did a marvelous job putting together the most convincing theory unveiling the identity of Qurban Said, and an equally admirable effort is devoted to uncovering the flaws...more
The story of Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey is definitely an interesting one: A writer who transformed himself from a Jew to a Muslim in a period in history where both identities could put one at risk. It is a time span in history that is particularly fascinating, and I am glad that I took the time to learn more about it. However,it was a tough book for me to get through. It is short on narrative plot and character development, despite being focussed on the life history of a particular individual. It...more
May 02, 2013 Julie rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Julie by: Kelly
"It’s just an amazing, exhilarating book from which I learned so much, a visceral experience of finding oneself seemingly literally against all the world. The Self triumphant, somehow, in a system that wants to destroy every last trace of it. I can't even express, I don't think, all that is amazing about this book."--Kelly
Travel across few countries with changing identity from a Jew from Baku, who escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan, to a Muslim prince. Lev Nussimbaum became celebrated as an adventurer and real-life Indiana Jones. Great story about dramtic, surreal, but real, and sometimes heartbreaking life.
This book revives a world in which a Jewish-Islamic utopia was an idea seriously considered and worked for by many-- who remembers it now? Of many marvelous nuggets, my favorite is the origin of the Nazi Sieg Heil-- modeled on the Harvard football rally "Harvard, Harvard, rah, rah, rah!"
This was an interesting and highly readable book. The tale of a Jewish immigrant from Baku Azerbaijan who went on to convince the world that he was a Muslim prince named Essad Bey and further wrote a bestselling love story. The historic details of early Baku are worth the read alone.
Patrick Smith
This was a book suggested to me by a particularly eccentric book shop owner in Antalya, Turkey. I took him up on the offer and was not disappointed. Though I wasn't all that impressed with the story of Essed Bey aka Lev Nussimbaum aka Kurban Said, I was impressed and interested in the historical aspects of his adventure from Bolshevik assaulted Baku through Persia, Georgia and Turkestan. To then find himself in Weimar era Berlin with war in the streets. Its like Lev followed the most newsworthy...more
The first third of this book was a fascinating portrait of a place I knew almost nothing about (Azerbaijan) during a time that was extremely turbulent for that area (The Russian Revolution). The book was almost un-put-downable as Reiss described the way the oil reserves were so close to the surface that the desert would burn on fire for days at a time.

Unfortunately, once our protagonist and his father are forced to flee Baku, the book devolves into a tangled mess of places and characters with o...more
I almost never read biography, but this was one of the most interesting books I've read in a long time. It covers the life of a mysterious novelist who starts his life as a Jew but spends much of his life as a Muslim (or perhaps pretending to be, it is very unclear even today.) What makes this such a good read is that the writer details the interesting moment in history in which this figure lives. He grows up in the Black Sea region just as the Russian Revolution is coming, escapes to the West d...more
Lev Nussimbaum was born in Kiev in 1905, and grew up in Baku, the only son of a Tiflis-born Ashkenazi Jewish oil millionaire. Lev's mother died when he was 5, and his father hired a German governess, thanks to whom Lev became fluent in German. Lev's pampered childhood was shattered by the Russian Revolution. He later wrote that father and son tried to escape the revolution first in 1918, by traveling through Turkestan and Persia, though the details of the journey sound fantastic and no documents...more
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TOM REISS is the author of the celebrated international bestseller The Orientalist. His biographical pieces have appeared The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. He lives with his wife and daughters in New York City.
More about Tom Reiss...
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo Blood and Oil in the Orient: My childhood in Baku and my hair-raising escape through the Caucasus Twelve Secrets in the Caucasus Führer-Ex: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi

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