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

3.87  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,505 Ratings  ·  247 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, Random House Trade Paperback Edition, 447 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
Feb 04, 2015 Jeff rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jul 07, 2008 Hanaan rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 09, 2011 Chrissie rated it really liked it
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
Jul 23, 2008 Steve rated it really liked it
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
(Previously read in June, 2009.)

The Second Time Around

I've decided that this year (2016) I'll undertake an experiment, of sorts, to read books which I've rated highly some time back but which I haven't written reviews for or have only a vague memory of to see how they fare "the second time around."

This is not to be confused with my occasional rereading of perennial favorites such as Jane Austen, E.F. Benson, or Arthur Conan Doyle ("comfort reads"). No, I'm genuinely curious to see how the passa
Babak Fakhamzadeh
A few years ago, I was given the novel Ali and Nino: A Love Story by someone working at a client of mine. The book, on an 'impossible' love affair between a muslim boy and a christian girl, set in pre-revolution (that is, pre-Russian revolution) Baku in Azarbaijan, is an amazing masterpiece. The author, then listed as Kurban Said, was a bit of a mystery, as it was quite unclear who the person actually was, the assumption being that he was a Russian Jew, originally from Baku, who had fled from th ...more
Carl Rollyson
Aug 15, 2012 Carl Rollyson rated it it was amazing

"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
Dec 17, 2012 Stuart rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
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
Turhan Dilmaç
Aug 09, 2015 Turhan Dilmaç rated it liked it
The curious, even bizarre story of Lev Nissambaum aka Essad Bey.

Or we should prefer his purported pen name Kurban Said, author of Ali and Nino which is considered an Azeri national classic although written in German by an Ashkenazi Jew.

Lev, Essad (Lion in Arabic which makes sense) or Said was a son of an Jewish moghul of the first Baku oil boom; albeit he claimed to be a descentant of great Muslim Turkish and Persian extraction and indeed he dubiously converted to Islam at the Ottoman Turkish I
Nov 29, 2012 Sarah rated it liked it
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
May 31, 2009 Jessica rated it really liked it
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
Feb 14, 2008 Charlaralotte rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 22, 2013 Michael rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 02, 2008 Tom rated it liked it
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
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
Aug 21, 2012 Virlys rated it did not like it
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 Corto 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
Dec 15, 2014 Jeremy rated it really liked it
Great book. The story of Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey is pretty crazy, and tragic. But the real benefit I got out of this book was learning what life was really like between the two world wars in Europe. How people were actually pro-monarchy and pro-fascist because the Nazis and Communists were so awful. The detail here is not something you get out of history books. And how Jews and Muslims lived in Europe and were perceived by Europeans. And what life was like for the different cultures all living ...more
May 21, 2012 Becky rated it liked it
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
May 28, 2007 Gela Tevzadze rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
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
Mar 05, 2016 William rated it really liked it
This is really two stories -- the story of Lev Nussimbaum ("The Orientalist") and a summary of Jewish history in the first third of the 20th Century. The flaw in the book is this is too much to do in a single volume, and each story falls a bit short.

Lev is fascinating, but somehow after a long read, I still had no sense of knowing him. I don't see this as really Reiss' fault. He has done meticulous research and found just about all that one could, more than one would expect. But why Lev was who
May 09, 2015 Lianne added it
This is a literary mystery for an obscure audience, following the improbably life of Lev Nussimbaum, who was born in Baku Azerbajian and died in Positano, Italy. Lev was torn between a nostalgia for the exotic "old" East, and a need for a cosmopolitan Western urban world. If someone were to cast his horoscope, there would surely be conflicted placements in his stars. He had to flee Baku with his father, an oil baron of the first wave of boom times in Baku for the relative calm of Persia. (This m ...more
Feb 19, 2015 Bruce rated it it was ok
Picked up this biography from my mother-in-law, but had to abandon it about 150 or so pages in. The fault likely lies more in my current interests than in the work, which reads well enough. I just couldn't bring myself to care about the subject matter, one Liova Nussimbaum (aka Essad Bey aka Kurban Said).

The protagonist is the author of a Baku-centric romance beloved by Azerbaijanis, the Jewish son of an accidental Baku oil baron. The book follows his travels as he runs first from violent, overt
Nov 02, 2014 Rosebud rated it liked it
I found this book at the library while looking for the book "Ali and Nino." The library didn't list "Ali and Nino" but listed this book about the author of "Ali and Nino," so I picked it up. There has been a lot of controversy about who the author really was, but the conclusion is that it is truly Kurban Said. Said was a pen name (one of a few other names) used by Lev Nussinbaum (aka Essad Bey). Lev reinvented his story more than once throughout his short life of just 34 years, which opened the ...more
Robert Ronsson
Dec 18, 2014 Robert Ronsson rated it really liked it
The writer uses the life and odyssey of Lev Nussimbaum to display a bewildering number of facts regarding the people and places that the hero encountered in his relatively short life. As each region or personage enters the narrative Reiss provides another back-story and thereby creates a complex collage of geographical and social history that is at once absorbing and perplexing.
I found it necessary to refer to an atlas and constantly turn back to pages where characters first appeared in order to
Feb 27, 2014 Joanna rated it liked it
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
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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.
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