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

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  2,398 ratings  ·  348 reviews
'Mixing memory with desire, this marvelous and original book once more reminds us of ways through which the imagination becomes a refuge from the uncontrollable cruelties of reality.'

Part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery, The Orientalist traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-sellin
Paperback, Random House Trade Paperback Edition, 447 pages
Published March 14th 2006 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published February 15th 2005)
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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 ·  2,398 ratings  ·  348 reviews

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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
Nov 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It is hard to fathom that 2019 is winding down. For the last two months I am focusing on books that have been on my to read pile for the longest and books by authors that I have previously read and enjoyed. Reading mainly nonfiction has been enlightening even if I didn’t stick to my original plan to read twenty Pulitzer winners. One Pulitzer winner I did read back in January was The Black Count about the real life inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo. Needing a fast paced adventure to pique ...more
Mar 28, 2013 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
Jacob Overmark
Tom Reiss is taking you on a true tour de force trough Caucasus, Russia and Germany during the first 3 decades of the 20th century.

Not alone are we given a rare insight into the first stages of what would, for good or bad, become the Soviet Union, but also glimpses of the various political and religious societies that played each their part - on both sides - of the Bolshevik revolution.
As history is repeating in Germany and in Italy, by choice or by accident, Lev Nussimbaum happens to turn up ev
Jun 21, 2008 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
Nov 24, 2009 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


For Lolek,
who showed me how to travel,
and Julie,
who keeps me from going too far.
I wish they had met.

Opening: On a cold morning in Vienna, I walked a maze of narrow streets on the way to see a man who promised to solve the mystery of Kurban Said.

It's hard to warm to the chameleon, Lev, however his times were eye-poppingly interesting/terrifying; he was forever out of the frying-pan and into the fire and it could be this reason that he kept shape-shifying Zelig-style. Re-inventing ones
Feb 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, audio
"The first duty in life is to assume a pose. What the second one is, nobody knows." Oscar Wilde

Reiss is an indefatigable researcher. That's a virtue and a flaw in his writing. How much back story is good for a story? Mind you, it's all fascinating -- brilliant primers on European, Middle Eastern, and Asian history, and all told with narrative panache -- but there were times when I felt like we were getting deep in historical weeds thick enough to choke the main story of Nussimbaum's life, and at
Jo Walton
Mar 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I bought this book because Nicholas Whyte made it sound very interesting, and then I kept it lying about on the Kindle for ages without starting it. When I did, I raced through it. Fascinating, well written book about a very strange person.

One of the things I like about biographies is that people's lives resist periodization and also geography. You get histories of times and places where the times and places are cut neatly along lines, but biography crosses those lines. Lev Nussimbaum, Essan Bey
Margaret Sankey
Jul 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing
If you're a teenaged Jew fleeing the Bolshies in 1917 Odessa, what better way to enjoy Western Europe than remaking yourself into a fake Arab prince. Marry an American heiress, work for fascist Italian publishers and enjoy the Roaring 20s and early 30s...until German agents start to sniff out who you really are... ...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
(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
D.  St. Germain
Jul 19, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
One of the most riviting and epic biographies/historical recreations I've encountered. ...more
Dec 17, 2012 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
Feb 14, 2008 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 about relatio
Jun 13, 2008 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
May 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Carl Rollyson
Aug 15, 2012 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
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
Gela Tevzadze
May 28, 2007 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
Richard Levine
Dec 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
Finally, a work of popular non-fiction that lives up to its elaborate subtitle! Yes, there actually is quite a mystery about the life of Lev Nussimbaum (aka Essad Bey, aka Kurban Said); and his life was indeed utterly strange and often dangerous; and it appears, based on the evidence presented in the book, that author Tom Reiss has solved it! It's a wild, far-flung story, mixing elements of biography, history, and real-life sleuthing by Reiss.

In short: Before taking a journey to Azerbaijan in t
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
Magnus Laursen
Feb 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant book, expertly shifting between the life of the extraordinary Lev Nussimbaum and the historical events that took place during his life.

Gives a great overview of Russia, Europe and the Caucasus in the eventful first three decades of the 20th century.

Tom Reiss is a very skilful detective and storyteller, and I already look forward to reading another historical biography by him.
Dec 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
It has taken me quite a long time to read this biography of Kurban Said (born as the Russian Jew Lev Nussinbaum and also know as the writer Essad Bey). Though born in Russia, as a baby Lev with his parents went to live in Baku, Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, where his father made millions in oil. The Russian Revolution and World War I caused Lev and his father to flee Baku, and travel around Central Asia trying to stay out of the clutches of the Bolsheviks. Lev became enamored of the Asiatic tr ...more
A. Sacit
Sep 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: orientalism
Superb! A very enjoyable and informative read overall. The author expended a tremendous effort towards bringing to light a once-well-known author in the early 20th century, lev Nussimbaum- a.k.a. Essad Bey or Kurban Said, from obscurity. Nussimbaum, born in 1905 in Baku (Azerbaijan) to Jewish parents, comes through as an enigmatic character who was enamored with cultures of the Orient and Islam, in search of an identity for himself, but continuously changing as he found himself immersed in the d ...more
Nov 29, 2012 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
Turhan Dilmaç
Jul 21, 2015 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
Erik Graff
Jan 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Erik by: Dorothy Gregory
Shelves: biography
This is a biography-as-mystery in that its subject mystified, concealed and confabulated his exotic identity from an early age. He was, in fact, of Jewish birth when being Jewish was most inconvenient, i.e. in pre-war Nazi Germany and wartime fascist Italy. He was, however, understood by many to be, among other things, a Moslem, a Russian aristocrat, even a woman.

Author Reiss explores the life of Lev Nussimbaum through interviews with many who knew him and by unpacking archives all over the wor
Aug 06, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommended to dianne by: Claire
an offering, a toast, to survival in the radically changing world of early 20th century Europe, by the power of intellect and imagination. If strong enough, these can be counted on to support one's redefinition, and one's future. But, ultimately, Lev / Essad / Kurban was without a community of believers; others who believed in like possibilities, in magic.
Without a community that is beyond betrayal even the finest ideas, the widest possibilities, are limited.
Iñaki Tofiño
May 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely loved it!
Great research and scholarship not only on Lev Nussimbaum but also on East-West relations during the first half of the XXth century, Jewish Orientalism, Zionism, European colonialism, Nazi Germany... Even if not all points are well developed (the case for Nussimbaum's authorship of Ali and Nino, for example), it reads like a novel and whether you agree with the author's points or not, you are in for a great time!
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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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