Excerpt from The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Orientalist

Solving The Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life

By Tom Reiss

The Orientalist
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2005,
    464 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2006,
    480 pages.

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Educated Azeris I met seemed to consider it their national novel, telling me that they could show me the street, square, or schoolhouse where almost every scene had taken place. There was a resurgence of interest in the late 1990s in this small romantic novel from the late 1930s, though nobody seemed exactly sure why. I paid a call on an Iranian film producer who occupied a lavishly refurbished suite in a collapsing old mansion, and who explained to me his plans to make a movie of the book. (When the money didn't come through, he instead produced the Baku location scenes for a James Bond movie.) Another day I visited the National Literary Society, a Stalin-era building, where the chairman filled me in on the simmering dispute in Azeri academic and government circles over the novel's authorship. Kurban Said's identity had long been a subject of speculation, he explained, but fortunately, the issue had now been resolved: Kurban Said was the pseudonym for Josef Vezir, an Azeri author whose sons, the Veziroffs, had been very active in making sure his memory was preserved, and that he receive credit for Azerbaijan's national novel.

But when I got a copy of some short stories and novellas by Vezir, I was surprised that anyone could give this theory credence. Vezir was clearly an ardent Azeri nationalist whose novellas openly stated that ethnic and cultural mixing was a bad idea and a betrayal of the motherland. In Ali and Nino, Kurban Said offers nothing less than a passionate endorsement of ethnic, cultural, and religious mixing. The warmest passages in the novel describe the cosmopolitan Caucasus on the eve of the revolution–when a hundred races and all the major religious groups fought together only in battles of poetry in the marketplace–and the message seems to be that the separation of peoples is hideous and genocidal.

A few nights later, while I was supposed to be in a disco hanging out with young oil boomers from London and Moscow, I convinced Fuad to let me use the Interpol offices to interview one of the Veziroff brothers. The brother had gone so far as to appear before the Azeri Parliament to insist that his father had written Ali and Nino and that the scenes about interethnic love had been slipped in by a malicious translator. I had the vague hope that the atmosphere of the interrogation room might help get at the truth; however, my meeting with the bald, serious fellow in a sagging gray Soviet-style suit produced only an endless stream of documentation that proved nothing but that most everyone in Baku wanted to claim the novel for his or her own reasons.

The introduction to the English copy of the novel I had wasn't much help, either: " 'Kurban Said' is a pen-name and no one seems to know for certain the real name of the man who chose it. . . . He was by nationality a Tartar [who died] . . . where, and under what circumstances, I do not know and I do not think anyone knows." Wherever I went, Kurban Said seemed to pursue me.

The single book for sale in English in the gift shop of Baku's Hyatt Regency Hotel, where I was staying, was a smudgy-looking paperback called Blood and Oil in the Orient. On its cover, printed just above a sepia photo of a Caspian gusher and a bunch of oilmen in fur hats, the text stated that it was by "the author of Ali & Nino," whose name was given as "Essad-Bey" and beneath that, in parentheses, as "Lev Naussimbaum." What happened to Kurban Said? A foreword by an Azeri scholar attempted to clarify matters: 

Essad-Bey, the narrator of the tales in this book, eventually converted to Judaism and chose the name Lev Naussimbaum. . . . He then moves on to Berlin where he joins a circle of German intellectuals. In the early thirties, he travels to Vienna. Eventually, he publishes his beautiful novel, "Ali and Nino," under the pseudonym of Kurban Said. . . . In 1938 he tried to escape the German onslaught. Soon he was arrested and moved to Italy. There, in 1942, he stabbed himself in the foot and died of this self-inflicted wound.

I doubted that anyone would convert to Judaism just before moving to Germany in the late 1920s. But why would this Essad Bey change his name to "Lev Naussimbaum" and then Kurban Said? Could the national novel of Azerbaijan have been written by someone named Naussimbaum? And what did either of these people have to do with Kurban Said? Blood and Oil in the Orient carried the subtitle "Petroleum Industry and Trade in Azerbaijan"–it was hard to imagine that this was the same author who had written Ali and Nino. 

Excerpted from The Orientalist by Tom Reiss Copyright © 2005 by Tom Reiss. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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