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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  • First Published:
    Feb 2005, 464 pages
    Mar 2006, 480 pages

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But then I noticed odd similarities between the novel and the oil book–of village duels between fighting poets, in which beggars and aristocrats, Christians and Muslims, would meet on an appointed day and recite insulting doggerel at each other, all the while sweating and cursing, until one was declared the victor. (In the novel, the winner spits when asked how it feels to have prevailed: "There is no victory, sir. In former times there were victories. In those days art was held in high esteem.") Though the narrative style of the novel was more assured, the almost Ozlike quality of prerevolutionary Azerbaijan was vivid in both. Their poignancy was amplified by the fact that the villages of the fighting poets were in Nagorno Karabakh–a place virtually destroyed in the 1990s by a vicious Muslim-Christian border war, where the weapons were anything but similes and metaphors.

One day, when we were touring the decayed grand mansion of Teymur Bey Ashurbekov, with its peeling stairwell frescoes of cavorting maidens, Fuad asked me if I would like to meet the daughters of its original owner–the two surviving members of the Ashurbekov family, Sara and Miriam (now Ashurbeyly, since the post-Soviet Azeri government was Turkicizing everyone's names). Aged ninety-two and ninety-four, they were among the only surviving children of the oil millionaires still alive in Baku, I thought we would find them here, in some dank corner of the mansion, but instead we got back in the little white car and drove to a depressing late-Soviet-era building, where we climbed the back stairs and were ushered into a tiny flat by the younger of the ancient sisters, Miriam. Her sister, Sara, sat waiting for us next to a pot of tea and a very dusty looking box of chocolates. The sisters' extensive library was crushed into a tiny living space along with their laundry, pantry, dining table, and twelve cats. Despite the opposition of the state, they had carved out distinguished careers for themselves: Miriam was a geologist, and Sara was Azerbaijan's leading medieval historian.

Speaking to me in the German and French they had learned as children, the sisters recalled their lives before the revolution. They told me how their father had invited people of all nationalities and stations of life to their mansion, preferring to acknowledge an elite based on intelligence and education rather than social status, even though he had been born into privilege and come upon great wealth (the family had financed two of Baku's four mosques). They showed me stacks of dusty photographs–men in fezzes and evening dress on the way to the opera, camels walking alongside Rolls-Royces–and they described the wide circle of friends their parents entertained at home, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews, all the children of the capitalist set, mixed at banquets, games, and lavish parties. Most of all, Ashurbekov had valued European culture. His daughters remembered their Baku as a place where Islam and the Orient were filtered through a multicultural European lens polished by frequent trips to the West.

"My father often had to work," said Sara, "but he always said to my mother: 'Take the children to Europe!' " She showed me a photo of herself surrounded by little blond children in Germanic costume.

"This is me in Baden-Baden in 1913. I had just won the beauty contest," said Sara. "My sister, Miriam, started crying, and she said to our mother, 'But you always said I was the most beautiful one, how come Sara won?'

'Because you are too small,' replied our mother. 'When we come back next year, you will win.' But next year was the First World War, and then the Bolsheviks came, and none of us ever went back to Europe again."

The Ashurbekovs brought out a final picture, a group photo of their last Christmas party, on the eve of the Great War. Sara's bony finger pointed to the faces as the sisters recalled the names, nationalities, and religions of every child in the room, children of the oil barons, drillers, and servants alike–Azeri, Armenian, Muslim, Jewish, German, French, Russian–and what happened to each of them after the invasion of the Red Army in 1920: the pretty pink-cheeked girl in a gypsy headdress in the second row, the gangly boy with Indian features dressed like a Cossack in the back next to the tree, a little blond boy in a tightly buttoned suit who was probably one of the Nobel brood, though they couldn't quite see his face. Then, seated in the middle, in the third row, was a little boy with big ears and a rather arrogant but bold and open expression, staring directly into the camera, his arms crossed defiantly, a velvet jacket buttoned over a floppy Lord Fauntleroy collar.

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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