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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After 1945, rather than being rewarded for having fueled the Russian victory, Azerbaijan saw many of its citizens deported to Siberia and its oil industry allowed to languish. The fin de siècle oil-boom city was deliberately ignored, forgotten, taking on a deserted, vaguely eerie quality, so that even today it is possible to imagine that one has wandered into some unusually sooty Right Bank neighborhood in Paris, mysteriously abandoned by its inhabitants.

My guide to Baku was Fuad Akhundov, a muscular young fellow who worked as an agent of Interpol, the international police agency, but seemed to spend most of his time sleuthing his city's hidden past. Growing up in the Soviet era, Fuad had always wondered about the lost culture that had built the decaying mansions all around him, so he began investigating the city's history, mansion to mansion, house to house. Fuad seemed to know the decaying mansions of Baku like members of his own family. "I entered these edifices, asking if anyone knew the descendants of the owner," he told me as we drove around the city in his battered Russian car. "As a policeman, I knew that often people who think they know nothing can provide vital information, so I used the crafts of interrogation, getting people to recall things their dead grandparents or parents mentioned to them over the course of the years." Fuad spoke fluent English that made him sound a bit like a nineteenth-century novel. When he needed to go somewhere, he would say things like "Now your humble servant must beg to take his leave, as he must attend to some pressing police matters."

As we explored Baku's medieval ramparts, nineteenth-century mansions, Zoroastrian temples, and palace gardens straight out of The Arabian Nights, Fuad rarely stopped talking. "From here I could see my world, the massive wall of the town's fortress and the ruins of the palace, Arab inscriptions at the gate," he rhapsodized. "Through the labyrinth of streets camels were walking, their ankles so delicate that I wanted to caress them. In front of me rose the squat Maiden's Tower, surrounded by legends and tourist guides. And behind the tower the sea began, the utterly faceless, leaden, unfathomable Caspian Sea, and beyond, the desert–jagged rocks and scrub: still, mute, unconquerable, the most beautiful landscape in the world." 

It took me a while to realize that he was quoting, and that the passage was from Ali and Nino. 

The mere smell of the air in a certain part of town would cause Fuad to launch into a quotation from the novel, and often we would stop in front of some Viennese imperial-style edifice–with holes where stone portraits of famous Communists had once been added to the design–and he would say, as though describing an event from history: "That is the girls' school where Ali first saw Nino with his cousin Ayeshe. We can be sure because of this doorway, which is approximately four hundred paces from the original door of the old Baku Russian Boys Gymnasium, which was destroyed during the fighting in 1918 . . ."

It could have been like one of those morbid literary tours of places mentioned in Chekhov or Pushkin, but Fuad's love of Ali and Nino seemed of an entirely different order. "This novel made me discover my country, it made me discover the whole world that lay beneath my feet, buried by the Soviet system," he told me one night as we sat in the empty Interpol headquarters at three in the morning. "Only this one book–this Romeo and Juliet story at the height of the oil boom, between a Christian girl and a Muslim boy, it tears away the fabric which has covered me growing up here in Soviet Baku like a shroud, like a funeral veil dropped by the bloodiest version of the West, the inhuman Bolshevik Revolution, upon this fantastic world of the highest cultural and human aspirations– the hope of the total merger of East and West into something new and modern–which existed for but a moment in time. Can you imagine it?" Fuad said. "Kurban Said is like my lifeline. Without him, I would be trapped here in my own city and not really be able to feel or understand the beauty and yet tragic forces that are beneath my very nose." Fuad's obsession with Ali and Nino was shared by many people in Baku.

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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