Lev and Kurban

Culture and Media

After reading Amardeep’s post on the subject last year, Kurban Said has been at the back of my mind. So when I found a copy of The Orientalist at the Strand on my last visit, I picked it up. The author, Tom Reiss, spent five years on the trail of Kurban Said, the author of Azerbaijan’s national novel, Ali and Nino, it turns out that Kurban Said was Lev Nussimbaum, an Azeri Jew, who also called himself Essad Bey, converted to Islam, wrote several popular books and article on Islam, the Middle East, the scourge of Bolshevism, and a well respected biography of Stalin.

I enjoyed the book enormously, despite the author getting carried away, at times, with his subject’s enthusiasms. I mean, what in the world is a Muslim” garb? I thought Turks dressed differently from Indians, who dressed differently from Egyptians, and so on, unless the author was using the term ironically, and I don’t think he was. Regardless of these slippages (after all, Orientalism is entertaining), the book itself reveals a complicated and contradictory person, who is never-the-less a product of his time.

Its been interesting to read the book reviews. Most of the reviews insist on the alluring mysteries of changing identities, and then some go on to complain how the historical notes in Reiss’s book are too long. I found the juxtaposition of the praise and the complaint quite interesting. First of all, from the presumably fixed vantage point (which I suppose remains fixed) of the reviewers, the poor souls crossing cultures and changing identities below are very dazzling in their mystery. The book itself takes pains to clarify that it is not so mysterious after all, which it does through its discussions of history, the particulars of which one might quibble with, but it is an interesting place to get to, never the less. So when a reviewer complains that these discussions are keeping them away from the business of being entertained, it begins to smell of, I don’t really want to know, just keep your guy performing for us.” One begins to wonder on Lev’s choice to call himself Kurban (sacrifice).