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The Jewish Orientalist
by Tom Reiss


"In the cultural hothouse of Weimar Germany, few flowers bloomed quite as extravagantly as Essad Bey. His enormously popular books and articles opened a window on the Islamic world, the exotic tribes of the Caucasus and the political upheavals convulsing Russia. Ali and Nino, written under the pen name Kurban Said, enchanted readers with its depiction of Azerbaijan on the eve of the Russian revolution and its romantic story of a Muslim prince's love for a Christian girl.

For cultivated Germans, Essad Bey was the man of the East, the cosmopolitan Muslim who, in his writings, brought back treasure from the fabled lands of the caliphate. In fact, Essad Bey, the Orientalist of Tom Reiss's title, was a fictional creation. Although fond of posing for photographs in Caucasian tribal gear, or wearing a fez or turban, Germany's most beloved Muslim was actually a Jew named Lev Nussimbaum. Thereby hangs a wondrous tale, beautifully told, that took the author five years and patient detective work in 10 countries to reconstruct." (William Grimes, NY Times Book Review, Feb. 23, 2005)

The following is selection from Tom Reiss' new book about the mysterious Lev Nussimbaum, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. The passage discusses a type once familiar in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jewish Orientalist who seemed to lose himself in the reverie of Eastern identity.

In one sense, Lev Nussimbaum was an extreme example of a type once familiar in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but now forgotten: the Jewish Orientalist. The phenomenon was first notable in Victorian England, when young men from highly assimilated and influential families like William Gifford Palgrave and Benjamin Disraeli set off to find their "Oriental roots" in the desert.

In Palgrave's case, the quest for Oriental authenticity led him to a wildlife of role-playing; in the 1850s, posing as a Muslim doctor while secretly working for the Jesuits (oddly enough, he insisted on having the Jesuits call him "Father Cohen," resurrecting the name his family had jettisoned in the 18th century), he traveled to Arabia to carry out a plot funded by Napoleon III to stir an Arab Bedouin revolt — fifty years before T.E. Lawrence arrived in the Middle East. Palgrave, aka Father Cohen, also tried to convert the Wahhabis to Christianity. His memoir was the best-selling English book about Arabia until Lawrence's memoir superseded it.

The Jewish Orientalist saw the East as a place not to discover the exotic Other but to find his own roots, and for him the Arabs were nothing less than blood brothers — Jews on horseback, as Disraeli put it. But Disraeli himself defies the stereotypes of currents thought, for while whispering to Queen Victoria that she must become empress of India, he did not have in mind a straightforward domination of the East by the West. Rather, he idolized the East, and therefore dreamed of an empire that merged the best of both worlds — a British pan-Oriental empire. It must be British, so that it could be organized by the practical good sense of the English, but it must be "Oriental," guided by the wisdom and profundity of the East — interpreted for the West by its resident Orientals, the Jews.

The anti-Semitic slur, of course, was that the Jews were an alien, Oriental race in Europe — but Jewish Orientalists turned the slur on its head, embracing their ancient desert nobility. Jews drew themselves closer to their lost "brothers" in the East and attempted to explain Semitic culture, including Islam, in the West. Jewish Orientalists, in the narrowest sense of the term, were specialists in the field of Eastern religions, languages, and anthropology, yet even using this definition, the crucial Jewish presence in Oriental studies is surprisingly overlooked.

Beyond the scholars, there were Jews who literally seemed to lose themselves in the reverie of "Eastern identity," as Lev Nussimbaum did. When they disguised themselves as Bedouins or dervishes to make long field journeys, the Jewish Orientalists seemed to feel a psychic transformation that was different from the experience of the gentile in Arab mufti. They would have a fascinating relationship to Zionism, most of them opting in favor of a Jewish state in Palestine but often as part of a "pan-Semitic" pro-Muslim worldview.

After the Second World War, the idea of Jewish Orientalism fell through the cracks of history, as the conflict between Jews and Muslims, reaching tragic proportions in the Middle East, buried their deeply reconnected past. The reasons Muslims and Jews do not get along today seem obvious and inevitable. The reasons they once got along so well lie in the distance, on the other side of a historical chasm.


To Reiss has written about politics and culture for The New York Times The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, among other publications.



The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
By Tom Reiss
Illustrated. 433 pages. Random House.

See also The Orientalist website.



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