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Jews Without Borders

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Because the details of Nussimbaum's life are so sketchy, Reiss has chosen to pad The Orientalist with material on the history of Russian radicalism, the rise of the German Freikorps, the 1922 assassination of Walther Rathenau and a good deal else besides. Some of it is well done, but much of it is embarrassingly simplistic. In general, Reiss has absorbed all too well the political line of The New Yorker, where he published a lengthy article on Nussimbaum in 1999. This is the ideology of the golden mean über alles, the belief that moderation and reason are one and the same, that the truth lies always in the middle, and that extremists of the left and right are brothers under the skin. As a result, The Orientalist fairly oozes with the sort of old-fashioned anti-Bolshevism that has Red Army soldiers all but eating babies for breakfast. Because left and right are conjoined in Reiss's mind, he is not concerned with the question of which, specifically, is responsible for what. Indeed, he holds them equally culpable for the horrors of the twentieth century, although he seems to regard the left as a bit more equal than the right. By undermining prospects for liberal reform, he claims, the radicals who assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881 "indirectly caused the deaths of tens of millions who would perish in the famines and gulags of the next century." Thanks to its ruthlessness, the Cheka served as the model for Hitler's Gestapo. The only force rivaling the Bolshies in terms of sheer bloodthirstiness, he adds, were the Mongols, although Reiss does not seem to hold Lenin responsible for the rise of Genghis Khan.

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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The idea that the Soviets paved the way and that Hitler was merely reacting to the horrors of Bolshevism was the subject of the famous Historikerstreit (historians' war) of the 1980s, in which Jürgen Habermas accused such right-wing historians as Ernst Nolte of trying to shift the blame from the Nazis to the Communists--but this is placing Reiss in more serious intellectual company than he probably deserves. The Orientalist does better once the scene shifts to Weimar Germany, where Nussimbaum, following his conversion to Islam, plunged deeper and deeper into right-wing politics. In 1931 he associated himself with the German-Russian League Against Bolshevism, a group whose members for the most part either were Nazis or soon would be. He joined another far-right group, known as the Social Monarchist Party, which dreamed of the day when the kaiser would return to head a German workers' state. He hooked up with the Young Russian movement of Alexander Kazem-Bek, an exile group that was also heading in a fascist direction. (Kazem-Bek called himself Glava, or leader, and by the late 1930s his followers were sporting blue shirts, organizing rallies and punctuating his three-hour speeches with cries of "Glava! Glava!") Nussimbaum's works were so highly regarded on the far right that Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry included them in its recommended reading list of "excellent books for German minds" following the Nazi takeover in 1933. But then, two years later, the Nazis woke up to the fact that "Essad Bey" was actually Lev Nussimbaum, and his books were banned.

Reiss argues that Jewish Orientalists were better than their Christian equivalents because they revered the East and were not out to misappropriate it for their own imperialist purposes. In fact, as someone who seemed to care little about the East except as a backdrop for his own imagination, Nussimbaum pretty much fits the standard Orientalist model as Edward Said described it. On the other hand, if he appropriated the Orient for his own purposes, he has been appropriated right back by the Orient, where Ali and Nino, according to Reiss, has emerged as the national novel of "liberated" Azerbaijan since the fall of the Soviets in 1991 (although its champions, he says, refuse to believe its author was a Jew). Appropriation is a game played by both sides.

Nussimbaum is interesting as a case study, but is he really worth an entire book? Ultimately, the answer depends on our assessment of his literary worth. Reiss, who has clearly put an enormous amount of labor into this volume, writes that Nussimbaum's dozen-plus works of nonfiction are still "readable" after all these years, while Ali and Nino remains "his one enduring masterpiece." In an afterword to a recent edition by Anchor Books, Paul Theroux goes even further, comparing Ali and Nino to Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote and Ulysses--"novels so full of information that they seem to define a people."

This makes Nussimbaum seem very important indeed. But is such lofty praise warranted? Not by a long shot. Overwrought and melodramatic, Ali and Nino is a minor bit of exotica that in ordinary times would be no more than a curiosity but, after September 11, is deeply repellent. Imagine a young Osama bin Laden crossed with Rudolph Valentino, and you'll get an idea of the kind of hero--and values--the novel celebrates. Nussimbaum presents Ali, an Azeri khan, or chieftain, as a noble son of the desert: brutal, passionate and imbued with an Al Qaeda-like contempt for Western ways. Thus a chemistry textbook, in his view, is "foolish stuff, invented by barbarians, to create the impression that they are civilized." Women have "no more sense than an egg has hairs," while European law is contemptible because it does not accord with the Koran. In Baku's Muslim quarter, Nussimbaum writes,

People shrug their shoulders and do justice in their own way. In the afternoon the plaintiffs come to the mosque where wise old men sit in a circle and pass sentence according to the laws of Sharia, the law of Allah: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Sometimes at night shrouded figures slip through the alleys. A dagger strikes like lightning, a little cry, and justice is done. Blood-feuds are running from house to house. Sometimes a sack is carried through the alleys when the night is darkest. A muffled groaning, a soft splash in the sea, and the sack disappears. The next day a man sits on the floor of his room, his robe torn, his eyes full of tears. He has fulfilled the law of Allah: death to the adulteress.

How murdering an adulteress reflects the principle of equity connoted by "an eye for an eye" is not explained, but then, Nussimbaum is above such prosaic matters. When Ali stabs a Christian acquaintance merely because he has taken his beloved Nino out for a ride, he narrates the act with sadistic glee: "I know where the deadly spot is. But I want to hear the enemy's pitiful voice just once more.... My muscles are taut. Just above the heart my dagger becomes one with the enemy's body. He writhes, again, and yet again." Observes a companion: "Beautifully done, Ali Khan. I'll admire you forever." When Ali's friend advises him to finish Nino off as well since she has dishonored herself, he magnanimously refuses. His friends, meanwhile, dream of an Azerbaijan purged of Armenians, and when the Turkish Army briefly occupies Baku, Ali contentedly observes the city's Russian population timidly slinking by in his presence: "For the first time in my life I was really at home in my own country."

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