Although revered in certain circles as something close to holy writ, Edward W. Said’s famous 1978 study Orientalism is rife with contradictions that over the years have become more and more difficult to ignore. It hops disconcertingly between Orientalism as an academic pursuit, as a mental attitude and as a system of colonial oppression. At times it suggests that Orientalism began in the eighteenth century with the rise of modern European imperialism; elsewhere it implies that Orientalism settled like a miasma on the Western mind as far back as the ancient Greeks. We are left with the impression that Europe has been unalterably bigoted whenever it has gazed eastward, although why that is not equally the case whenever it has looked to the south, the west or, for that matter, the north is never clarified.
In Said’s hands, Orientalism becomes a metaphysical force, over and above history, politics and other such mundane factors–“always and everywhere the same,” as Valerie Kennedy puts it in her valuable study Edward Said: A Critical Introduction (2000). Orientalism is also frequently tendentious (not least when accusing others of the same tendency) and solipsistic. If Western culture is “hegemonic both in and outside Europe,” Said explains at one point, it is because a “major component in European culture is…the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.” Europe is superior because it thinks it’s superior, in other words, which begs the question of why other cultures that also think of themselves as superior, most notably Islam, have fallen further and further behind.
Still, a badly made argument can be just as provocative as a well-made one, which may be why Said’s Orientalism has engendered a raft of spinoff investigations in such fields as postcolonial and subaltern studies, anthropology and history. Now another front seems to be opening up with regard to Jewish Orientalism, an area especially ripe for investigation since Jews have never been fully comfortable in either the Oriental or Occidental camp. Indeed, as the perennial odd man out, their role, for better or worse, has been to disrupt the binary worldview of everyone from the Crusaders and jihadis to the imperialists and their Third World opponents, and now Said and his legion of followers.
Just how disruptive can be seen from Tom Reiss’s lively new book, The Orientalist, a study of the interwar journalist Lev Nussimbaum, best remembered–to the degree he is remembered at all–as the author of a picturesque 1937 novel called Ali and Nino. In Nussimbaum, Reiss has chosen as his subject one of the most bizarre figures in twentieth-century letters, which is saying a great deal. Born in 1905 to a millionaire father and a left-wing mother who committed suicide for unknown reasons when he was still a child, Nussimbaum grew up in the booming oil city of Baku at a time when it was poised precariously among Russians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, not to mention czarists, nationalists and revolutionary socialists of various stripes.
“Surrounded by teachers, servants, playthings,” he would later write, but with no children his own age, he lived a cosseted existence until the Russian Civil War put an end to his idyll in 1918. Fleeing across the desert by camel, he and his father got as far as Persia, then headed back when Baku appeared to be safely in the hands of the Whites. When control passed to the Reds, they fled again, this time west toward the Black Sea port of Batum, where they boarded a ship bound for Constantinople, now Istanbul. There the young Russian-Jewish refugee declared himself a fervent czarist despite the fact that the recently deposed Nicholas II had headed what would be the world’s most anti-Semitic government until the rise of Nazi Germany some sixteen years later. Sailing on to Italy, Nussimbaum arrived in time to see Mussolini’s Black Shirts taking to the streets and was deeply moved.
“A strange feeling came over me,” he recounted. “I felt…welded into unity with these people, about whom I knew nothing but that they were called fascists and were against the Bolshevists…. It was the first time I had the feeling that I wasn’t alone.” Attending a Russian-language Gymnasium in Berlin in 1922, Nussimbaum adopted another creed. Fascinated with the Muslim culture he had witnessed firsthand in Baku as a boy, he changed his name to Essad Bey and converted to Islam in the presence of the imam of the Turkish embassy. Born an Ashkenazi Jew, he now billed himself as a Muslim aristocrat of mixed Turkish and Persian descent, a relative, no less, of the Emir of Bukhara. A prolific writer with a vivid prose style, Nussimbaum also developed a thriving journalistic career as an expert on Soviet Central Asia and the Muslim East. He dashed off books and articles with alarming ease on everything from the Baku oil industry to biographies of Lenin, Stalin, Mohammed, Nicholas II and the Iranian strongman Reza Shah Pahlavi (father of the shah overthrown in 1979). He was “a Weimar media star,” Reiss writes, “a professional ‘Man of the Caucasus.'” Friends and rivals were left guessing as to whether he was a genuine Turk, a member of some other exotic Asian nationality or, as a growing number of German rightists and Turkish nationalists suspected, merely another “Jewish falsifier.” “Who is this Essad Bey?” demanded Leon Trotsky, writing from exile to his son in 1932. He was not the only one who wanted to know.
Yet Nussimbaum sailed blithely on. He was happy purveying tales of the mysterious East at a time when Central European readers had never been hungrier for stories of whirling dervishes and hidden mountain kingdoms. His writing satisfied a desire for the primitive, the instinctive and the exotic, themes that the Nazis would also play upon and amplify. The novel Ali and Nino, which he published in Vienna in 1937 under the pseudonym Kurban Said, was the culmination of his efforts, a Caspian Romeo and Juliet featuring a Muslim hero who is as wise as Mohammed, as lusty as Tarzan and as brutal as Horst Wessel. Ali and Nino should have been a hit with Nussimbaum’s German-speaking readership, given the political sensibilities of the day. But doors were closing on Jewish writers no matter how fascistically inclined, and the book fell from sight.
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.
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.”
Happiness here is the ability to make others feel humiliated and afraid. One searches Ali and Nino in vain for a note of disapproval, some indication of critical distance, a hint that the author does not like all that he surveys, but it is soon evident that Nussimbaum operates in an irony-free environment. He is not so much a novelist as a fantasist, and Ali is not so much a fictional character as an exercise in wish fulfillment. Forced to flee Baku under ignominious circumstances while still in his early teens, Nussimbaum clearly wishes that he could have been a handsome desert prince, galloping his noble steed along narrow mountain trails, making love to the beautiful Nino (in real life, Nussimbaum often found women to be sexually repellent), machine-gunning Bolsheviks and dying heroically at his post. Banned by the Nazis, hemmed in by growing anti-Semitism, he transferred his animus to the Soviets, who in his view–and apparently Reiss’s–were the cause of it all. Sick and impoverished, Nussimbaum died in Italy in 1942. The Anchor Books edition of Ali and Nino, noting only that the author left Berlin after Hitler took power, makes it appear that he was an anti-Nazi refugee. In truth, he was fervently rooting for the Axis right to the end. “Oh,” he wrote a few months before his death, “the victory will be such a thrilling experience!”
Rather than presenting a progressive alternative to Western stereotypes of the Arab and Muslim world, as Reiss implies, Jewish Orientalism was a complex, ambiguous affair, hence disturbing to both East and West. As Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar indicate in their new compendium, Orientalism and the Jews, all sides in the great debate over “the Jewish question” have used such labels for their own purposes. Anti-Semites have argued that Jews are displaced Orientals because they wanted them out of the Christian West, while some Zionists have agreed because they wanted them out as well. Other Zionists rejected any such Oriental tag because they believed that the purpose of a Jewish state was not to adapt to prevailing circumstances in the Middle East but to Europeanize them. John Efron, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, describes how both Christian anti-Semitism and the stifling Jewish Orthodoxy of his day led the nineteenth-century German-Jewish scholar Abraham Geiger to celebrate the Islamic tolerance that had allowed Jews to flourish in Muslim Spain. The historian Heinrich Graetz, Efron goes on, similarly observed that under the Arabs, “the sons of Judah were free to raise their heads and did not need to look out with fear and humiliation. Unhindered, they were allowed to develop their powers in the midst of a free, simple, and talented people.”
Ignaz Goldziher, who lived a generation or two later than Geiger or Graetz (he died in 1921), was even more extreme in his identification with the Orient, which he hoped to use as a cudgel against both Christians and Jews. After a visit to Damascus in 1890, he wrote, “I truly entered in those weeks into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was Muslim and judiciously discovered that this was the only religion which, even in its doctrinal and official formulation, can satisfy philosophical minds.” Pace Edward Said, Goldziher did not believe that “the Orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the West.” On the contrary, he believed the Muslim East was superior to anything the West had to offer, which is why he hoped to make use of it “to elevate Judaism to a similar rational level.”
If Goldziher did not choose the Nussimbaumian solution of outright conversion, he stopped just short. Like Geiger, he regarded Islam as the continuation of the healthy mainstream of Abrahamic monotheism, from which Eastern European Talmudism had deviated. Jacob Israel De Haan, who was born in the Netherlands in 1881, took a different route, although in some respects to the same end. As Michael Berkowitz tells it in another contribution to Orientalism and the Jews, the multitalented De Haan was many things to many people. To Dutch readers, he was famous as a poet and pioneering advocate of gay rights, but also notorious as an outspoken advocate of man-boy love, a stance that got him kicked off the Dutch Social Democratic newspaper Het Volk, where he was responsible for the children’s column. Among certain Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, he was a saintly figure, revered for both his piety and his efforts to defend the Haredi community in Palestine against the impending Zionist state.
Nowadays we don’t think of the ultra-Orthodox as particularly friendly to homosexuality, much less man-boy love. Yet Berkowitz, who teaches modern Jewish history at University College, London, astutely argues that while De Haan devoted quatrain after quatrain to the beautiful Arab boys he encountered in Palestine following his move there in 1919, his poems were imbued not just with erotic yearning but with “ambivalence and restraint” that the rabbinate might have found reminiscent of biblical love poetry. “What do I see when I see you?” De Haan asks in one poem:
Everything but you.
I hear the faraway melody.
Of the heartbreaking song.
As David laments in a similar vein about his adultery with Bathsheba in Psalm 51: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.” Moreover, Berkowitz contends that the ultra-Orthodox attitude toward homosexuality is not as uniformly hostile as one might think. Rather than consistently attack homosexuality, he says, the rabbinate often treated it as “a minor transgression.” He notes that there are “prominent homosexual and homoerotic motifs in Jewish mysticism and poetry,” that at least one rabbinic authority stresses “the imperative of exclusive male bonding in mystical community-building” and that it should be remembered that “the world of the Haredim is a closed circle of men, which is in great part obsessed with controlling and directing the sexual energy of its community.” As is often the case, no community is more sexually charged than one devoted to sexual asceticism, which is why a poet who mingles the mystical and the erotic and who writes about subterranean passions that other members of the community might also feel (even if they cannot bring themselves to admit it) could play such an important and valued role.
What united all these concerns for De Haan was his characteristically idiosyncratic concept of Jewish Orientalism. Whereas Goldziher saw Eastern European Orthodoxy as degenerate, De Haan saw the Haredim as a natural part of the Palestinian landscape, where he hoped they would continue to coexist peacefully with the Arab community. This was at a time when the main body of Jewish Orthodoxy still rejected Zionism as a deeply heretical effort to “hurry” the coming of the Messiah by abandoning the Diaspora and returning to the Holy Land before God had given his express approval. In embracing Orthodoxy and rejecting Zionism, De Haan “reconceived the Orient,” to quote Berkowitz, “as an enclave for pious Jews, under the tutelage of British colonialism, and in close communion with Palestine’s Arabs”–a dangerous stance in a period when Jewish nationalists were just beginning to flex their muscles.
In 1924 De Haan was assassinated. Although suspicions have long settled on the far-right Revisionist Zionist movement of Vladimir Jabotinsky, Berkowitz argues that the hit was ordered by the top echelons of the mainstream Zionist movement for a variety of reasons: because De Haan had entered into negotiations with the Arab elite; because, as a correspondent for leading Dutch and British newspapers, he had published numerous stories that were embarrassing to the Zionist establishment; and because he was about to expose improprieties involving Zionist land purchases, including a plot to murder a local Jew who had refused to cooperate in an important real estate deal. The movement itself has never admitted complicity, and Walter Laqueur’s all but official History of Zionism (1972) omits any mention of the assassination.
With De Haan out of the way, the majority of Orthodox Jews made their peace with Zionism, Jewish-Arab relations went into free fall and the Zionist regime that emerged after 1948 was hostile not just to the Palestinians but to Jews from the Middle East and North Africa as well. As Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, points out in another essay in Orientalism and the Jews, a series of articles in the newspaper Ha’aretz in 1949 summed up the dominant attitude toward the new wave of Jewish immigrants from Arab lands:
We are dealing with people whose primitivism is at a peak, whose level of knowledge is visibly one of absolute ignorance, and worse, who have little talent for understanding anything intellectual. Generally, they are also slightly better than the general level of the Arabs, Negroes, and Berbers in the same regions.
De Haan’s Orientalism did not provide a way out for the Jews of Palestine since, among other things, it made no allowance for the Arabs’ legitimate aspirations for independence from the British. But Zionist Occidentalism has not provided a way out either. Rather than siding with the East or the West, perhaps the real aim should be to rise above both.