This Day in Jewish History / Birth of Lev Nussimbaum, Author of Many Identities

Baku-born writer of ‘Ali and Nino’ converted to Islam in the 1920s, a choice driven more by aesthetic than spiritual concerns.

Wikimedia Commons

October 17, 1905, is the birthdate of Lev Nussimbaum, the writer who changed identities the way a chameleon changes color. Nussimbaum’s best-known book is a romantic novel called “Ali and Nino,” which he published in 1937 under the name Kurban Said, and whose true authorship remains a source of some disagreement to this day.

Lev Nussimbaum was apparently born in Baku, although he claimed, in his pseudo-autobiographical “Blood and Oil in the Orient,” to have been delivered on a train. His father, Abraham Nussimbaum, was a wealthy owner of oil fields (at the time, half the world’s oil passed through the port of Baku), a native of Tbilisi though of Ashkenazi-Jewish background; his mother, Berta Slutzkin, was a Belarus-born Jewish revolutionary who killed herself in 1911. The son later recreated the histories of both his parents, turning them into non-Jews.

When the Russian Revolution came to Baku, Lev and his father fled east to Constantinople [now Istanbul] before heading back to Paris, and then Berlin. There, the son attended both high school and university, without graduating from either. It was there, too, in 1922 that he entered the Turkish embassy as Lev Nussimbaum and departed with a certificate, signed by the legation’s imam, stating that he had converted to Islam and was now named Essad Bey.

By all accounts, including his own, Nussimbaum’s draw to Islam was more romantic-aesthetic than spiritual. He himself wrote, in his unpublished notebooks, how, “I saw the broad expanse of the sandy Arabian desert, I saw the horsemen, their snow-white burnooses billowing in the wind, I saw the flocks of prophets praying towards Mecca and I wanted to be one with this wall, one with this desert, one with this incomprehensible, intricate script, one with the entire Islamic Orient.”

In Berlin, writing in German under the name Essad Bey, Nussimbaum began turning out scores of journalistic articles and book after book – a total of 14 before his early death, at age 36. So prolific was he that, in 1934, his agent actually told him to take some time off, a suggestion he partly acceded to by publishing only two short books in Polish that year but none in German.

He was briefly married, to the Jewish daughter of a Berlin shoe manufacturer, but she ran off with a colleague of Nussimbaum’s after discovering – or so she later claimed – that he was not of “princely Arabian heritage,” as he had purported to be.

Nussimbaum wrote biographies of both Lenin and Stalin, and of Nicholas II, the czar they overthrew, as well as the Prophet Muhammad. With his monarchist and anti-Bolshevik tendencies, a number of his works were included on an early list of “excellent books for German minds” prepared by the Nazi propaganda ministry – before he was expelled from the German Writers Union, in 1935.

For this reason, “Ali and Nino: A Love Story” was published under yet another name, Kurban Said, in Vienna in 1937. It is a romance with strong political overtones, a love affair between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl, set in Baku, against the background of the fight for Azeri independence. To this day, the book – which was published in 30 languages – is regarded as the classic Azeri national novel, although a number of local literary critics have expended great efforts in attempting to prove that Said/Nussimbaum lifted much of it from a Muslim author, Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli. That theory and another – that “Ali and Nino” was written by Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, the woman who registered the book for Nussimbaum in Austria in 1938, when a Jew would not have able to claim royalties – are both rejected by Tom Reiss, author of “The Orientalist” (2005), the definitive biography of Nussimbaum.  

Forced to flee from Vienna, in 1938, Nussimbaum ended up in Positano, Italy, where he died on August 27, 1942, of a rare and painful blood disease. He is buried in that town, in a grave that faces Mecca.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen