Between Two Worlds

The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey Without Borders

by Masayo Duus, translated from the Japanese by Peter Duus
Princeton University Press, 439 pp., $29.95


Some Jews would no doubt have joined the Nazi movement if only it had not regarded them as mortal enemies. But since it did, no sane Jew was likely to see any merit in the Nazis. Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Kurban Said, or Essad Bey, was an exception. A famous writer in his time, he was an early admirer of Mussolini, and a defender of the Nazi regime. The “National Socialist revolution,” he believed, “has saved Europe from a catastrophe.”

He wrote this at the end of 1933, two years before he was expelled from the German Writers’ Union and barred from publishing in the Third Reich. The reasons for Nussimbaum-Said-Essad’s eccentric position—for a Jew, that is; not, alas, for many Gentiles in the early 1930s—are complex, and they are explained at exhaustive length in The Orientalist, a book about his life and times. But they can be boiled down to one simple motive: Nussimbaum’s loathing for the Bolshevik Revolution, which destroyed the world he grew up in, in oil-rich Baku, then a Russian city, now the capital of Azerbaijan. The Nazis, he said, were the one thing standing between “traditional European culture” and Bolshevik barbarism.

Reiss describes the traditional European culture of pre-revolution Baku rather well. It was the kind of boom city where a Muslim oil baron would build a replica of a Gothic cathedral, because his young wife had admired it on a holiday in France and decided she wanted to live in just such a place. It was a city where Georgians, Russians, Ossetians, Swedes, Poles, and Armenians, among others, traded huge fortunes; where Zoroastrians lived alongside Muslims, Christians, and Jews; where brand-new opera houses, museums, palaces, churches, and mosques arose to rival buildings of grander cities; where the oil was so plentiful that the sea sometimes caught fire; and where caravans of fire-worshiping monks passed through the gaslit streets. All this rich mélange of East and West in what Reiss describes as “equal parts Dodge City, medieval Baghdad, industrial Pittsburgh, and nineteenth century Paris” began to fall apart in the revolutionary violence of 1905 and 1919.

Nussimbaum, whose novel Ali and Nino, published in German in 1935 under the name of Kurban Said, is still regarded as a minor classic, was haunted all his life by memories of his native city. The novel is about the love of a Muslim boy and a Christian girl in tolerant Baku. Nussimbaum described the Muslim, Ali Khan, as a version of himself. It wasn’t fascism that shaped the imagination of this extraordinary man, but Orientalism, a fascination for the exotic East, which was a fantasy that owed as much to European tradition as it did to the world of A Thousand and One Nights.

Orientalism comes in many forms, of course. There is the sensual, aesthetic lure of the voluptuous East, depicted by such French Orientalist painters as Jean-Léon Gérôme: nude harem women lounging about in Turkish baths, or pretty girls auctioned in North African…

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