Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Strange Case of "Kurban Said"

Who the heck is Kurban Said?

Friday is my non-teaching day, so I went down to Montclair to check out what I think is the nearest used bookstore to my current apartment. It's called the Montclair Book Center, and it turns out it's pretty good -- three floors, two storefronts, new and used books, and surprisingly well organized.

Among other things, I came across two novels by a writer I'd never heard of, Kurban Said. Reading through Paul Theroux's afterword to Ali and Nino, I saw this:

But how had this Central Asian come to write his book in German and publish it in Berlin? Was he an exile, and if so, was this a pen name? It turns out that it was indeed a pen name, possibly shared by two people, one an Austrian baroness, Elfriede Ehrenfels, and the other an emigre Jew from Azerbaijan, Lev Nussimbaum, who had converted to Islam and taken the name Essad Bey and lived in Berlin and Vienna.

Ok, wow. Now that's a backstory! Elsewhere, Theroux makes it clear that he believes Nussimbaum is most probably the single author of the novel: "Mr. Reiss convincingly showed that Essad Bey -- that is, Lev Nussimbaum -- was the author of Ali and Nino. The novel is so informative and self-consciously Asiatic that you know it could only have been written by a brilliant outsider observing the society from a distance, and you guess, an exile."

So the revelation might not be that dramatic. Lev Nussimbaum would likely have had many of the same life-experiences (albeit scaled down) as Kurban Said, the person he purported to be. And it probably wasn't at all unusual for Azerbaijani Jews to convert to Islam in the early 1900s.

But wait. There is in fact a second afterward in the recent Anchor edition of Ali and Nino that in some ways contradicts the first. This one is by someone named Heinz Barazon:

It was impossible for decades to identify the author behind the pseudonym, but it now seems clear that "Kurban Said" is a pseudonym for two different people-- a woman, the baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, and a man Lev Nussimbaum. . . . Lev Nussimbaum--who possibly had the original idea for the novel--was Jewish, born in Baku [in Azerbaijan] in 1905. Nussimbaum's father took Lev and perhaps a German governess to Berlin during the tumult of the Russian Revolution. Nussimbaum completed his studies there, became a journalist and later wrote books about Mohammed, Nikolas II, Lenin, Reza Shah Pahlevi and regional geo-political issues. These books were published in London and New York under the name Essad Bey, the name he had taken in his youth when he converted to Islam. After Hitler seized power, Nussimbaum fled Berlin for still-independent Austria where an intense friendship with Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, her family, and her circle, developed. Ali and Nino is almost certainly result of this relationship. Which sections of the novel are the work of which author remains an unsolved mystery.

But wait, which version is correct -- Heinz Barazon's, or Paul Theroux's? Is "Kurban Said" simply the pen name for Lev Nussimbaum/Essad Bey, or is it a pseudonym that represents the work of two people? Barazon's phrasing suggests he believes that Ehrenfels is the primary author of the book.

Theroux's support for Nussimbaum is based on research done by Tom Reiss, who wrote an article in The New Yorker in 1999, and recently published a substantial book called The Orientalist: Solving The Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. Serendipitously, according to Amazon, it just came out a couple of weeks ago.

A quick Google search reveals an excerpt from The Orientalist here (I highly recommend you read the whole thing). Reiss had in fact encountered the Heinz Barazon quoted above, an Austrian lawyer entrusted with managing Baroness Ehrenfels' estate, who originally (at least) strongly argued that the author of Ali and Nino was the Baroness only:

Barazon came directly to the point: the novel Ali and Nino was written by the Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, the second wife of Leela's father, Baron Omar-Rolf von Ehrenfels, and when Baroness Elfriede died, in the early 1980s, having outlived her husband, all rights to the work had passed down to Leela.

Barazon produced a thick file of documents that backed up this story: publishing contracts, legal papers, and author lists from the late thirties, stamped with Nazi eagles and swastikas. Under the entry for "Said, Kurban" in the author's section of the 1935—39 Deutscher Gesamtkatalog–the Third Reich's equivalent of Books in Print–it said, in no uncertain terms, "pseudonym for Ehrenfels, v. Bodmershof, Elfriede, Baroness." The Nazi documents seemed to tell a clear story–that Baroness Elfriede had been Kurban Said–but it was one that I believed to be untrue.

I wouldn't be so impressed either: the Nazis probably wouldn't have allowed the publication of anything by anyone Jewish in 1937. The fact that only her name was on the books might have been an agreement worked out between the Baroness and Nussimbaum/Bey that enabled the work to be published at all. One question I still have is, how did Reiss (or someone) convince Barazon to soften his stance enough that he would later write an afterward to Ali and Nino allowing for uncertainty as to the authorship of the novel?

Another question might be: if Nussimbaum had a successful career as an author in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s as Essad Bey, and if he wrote this novel, why not publish under that name? Why Kurban Said? The new name makes the co-authorship thesis make a bit more sense.

But there's more. To solve the puzzle of Kurban Said, Reiss goes to Baku in Azerbaijan. Oddly -- and amazingly -- the Azerbaijanis have their own ideas about who wrote Ali and Nino:

Educated Azeris I met seemed to consider it their national novel, telling me that they could show me the street, square, or schoolhouse where almost every scene had taken place. There was a resurgence of interest in the late 1990s in this small romantic novel from the late 1930s, though nobody seemed exactly sure why. I paid a call on an Iranian film producer who occupied a lavishly refurbished suite in a collapsing old mansion, and who explained to me his plans to make a movie of the book. (When the money didn't come through, he instead produced the Baku location scenes for a James Bond movie.) Another day I visited the National Literary Society, a Stalin-era building, where the chairman filled me in on the simmering dispute in Azeri academic and government circles over the novel's authorship. Kurban Said's identity had long been a subject of speculation, he explained, but fortunately, the issue had now been resolved: Kurban Said was the pseudonym for Josef Vezir, an Azeri author whose sons, the Veziroffs, had been very active in making sure his memory was preserved, and that he receive credit for Azerbaijan's national novel.

But when I got a copy of some short stories and novellas by Vezir, I was surprised that anyone could give this theory credence. Vezir was clearly an ardent Azeri nationalist whose novellas openly stated that ethnic and cultural mixing was a bad idea and a betrayal of the motherland. In Ali and Nino, Kurban Said offers nothing less than a passionate endorsement of ethnic, cultural, and religious mixing. The warmest passages in the novel describe the cosmopolitan Caucasus on the eve of the revolution–when a hundred races and all the major religious groups fought together only in battles of poetry in the marketplace–and the message seems to be that the separation of peoples is hideous and genocidal.

Man, this just doesn't stop.

This morning I read thirty pages of Ali and Nino, which is fittingly a romance between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl. Also appropriately, the opening chapters are obsessed with a question of definition, though not of the identity of the protagonist but of Azerbaijan itself. Is it European or Oriental? As the character Professor Senin puts it to his students in the opening pages of the novel itself: "Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia's cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or reactionary Asia."

The uncertainty about the identity of Trans-Caucasia seems to mirror perfectly the uncertainty that now circles around "Kurban Said."


coolie said...


[[Why Kurban Said? The new name makes the co-authorship thesis make a bit more sense]]

As soon as I read the heading of your post I mistakenly thought you were going to be writing about the Rudyard Kipling short story "A Sahibs War" which is narrated by a Sikh soldier, set during the Boer war, in which his 'sahib' is called 'Kurban Sahib'

Maybe the authors were Orientalist fans of the 'East' and when seeking a pseudonym picked up on the name, maybe not, interesting coincidence, either way

Worth reading the story anyway:

6:29 PM  
B2 said...

The Los Angeles Times has a review of two biographies about this guy in the past month, and he sounds fascinating!

6:30 PM  
the eye said...

Very interesting. The joint-authorship theory is the most interesting, though I can't say for sure that it's the most likely. The people claiming authorship for one or neither of the pair probably have an agenda (a gender agenda, a race agenda) and that's BORING.
What we want to know is: is the book any good?

Anyway, thanks for blogging it. Two questions: Why not allow anonymous comments? Idiotic commentary can always be deleted (not that you'll get that many: languagehat, for example, doesn't), and you're probably missing out on perceptive contributions of some non-blogger folks.
Second question: Are you sure nobody Jewish would have been able to publish anything in Berlin in 1937? Because, though I don't know the history of the period thoroughly, that's the sort of assumption one shouldn't just presume to make.

Keep up the good work, I've been enjoying your pages these few weeks past.


6:27 PM  
Anjali Taneja said...

I'm so excited that you checked out the Montclair Book Center -- it's my favorite used bookstore -- i've spent countless hours and found so many gems in that store (and much peace too). I live two towns away from montclair.

I didn't get a chance to comment on previous house-searching posts, but welcome to nj :>

12:11 PM  
Dot said...

Discussing today on NPR:

5:55 PM  
language said...

I've been pushing Ali and Nino on everyone for years, and I can't wait to read the new biography (I was thrilled to see the New Yorker article, and hoped at the time that the author would do a book on Essad Bey/Kurban Said).

--language hat

(PS: I hate to disillusion you, elck, but every morning I have to delete a fair amount of spam; I don't plan to stop allowing anonymous comments, but I can understand why people do.)

6:47 PM  
Amardeep said...


The lawyer Barazon definitely has an agenda -- which is mainly a financial/ professional one (he wants his clients, the Baroness Ehrenfels' children, to keep getting royalty checks).

I don't know what Tom Reiss is after; I'll probably post more on it once I've read his book.

As for the quality of the book, from the first few chapters I would definitely say there's something there. It's not sweeping or mystical (i.e., it's not Tahar Ben Jalloun). Rather, it's more ethnographic, and at times comical.

And the anonymous comments. Actually I had some nastiness a little while ago. The move against anonymity definitely limits the blog in some ways (probably this would be a more popular blog if comments were open). But since it's attached to my real, public identity, I'm willing to sacrifice a little.

Thanks for going through the hassle of registering, logging in, etc.

8:17 PM  
Anonymous said...

Why would someone who had already published in Berlin under the name of Essad Bey want to hide himself under a pseudonym?
In post 1932 Germany, and especially in post Nuremberg law Germany (the Nuremberg laws of 1935 stripped jews of any civilian rights in the Third Reich) it was not enough that one did not profess to be jewish, or claimed to be muslim: one had to show proof of aryan descent over three generations. As Nussimbaum fled Germany to Austria (probabluy in the wake of these laws), publication under the name Essad Bey would entail investigations into the identity of Essad Bey. Since Nussimbaum had every reason to avoid contact with Third Reich officials, he had a very solid reason to avoid using the name of Essad Bey. Furthermore, if there was already a publishing contract for the book and an obligation to the publisher, an elegant way out of the conundrum would be to use a sympathetic aryan friend (von Ehrenfels) as a front.

3:49 AM  
Mike said...

Actually, per the fascinating account in 'The Orientalist' (see a bit about it on: ), Nussimbaum's adoption of not only a Turkish/Azeri name, but also of Islam, at least nominally, in the Ottoman embassy (Berlin, 1923) allowed him to remain in Germany, and his Turkish identity therefore gave him vital cover. The Germans had been allied with Turkey since before WWI.

7:59 AM  
Feanor said...

A bit late in the day to comment on a two-year old post, I know, but what did you think of the book when you finally read it? I thought it was a beautifully told story - of stereotypes. Every possible cliched view of Central Asian nations abounds in it. Wendell Steavenson, who wrote the lovely Stories I Stole, devotes an entire chapter to it, and she avers that in many parts, the book reads like a travel writeup, somewhat pedantically checking off every notable character trait and tourist spot as it goes along. Perhaps you would care to take a look at my synopsys at:

8:14 AM  

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