[Marxism] Jewish Orientalism :March 9 TheNation.com

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Mar 11 18:19:15 MST 2005

This is an article I found interesting.  The figure concerned is quite
reactionary. Personally think the criticisms of Said's Orientalism, like
criticisms of most efforts to cover a lot of things under one word, have
some validity. Which doesn't mean the phenomena does not exist, not at
all, as this author admits in reference to what follows.
Fred Feldman

This article can be found on the web at 
Jews Without Borders

The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life
by Tom Reiss;
Ali and Nino
by Kurban Said;
Orientalism and the Jews
by Ivan Davidson Kalmar and Derek J. Penslar, eds.

[from the March 28, 2005 issue]

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

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

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

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.

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