Who was Essad Bey?

Baku, tea house at the turn of the century. From the photo collection great.az

During the 30s of the last century, the fame of the mysterious “Azerbaijani prince” Essad Bey, author of several volumes translated to many languages and friend of renowned intellectuals of the time spread all over Europe and the world. Yet, despite the fact that his name, now almost forgotten in the West, has appeared on numerous books, articles and essays, and still remains carved on a grave in a small cemetery overlooking the sea near Naples, the noble Muslim Essad Bey, in certain respects, has never existed.

Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew of Russian origin was born in 1905 (in Baku, as he claimed; in Kiev, as his birth certificate shows; on a train traveling between Europe and Asia, as he asserted later, when the German police tracked down his true origin and as it would be symbolically very fitting to him). There are no official documents about the death, nor is there a tomb to preserve the memory of his name. Lev Nussimbaum disappears in Berlin in 1922, the same year and in the same place where and when Essad Bey appears for the first time. Both names, Lev and Essad, mean “lion” in their respective languages.

The Russian Jew and the Azerbaijani prince, the one who was never born and the one who never died, are in fact the same person.

Essad Bey in Caucasian mountain dress as shown opposite the title page of the English edition of his Twelve secrets of the Caucasus, New York: Viking Press, 1931 (AI 15 (2011) 2-4)

In the early 1900s, Azerbaijan satisfied half of the world’s oil demand. Lev’s father, the Ukrainian Ashkenazi Abraham Nussimbaum had made his fortune in the black gold having settled in Baku, a rich and cosmopolitan city at the time, a true pearl of the Caucasus at the Caspian Sea, where Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians all lived side by side in the shadow of the glory of the emirs of the past. Lev’s mother, Berta Slutzki, a Belarusian Jew, was a Bolshevik revolutionary and allegedly a friend of the young Stalin (who, as Lev loved to claim, stayed for a few months at the home of the Nussimbaums in Baku). Berta perhaps married the oil magnate Nussimbaum at the behest of the party to infiltrate the high bourgeois circles, and when exposed in 1911, she committed suicide by drinking sulfuric acid. The little Lev was raised by a German nurse, and it was from her that the young Nussimbaum learned German, thus marking the course of his life.

Postcard written in Russian and French: “Three fountains at Bibi-Heybat in flames. Baku,
September 14, 1903”. Bibi-Heybat was one of the richest oil fields, located
on the western side of Baku near the sea (AI 15 (2011) 2-4)

After the end of World War I and the Russian revolution of 1917, Lev and his father are forced to flee for the first time through Turkestan to Persia, as he asserts in his later books. They come back in 1919 in the ephemeral Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, the first Muslim parliamentary republic in the world. After the invasion of the country by the Red Army they leave Baku in an adventurous way for a second time to stay first in Constantinople during the last period of the caliphate, then in Paris and finally in Berlin where Lev attends the Department of Oriental Studies. He will never again see his native and, and in his memory he idealizes the charm and the cosmopolitanism of a tolerant Islam and of an East where he decides to find shelter. In 1922, in front of the Imam of the Turkish embassy in Berlin, the Jewish Lev Nussimbaum disappears to make way for the Muslim prince Essad Bey (from old Turkish “beg”, ‘Sir’) converted to Islam. A later portrait shows him with a fez on his head.

Lev invents a fictitious identity to which he would remain faithful until his death, but the worlds do not cease to disappear around him: after the ancient Baku, idealized and lost, Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey prohibits his fellow citizens the use of the fez and abolishes the honorary title “Bey”, requiring all to use regular family names.

The red army in Baku in May 1920. From the photo collection of azerview.com

At 24 Essad Bey publishes in German his first bestseller, Blood and Oil in the Orient. He writes in his short life another dozen books translated into many languages, including the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, of Lenin and Stalin, Czar Nicholas II and Shah Reza Pahlavi. He publishes with the major publishers of Weimar Germany, writes for German and Austrian journals, due to his turbulent love life becomes the protagonist of the gossip columns, and is introduced in the intellectual world of the time which is fascinated by the exoticism of the self-styled Muslim Prince in exile.

Baku, the Boulevard on the Quay of the Caspian sea in the late 19th century, with the medieval old town to the left and the early medieval Maiden’s Tower in the background (AI 15 (2011) 2-4)

Essad Bey suggested that Jews and Muslims must enhance their common Semitic root by embracing the East and their traditional values, as opposed to Western modernism; but at the same time he considers the West as the only bulwark against Communism to which, as a result of his family’s vicissitudes, he declares a war until his death. The synthesis between East and West becomes the utopia that Lev-Essad would chase all along the course of his existence.

The same place around 1900 with horseless tram and telephone poles (AI 15 (2011) 2-4)

But everything continues to change around him. In 1933 the Weimar Republic is erased by the rise of National Socialism, and the subsequent racial laws forbid Jews to publish in German. Rumors begin to circulate in Germany about the true identity of Essad Bey, who is expelled from the Union of Writers and will be forced to write under a new pseudonym, that of Kurban Said. Essad Bey continues to assert his identity as a true Muslim, while continuing to live in Berlin with his Jewish father (who would eventually die in 1941 in the lager of Treblinka)

Oil transport carts in Baku. Photo by Karl Bulla, 1905

But it is time to start a new adventure, and Essad Bey finds the new challenge in the Fascist Italy, where his books are particularly successful, and where he meets support and friendship in the highest spheres of the regime. He is particularly supported by the philosopher and pedagogue Giovanni Gentile, who makes efforts to bring him in contact with the Duce (the plans of the meeting will be upset by the police reports on the true origin of the writer). Essad is close to the positions of a certain right-wing Zionism which sees the Fascism of Mussolini an enemy of the British enemy and a source of political inspiration. Essad Bey in 1936 publishes the book Allah is Great together with Wolfgang von Weisl, the personality number two in the Revisionist Party of the Odessan Ze’ev Vladimir Zhabotinsky, the father of right-wing Zionism. At that time (before the racial laws of 1938) the Italian State also returns the attention of the Zionist extremists: in the thirties, at the Maritime School of Civitavecchia, they establish a first class for the young Jews belonging to the Betar, the nationalist youth movement affiliated with the Revisionist Party of Zhabotinsky. At the head of the class is Zvi Kolitz, a young and educated Lithuanian Jew, the son of a renowned rabbinical family and an anti-Communist himself fascinated by the experience of Italian Fascism (he would eventually publish in 1936 in Tel Aviv the first biography of Mussolini in Hebrew), and several years later the author of the famous apocryphal Yossl Rakover talks to God.

Carpet sellers in the old town of Baku

Returning from a trip to the USA that marks the peak of his fame as a public personality, Essad Bey was left by his wife, the Jewish Erika Loewendhal, for the writer René Fülöp-Müller. The failure of the great love of his life will bring Essad Bey to a brief hospitalization at a psychiatric institute. Then the “Prince” contracts a rare and at that time incurable disease, the Raynaud’s phenomenon – or, according to other opinions, Buerger’s disease –, characterized by the cyanosis of the fingers that leads to gangrene. The Anschluss finds him in Austria, from where he flies through Switzerland to the Southern Italian Positano, a small fishing village perched above the sea of the Amalfi Coast. As Irene Kowaliska recalls, in those years Positano was an asylum for political refugees and Jews from many European countries occupied by Nazi troops. The German poet Armin Teophil Wegner, who lived with Kowaliska in Positano, says about the Muslim-Jew Lev-Essad that he loved to play the charade to the end.

The Baku Real School around 1900, visited both by Lev Nussimbaum and the fictional Ali in the novel Ali and Nino. Now it is University of Economics (AI 15 (2011) 2-4)

To this secluded and cosmopolitan retreat at the end of the world, Essad Bey came in 1938 with a bank-book of three thousand lire, a large sum at that time, resulting from the copyright of his books. With the advent of the war, however, the publishers stop paying the royalties, and Essad Bey is reduced to poverty to the extent of depending on the help of his friends and the citizens of Positano to survive. His disease also grows worse, and the doctor prescribes him morphine to alleviate the unbearable pain, but Essad Bey is not able to buy the drug. In 1939, in Naples he is subjected to a gradual amputation of the toes of his left foot. The Fascist police, which has long been aware of his Jewish origin, instead of arresting him in terms of the racial laws, is activated to find the money needed for the operation, and the administrative authorities of Naples, Salerno and Positano are involved in this effect at the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Culture.

Sara Ashurbeyli, daughter of an oil magnate family and the later great historian of Baku and the Shirvanshah state (also mentioned and illustrated in our previous post) (AI 15 (2011) 2-4)

In the last period of his life Essad Bey is helped by a lady of Rapallo, Pima Andreae, a great friend of writers and artists, especially of the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann. It is just this latter to alert her that the famous author of Blood and Oil in the Orient lives in Positano in conditions of extreme need. Andreae also informed about the case Ezra Pound, who was sensitive to the plight of writers in need, and was interested in the books of Essad Bey (one of them, The Secrets of the Caucasus, is also mentioned in a fragment of his Posthumous Songs). Pound achieves Essad’s being employed at the propaganda department of Rome with which he also collaborates. A blue car arrives in Positano in 1942 to bring Lev to the studio of the Italian State Radio to record some interviews for the radio programs broadcasted in Asia. But the car comes too late. Essad Bey dies a few days earlier, on August 27, only at the age of 36, consumed by the disease.

Baku, old Muslim cemetery

As per his wishes, his body is buried in the small cemetery in Positano. The tomb – whose position was turned to face Mecca only in 2008 – is in Turkish style and is topped with a turban made of stone. On the stele, besides the name of Essad Bey, they carved in Arabic script the first verse of the first sura of the Qur’an: بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم, bismillāhi-rrahmani-rrahīm, in the name of God, the misericordious and merciful. The costs were paid by Ahmed Giamil Vacca Mazzara, an Algerian journalist, a paratrooper and a spy of Fascist Italy. But, in perfect consonance with this history, the identity of Ahmed Giamil is also a false one, his real name being Bello Vacca, and he himself an Italian citizen born in Tripoli, a former reserve officer who converted to Islam while living in Cairo.

The Saint Nino school, model for the lyceum of the Georgian Nino in the novel Ali and Nino: A
Love Story.
On the history of the school see our exhaustive previous post. The Nevsky
Cathedral in the background, built at the behest of Czar Alexander III on the place
of a Muslim cemetery, was demolished in 1936. (AI 15 (2011) 2-4)

But the secrets of the many lives of the Jewish-Azeri-Turkish prince do not end even with his death. Essad Bey had published in 1937 in Austria the novel Ali and Nino: A Love Story under the pseudonym Kurban Said. The book, which immediately became an international success and is already translated in 33 languages, tells about the story of love between a Muslim Romeo (the Azeri Ali) and a Christian Juliet (the Georgian Nino), and begins with a question that is crucial for Nussimbaum-Bey, “but are we Bakuvians Europeans or Orientals?” Ali, linked to the East and fascinated by the West, dies in the defense of the ancient Azerbaijani city of Ganja against the assault of the Russians. In Azerbaijan, where this novel is considered a national literary monument, not everyone admits the identity of Essad Bey and Kurban Said, and they attribute the novel to the national poet Yusif Vazir Çemenzeminli. In Germany, however, they believe that Kurban Said is the pseudonym of the Austrian Baroness Elfriede von Bodmershof von Ehrenfels. In fact, Essad Bey, unable to publish in German as a Jew, had agreed with the Baroness, his friend (whose husband had also converted Islam) to record the copyright of his works under her own name.

Prince Essad Bey, the writers Kurban Said and Yusif Vazir – and even the Georgian Grigol Robakidze – as well as Baroness von Elfriede von Bodmershof von Ehrenfels: how many lives and how many names between East and West, linked by a book and by years that changed so many worlds. A story that Lev Nussimbaum would have certainly loved very much.

The four candidates proposed for the authorship of Ali and Nino.

The illustrations of this post were taken from the last edition of Azerbaijan International, 15
(2011) 2-4,
a thematic volume dedicated to the question of “Ali and Nino. The Business of
of Literature. Who wrote Azerbaijan’s most famous novel?” This volume, which is the
most recent and most detailed research report both on Essad Bey and the everyday
life and culture of the fin-de-siècle Baku described in Ali and Nino, offers very
convincing arguments for the authorship of Yusif Vazir. We have bought
it just some days ago in the last old style second-hand bookshop of
Baku’s old city, and we will soon write both about the shop,
this volume, and the disappeared Baku described in it.

Main sources:
- Tom Reiss, The Orientalist, Random House, 2005
- Francesco M. Cataluccio, Vado a vedere se di là è meglio, Sellerio, 2010
- Massimo Introvigne, Essad Bey (alias Kurban Said), Il Domenicale, 2005, n. 4
- Stenio Solinas, Le tante identità di Mohammed Essad Bey, Leadership Medica 2004, n. 4
Foto of the tomb of Essad Bey
Foto of Positano

Baku, the Shirvanshah’s Palace. Late 19th century (AI 15 (2011) 2-4)

11 comentarios:

Effe dijo...

so many thanks to Studiolum for his kind translation, for the wonderful illustrations and for hosting this story.

Studiolum dijo...

many thanks to Effe for digging out this story and so perfectly recounting it in the country where Essad Bey is laying just at the same time when we came across his traces in the one where he was born

Araz dijo...

Congratulations, Effe, one more beautiful jewel at Rio Wang. Studiolum connects our worlds! Special compliments go to you for the illustrations.

Effe dijo...

illustration directly come from Baku, thank you and Studiolum.
And yes, Rio Wang connects worlds and words, for the sake of us readers.

MOCKBA dijo...

Interesting story. The unavoidable conflict between a craving to live another life, and betrayal of one's true identity.
Speaking of, specifically, literary impersonations of this epoch and region ... my fav story is that of Cherubina de Gabriac, named after a native plant of the Crimea. A Spanish nun or a Chinese philosopher, she was all.

Studiolum dijo...

A fascinating story indeed! Don’t you want to sum it up for the readers of Río Wang? Hopefully the Spanish translation would inspire a very sad and very exotic tango!

MOCKBA dijo...

Uh oh. Studiolum, it seems to be the case that whenever I suggest a cool topic to research and write up, you're like, sure, you do it yourself :)

I am no match to you searching, writing, and formatting skills. The links, the images, the verses... And in Cherubina's case specifically, I'd be even more humbled by the eloquence of its genial mastermind, Max Voloshin. After his account of the affair, how could anyone retell it better?

One can perhaps find double-deckers and concealed hints in his tale, but I don't know Catholic saints or flower symbols or XVI century demons' catalogs to hunt for any possibly obscure meanings there.

Studiolum dijo...

“…you’re like, sure, you do it yourself”

Of course! But it is a much more gorgeous pleasure to be the one criticizing yours for its faults than the one being criticized! :D

Seriously: Do it. While writing it in the draft, I will be honored to do my humble contribution with my very limited searching, writing and formatting skills. Especially in the field of Catholic saints, flower symbols and 16th-c. demons’ catalogs: there I am a doctor for sure!

walter dijo...

Two nights ago my flight to London passed over the Caspian and there, on the in-flight map, was Baku. Before the recent posts I confess it might not have registered. If nothing else, río Wang highlights how rich the world is in its peoples and how little I know of them. I learn much from these posts, and realise they deal at times with painful material. That Studiolum has gifts I don't have, not least his skill in coding beautiful pages, I have to accept. I look at the page source sometimes, remain baffled, but am challenged to learn.

I digress: I have read these recent posts many times now, and felt that a simple "thanks" to Effe and Araz (and Studiolum) fell short, but that's edging to a vanity on my part. I'm coming up to retirement, and you all have opened my eyes to matters well outside my professional field. I'm encouraged to further study. So, my warm thanks to everyone.

Finally, I would echo Studiolum's encouragement to Mockba to write on the Spanish mystic. It would be of great interest to me and doubtless others.

Araz dijo...

Dear walter, thank you for nice words and I am glad that now Baku does not look so distant to you. Again all compliments should go to Studiolum for keeping the strong flow of Rio Wang and encouraging to write - Escribir, existir.

Effe dijo...

Walter: to write, to read; those are different names of the same effort. Thank you for reading, than.
Many thanks also to Araz Yusubov ant Betty Blair for their precious advice.