“The caravan was wandering eastwards, lost in a dream. The train was pushing westwards along its iron rails, mindless and mechanical. Why did I not raise my hand to pull the communication cord? This was where I belonged, to the camels, to the men leading them, to the sand! What was it to me, this world behind the mountains? These Europeans with their wars, their cities, their Czars, Kaisers and Kings? Their sorrows, their happiness, their cleanliness and their dirt — we have a different way of being clean or dirty, good or bad, we have a different rhythm and different faces. Let the train rush to the West. My heart and soul belong to the East.”
Thus narrates the hero of Ali and Nino, a young man devoted to the traditions of the East, Islam and the desert, whose whole predicament nevertheless lay in the West, as he fled war and revolution in Baku, Azerbaijan.
It was also the lifelong dilemma of the book’s author, Essad Bey, born Lev Nusimbaum, a Jew from Baku, unsettled by the October Revolution of 1917 when it swept through Azerbaijan. He sought refuge in Berlin in the 1920s, where he converted to Islam, took on an imagined persona as the son of a Muslim prince, and hewed out a career for himself as one of the Weimar Republic’s most successful and prolific writers.
After the Nazis banned Bey from writing in the 1930s, when his Jewish identity came to light, his reputation sank into oblivion. For those who stumble upon Bey through some of his books still in print, the name is shrouded in mystery and conundrum. What was his real name? Was he a Jew or a Muslim? Was he some kind of charlatan, a literary trickster, a crypto-communist as his detractors made him out to be? Or should we take him at face value as a man from the East who genuinely sought refuge in the traditions of the Orient?
In 2005, American writer Tom Reiss published a biography that threw light on Bey’s convoluted life. In 2014, a documentary film was made on Bey, and last year, a Ukrainian musician in Berlin decided to put Bey’s life to song after a copy of Reiss’ book fell into his hands.
“What intrigued me the most was a photo in the book which featured Bey at what was described as a ‘Jewish- Muslim Christmas party,’ ” the musician, Yuriy Gurzhy, told me. “I knew after I saw this that I just had to do something on the life of Bey.”
And so Gurzhy, who already fronted a successful rock band in Berlin named Rotfront, decided to form a trio called “The Disorientalists,” devoted to putting Bey’s life to song. Last year they came out with an album, Who was Essad Bey, and now there is even talk of making a musical.
“When I first heard about this story, I thought, it can’t be real,” Gurzhy says. “It can’t be true; because it sounds like a screenplay for a B-movie or C-movie, because it seems so unreal and absurd in parts.”
But just why is Bey’s life so compelling? And what really was behind his decision to convert to Islam? Moreover, what relevance does Bey have today?
By the end of his life, he had written 16 books, most of them international bestsellers, translated into 14 languages, and sold in 17 countries
Bey was born to a Jewish oil baron father and radical revolutionary mother who had bankrolled Stalin. Weaned on stories of Arab bards, Persian wise men and Turkish knights and horsemen, Bey grew up in pre-revolution Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, a small, oil-rich, Shia-majority country that boasted ties to Europe yet remained steadfastly Eastern.
After Bolsheviks captured Baku in 1920, Bey embarked with his father and his German governess (his mother had since committed suicide) on a long and circuitous journey that took them across the Caspian Sea, through Persia and the deserts of Turkestan, to Istanbul, Paris and ultimately Berlin, where he was matriculated at the Russian gymnasium in Chalottenburg.
An extremely precocious youth, Bey decided early on to fashion an Eastern identity. He performed his shahada while passing through Istanbul en route to Paris, but felt that it was not binding enough. He converted more officially in Berlin before the Imam of the Ottoman ambassador in 1922 in the final days of the Empire’s existence, and took on the name Bey.
While still a high-school student, Bey enrolled at Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University at the Seminar for Oriental Languages under false pretenses, as he didn’t mention that he had not yet finished secondary school. He was determined to learn, in his own words, “everything that had to do with camels, deserts, Arabs, dilapidated archways and the people who had once erected them.”
He thereupon embarked on a literary career, brilliant and prolific as it was, fraught with controversy. To distinguish himself among Berlin literatos, he cast himself as a Muslim aristocrat of Persian and Turkic heritage. In this fashion, he told fairy tales about his family history while also turning the history of the East into fairy tales.
By the end of his life, he had written 16 books, most of them international bestsellers, translated into 14 languages, and sold in 17 countries. At the height of his career, he was famous in Europe and the United States, the author of acclaimed biographies of the last Czar and Stalin, and even the center of tabloid gossip in New York and Los Angeles. He also moved in the glamorous circle of exiles, including the Pasternaks and the Nabokovs.
Bey’s real aptitude, however, lay in fashioning his own mercurial identity. Until his death in 1942, he spun a web of mystery regarding his real persona, engaging in all manner of ruses and PR stunts designed to keep him in the public eye. He would show up at Berlin’s famous literary haunt, Café des Westens, donning a turban and flowing robes. It was all part of his bid to play up his image as a man from the East.
In essence, Bey’s fascination for the Orient hearkened back to the 19th-century vogue among Jews in Berlin for all things Eastern, when Jews adopted a “Moorish style” in architecture that summoned up associations of the Jewish-Muslim mélange of Andalusia and Granada, when Muslim caliphates ruled in Spain and Jews rose to incomparable status in society.
According to Berlin researcher and rare book collector Hasan Haacke, Bey was extremely well connected in the Islamic scene in Berlin in the 1920s. “Everyone knew Bey,” Haacke told me. “Only no one knew where he came from and where he was going, and there was something very mysterious about him. And he tried to foster this mystery. He didn’t say, ‘Hey people, this is where I’m from.’ Rather he kept people guessing. Right till the last minute.”
There was only one mosque in Berlin in the interwar period to speak of, a Mogul-style edifice constructed between 1924 and 1927 by the Lahore Ahmadiyya movement, a mosque that Bey almost certainly would have set foot in. There were also a number of congregations, which, if nothing else, were marked by their mutual enmity, infighting and competition.
There were many Indians and Arabs in Berlin, but few Turks, which is remarkable considering the majority of Muslims in Berlin today are Turkish. Interestingly, single Muslim men were looked upon as desirable by German women for their exotic appearance and air of mystery, Haacke says.
“I would say in Berlin, there were in the ’20s and ’30s between 500 and 1,000 Muslims,” Haacke says. “That’s a rough estimate. And among those, 50 maybe were Germans. Men and women. That’s not a large number, but still it’s remarkable for the time, that there were any at all.”
It is still unclear if Bey’s conversion to Islam was just a PR gag, or if it was at all based on real religious conviction. Unfortunately, Reiss, Bey’s first biographer, does not delve into Bey’s religious life, laughing at what he perceives to be part prank, religious alibi, shrewd survival strategy and youthful eccentricity. For Reiss, Bey remained, as always, the Jew from Baku.
The New York Herald Tribune in the 1930s portrayed Bey as an irreverent Muslim who “carries no prayer rug; he fails to salute Mecca when he prays … eats pig and drinks wine; yet when he came to be married in Berlin he refused to abjure his creed.”
“When you think about him walking around with a turban and robes, you can’t help regard him as a bit of a self-promoter,” Haacke says. “About his religiosity, one can only make conjectures. And … my gut feeling is … he really only used Islam as a vehicle in order to find recognition.”
Bey aroused deep feelings as well as animosity among German nationalist and exile Muslims. “He polarized people,” Haacke says. “You either loved him or hated him, but in the end, it was just a matter of taste.”
Bey’s first novel, Blood and Oil in the Orient, got rave reviews across Europe and America. But the German press could be hostile. Many Muslims construed the book as an attack on the East. One critic, in a protest sent to leading newspapers, wrote that the book pandered to loathsome stereotypes, motivated by a wish to “discredit the Orient in the eyes of Europeans.” The critic also claimed, “His pornographic book bears the stamp of the filthiest agitation and the statements contained therein are lies from beginning to end and the basest form of slander.” The protest was signed by a long list with one representative each from a dozen Muslim countries with exile nationalist groups based in Berlin.
Bey’s old club, the Islamic Institute, a Berlin-based association of Muslims from all parts of the Islamic world, joined the campaign against him. In the spring of 1930, its board accused Bey of having insulted “the feelings of the world with his (literary) scams” and said that it wanted nothing more to do with this charlatan who had passed himself off “as a native Muslim, contrary to the facts.” Its business manager, Muhammad Hoffman, himself a convert, attacked Bey for attempting “to pass for a born Muslim,” and even cast doubt on the authenticity of his conversion to Islam, suggesting it had been a ruse.
The campaign against Blood and Oil, which took on a marked anti-Semitic character, ultimately reached the foreign office. Bey’s book, it was felt, had the potential to diminish the reputation of Germany and the Orient, and could damage friendly relations between Germany and the Middle East, prompting exile-politicians to try to ban the book. In the end, the whole hullabaloo only meant increased sales.
Bey fled to Italy in 1938 with the unbelievable hope of becoming Benito Mussolini’s official biographer. It is an interesting fact that in the early years of Italian Fascism, some Jews supported the movement, and Mussolini himself offered some criticism of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, which he called “the German vice.” However, ultimately as Italy threw in its lot with Germany, Italian Fascism became explicitly anti-Semitic, and many Jews forsook the movement. Not Bey.
In 1942, he died in Positano at the age of 37 of little known Buerger’s Disease, as a result of his heavy smoking. He was given a Muslim burial, the Quran placed under his head and his face directed toward the east. Reiss saw him as playing the comedy of identity till the bitter end.
However, Sonja Hegasy of the Leibniz Zentrum Moderne Orient (ZMO) research institute in Berlin maintains that Bey’s primary researcher Gerhard Höpp (also affiliated with the ZMO), a German scholar and Orientalist who devoted his life to the study of Bey who had intended to publish a definitive book on Bey before his own untimely death in 2003, had little doubt about the authenticity of Bey’s relation to Islam. “Professor Höpp concluded that his conversion was a real one, it was not a play, it was not a game,” Hegasy told me.
“This tendency to say there is this, on the one hand, Judeo-Christian tradition and then on the other hand, Islam — I don’t believe in this at all,” Hegasy continues. “The Jewish-Christian relationship was not as nice as people present it today. I myself talk about there being a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. And this is why Bey is so important. There is this feeling that Islam is this alien thing and everyone is surprised when you say that there were some Jews — like Bey — who converted to Islam.”
Bey’s life and works remain to this day shrouded in mystery. Professor Höpp maintained that Bey’s conversion to Islam was genuine. Yet it is clear from his novels, such as Ali and Nino, that he played to the gallery, so to speak, exaggerating the exoticism of the Muslim East to fit modern stereotypes. “There is no question that he fed people what they wanted to hear,” Haacke says.
Clearly, the life of Essad Bey is a field of research that has yet to be exhausted, and the final word remains to be made.
*Image: A photo from “The Disorientalists” album. >Via Oriente Musik