"Ali and Nino" opens with a very telling geography quiz. The 1937 novel is a minor classic, a "Romeo and Juliet" story of young romance and adventure...

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“The Orientalist: Solving
the Mystery of a Strange

and Dangerous Life”

by Tom Reiss

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Random House, 433 pp., $25.95

“Ali and Nino” opens with a very telling geography quiz. The 1937 novel is a minor classic, a “Romeo and Juliet” story of young romance and adventure set in the Caucasus Mountains amid warring Bolsheviks, Muslims and Christians. To introduce all of this to the reader, author Kurban Said has Ali’s teacher pose a question: Trapped as this region of Azerbaijan is amid Iran, Russia and Armenia, which way should it turn: to Asia or to Europe? Where does its future lie?

It’s a trap the best-selling author himself never escaped. In the ’20s and ’30s, Said used the exotic image that Westerners have of his native land to shape a celebrity reputation for himself as a dashing warrior-prince, a mysterious, Near Eastern exile who’d eluded Bolsheviks and fascists.

He eluded them because he never existed. Neither did his compatriot, Essad Bey, author of one of the first histories of the area, “Blood and Oil in the Orient.” Both men were actually inventions of Lev Nussimbaum, son of a Jewish millionaire. He created these legends about himself just as he adopted Islam: out of a dream of the fabulous Orient, a childhood memory of his hometown of Baku, where Jews and Muslims interacted peacefully and the czars held sway before the Soviets smashed it all.

With “The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life,” Tom Reiss has written a spellbinding history of Nussimbaum’s deceptions. I flatter myself as being reasonably conversant with the Russian Revolution, yet there’s history here — of religious sects and nihilist assassins — of which I knew little.

The late critic Edward Said famously argued that our notions of the “Orient” were as much a creation of Western imperialists as any cultural reality. But it’s hard not to see Nussimbaum as a figure from the “Arabian Nights.” His native region is so oil-soaked that hillsides, even the Caspian Sea itself, can roar into flame. Azerbaijan, it turns out, is based on the Persian word for “fire.” And Baku is the seaport home of the oil millionaires, where mansions tower among the mosques, but the grandest building in town is a copy of the casino at Monte Carlo.

When the Bolsheviks brought all this down, the Nussimbaums fled. Trekking across deserts and mountains, they eventually settled in Paris, then Berlin, then Italy — much like other Russian émigrés. In fact, the one thing the book truly needs is a good map.

By this time, Nussimbaum had re-created himself as Essad Bey, Muslim and monarchist. He became a counterrevolutionary cultural interpreter, writing the first biographies of Stalin and Lenin. Even the Nazis found him fascinating: After all, here was a Semite who was more Caucasian than they were.

What he actually was, Reiss argues, is a rarity nowadays, a Jewish Orientalist. It’s a modern myth that Jews and Muslims have always been at war. For centuries, they often were the best interpreters of each other. Nussimbaum was so in love with his dream of pashas and turbans that he came to live inside it. But he finally, sadly, was unable to escape that dream, as World War II erupted around him.

Reiss has uncovered diaries and letters and Nazi collaborators. He takes us with him as he follows shadowy leads through the streets of Vienna, interviewing relatives and publishers. It may be part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga, but “The Orientalist” is completely fascinating.