|Biographical detail : ||A man caught between East and West.
Lev Nussimbaum was born on a train in tsarist Russia during the 1905 revolution. His father was a Baku oil magnet, his mother a political dissenter who committed suicide a few years later, reportedly by drinking acid.
Nussimbaum grew up in Azerbaijan, came of age as Bolsheviks seized power, fled east into central Asia and Persia, then west along the well-trodden White Russian route, across the Black Sea to Constantinople, then to Paris and finally Berlin in 1921.
By the mid-1930s, Nussimbaum, also known as Kurban Said, was an internationally famous writer. An authority on Russia and central Asia, his writing was voluminous – he had written 16 books by the time he was 30, a biographer of Muhammad (PBUH), Stalin and Tsar Nicholas II. His 1931 biography of Stalin was a warning that many refused to believe.
He is best known now as the enigmatic author of Ali and Nino, a brilliantly funny and affecting fictional masterpiece of Transcaucasia. Written in 1937 about events 20 years earlier, when the Bolsheviks extinguished Azeri freedoms, ‘Ali and Nino’ was later published several times after his death without his identity being known – in Azerbaijan the book enjoys the status of national novel.
Nussimbaum was an Orientalist, who converted to Islam, while he was in Germany, and kept a copy of Qur’an by his bed. He was shy of his Jewish roots, first because he preferred the robust glamour of the Islamic east, then in fascist Europe out of expediency. Among his titles is Allah is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World.
Nussimbaum’s life is deeply moving. He was deserted by his unfaithful wife, and his work was banned in Germany where he had made his name. His royalties were in bank accounts that he could not reach.
Lev Nussimbaum lived anonymously in rooms in Italy, suffering from Raynaud’s disease, which gradually immobilised his limbs and made him “howl” with pain. Still in his mid-thirties, he became a thin and stooped figure, hobbling on a stick, weakly calling for Positano boys to fetch the morphine from the pharmacist whose bills he could not pay.
Known as Essad Bey, he died from a painful wasting disease, penniless and alone in Positano in Fascist Italy.