Who Was Essad Bey?

Yuriy Gurzhy, wearing a fez tilted rakishly on his head strums a baglama, the six-stringed lute of the Oghuz Turks. Daniel Kahn, likewise in fez, runs his lean fingers up and down the keys of his accordion, while Marina Frenk, head wrapped in a turban, pounds a stand-up piano. The three musicians make up The Disorientalists, a group that has come together tonight at the Gorki Theater in Berlin to pay homage to the bizarre and contradictory life of Essad Bey.

A Jew from Baku turned Muslim, whose father was an oil baron millionaire and mother who bankrolled Stalin. An exile from the October Revolution who came to Berlin and became a wildly successful Weimar media star, all the while casting himself as a Persian prince. An avowed enemy of bolshevism, and oddly, a proponent of national socialism and at the end of his life a penniless wannabe biographer of Mussolini. A man, in short, who knew no borders, a danger-flirting Houdini and intellectual escape artist. This is the man The Disorientalists have come to celebrate, asking the question as Trotsky had asked a hundred years before, “Who was this Essad Bey?”

Well who was Essad Bey? It’s important to say, he was born on a train somewhere in Ukraine, who grew up in Baku, a Russian, a Jew. Who was this, who was this Essad Bey?” sings Gurzhy in droll Slavic inflected English. “He lived in Berlin, to Allah he prayed, he once wrote a book called ‘Allah is Great’, he once was a fascist in his very own way, but who was, who was Essad Bey?

Indeed, who was Essad Bey? I had first come across the name in connection with the quote “Islam is the desert” in a book on Ottoman history while researching a story on Islam in the Balkans. A diffuse figure, vague and at the same time ubiquitous, I thought initially that, with his Turkish-sounding name, he must have been an Ottoman essayist of the last century. It was only in my conversations with Yuriy Gurzhy that I met with the name again and the dim outlines of the man began to emerge.

Yuriy Gurzhy is Berlin’s man from Ukraine, a singer and front man of Rotfront, an eastern European rock band that blends klezmer with ska and hip-hop, a band that only border-straddling Berlin can produce.

Short and compact, always donning dapper headgear, Yuriy’s unique and sprightly vocal style dripping shtetl accents can be found on tracks by Amsterdam Klezmer Band and Shantel. Yuriy also co-founded Berlin’s famous Soviet-nostalgic Russendisko parties with Russian novelist and WahlBerliner, Wladimir Kaminer. Yuriy himself stumbled upon the filmic life of Essad Bey in a 2005 biography by American writer Tom Reiss.

“When I first heard about this story I thought it can’t be real, it can’t be true,” said Yuriy. “Because it sounds like a screenplay for a B-movie. C-movie. Because it seems so unreal and absurd in parts.” Not only was it his Jewish identity and Berlin connection that appealed to Yuriy, it was also a particular photo in Tom Reiss book featuring Essad Bey – then the boy Lev Nusimbaum – seated quizzically in a group photo taken at a “Jewish Muslim Christmas party” that appealed to his sense of the absurd. “I knew after seeing this photo that I simply had to do something on him”.

Essad Bey, otherwise known as Lev Nusimbaum was born in October 1905, officially in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, although in Bey’s self-mythologizing account, he came into this world on a train en route from Kiev. 

Baku was then a boom town grown rich on oil, which was how Bey’s father made his millions. It was also an Oriental town with a kind of Arabian nights air to it, which infused itself into Bey’s imagination in the form of stories about Arab bards, Persian wise men and Turkish knights and horsemen. These were the stories Bey was weaned on, insinuating themselves into Bey’s dreams and waking fantasies. 

Bey would carry these formative impressions to far off Berlin, where he ended up after a long and hair-raising adventure following the Russian revolution and forced exile through Central Asia to Istanbul and thence to Paris and finally to Berlin in 1921. In Berlin, Bey matriculated at the Russian Gymnasium in the district of Charlottenburg, then called jokingly Charlottengrad for its number of White Russian exiles.

While they were here, the Russian exiles had started newspapers and magazines, published books, organized literary evenings, opened bookstores – created, according to Vladimir Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, a “cultural supernova without equal in refugee humanity”.

Those who couldn’t support themselves through cultural endeavors performed odd jobs. Penniless counts waited tables, down-at-the-heals concert maestros entertained at piano bars. Nabokov, himself, who Bey had dealings with, taught English, tennis and boxing, “selling,” as one of his characters puts it, “the surplus of a gentleman’s upbringing.”

Charlottenburg today has a marked East European vibe with its Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians and ex-Yugos. They hang out in Buglarian shisha lounges, Georgian restaurants, swank cafes, patronize  Russian supermarkets offering beluga caviar, sturgeon  and forty different kinds of vodka. In nearby Wedding, long time Russian exile painter Nikolai Marakov, hosts a Russian salon famous for its cockroach races (a popular White Russian pastime in post-revolution Istanbul), where Berlin artists and socialites bet on the roach racers, who even boast trainers and sponsors. 

Back in Weimar era Berlin, and surrounded by exile Russians, Bey, an extremely precocious youth, early on decided to fashion for himself an Eastern identity, performed his shahada while passing through Istanbul en route to Paris, but evidently felt that it was not binding enough and finally converted more officially in Berlin before the imam of the Ottoman ambassador in 1922 in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. It was then that he took on the name Essad Bey.

While still a high school student Essad enrolled at Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University at the Seminar for Oriental Languages, under false pretences, determined to learn “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. In order to distinguish himself among Berlin literatis he cast himself as a Muslim aristocrat of Persian and Turkic heritage. In this fashion he told fairy tales about his family history while turning the history of the East into fairy tales. His most famous work was a novel called Ali and Nino, published in 1937 under the nom de plum Kurban Said, and considered to be the national novel of Azerbaijan. The book was made into a film in 2014.

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, and all this by the age of thirty. At the height of his career he was a famous man 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 moved in the glamorous circle of exiles that included the Pasternaks and the Nabokovs, and he was a celebrity in Vienna, New York, and Hollywood in the 1930s.

Essad’s real aptitude, however lay in fashioning his own mercurial identity. Until his death in 1942 at 37, he spun a web of mystery regarding his real persona, engaging in all manner of ruses and PR stunts designed to keep himself in the public eye. He would show up at Berlin’s famous literary haunt, Café des Westens, donning a turban and flowing robes. He determined to play up his image as the “Man from the East” for a public that was as ignorant as it was avid for knowledge about the Muslim Orient.

By the time Essad Bey had died – alone and impoverished in Positano, Italy, after being banned from publishing in Germany and then Austria as a result of his Jewish blood, Bey was a forgotten man. After his death his books would continue to draw attention amongst orientalists, but Bey had long since ceased to be a name in common circulation. He was persona from a long vanished Weimar epoch, whose reputation was only tended by those in-the-know.

It was only recently that Essad Bey’s books have been taken up and dusted off and put under the critical magnifying glass, not without a sense of wonder and amusement at the writer’s protean twists and turns.

This is mainly owing to Tom Reiss and his 2005 best-seller biography The Orientalist, which masterfully cast the writer in the light of modern history, at the whims of which Bey was so often and so violently buffeted. 

But Reiss was by no means the only Bey aficionado. Here in Berlin a certain German Orientalist from the former GDR, named Prof. Gerhard Höpp was working on a definitive German study of Essad Bey, before he died in 2003. Today his unfinished manuscript and scholarly legacy is being tended by the Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. Located in an expansive country house-style villa in a leafy corner of suburban Berlin, Sonja Hegasy presides over Höpp’s estate, gathering together Höpp’s published works dealing with Essad Bey and serving them up to curious journalists and academics. 

“There is a tendency to say there is this on the one hand Judeo Christian tradition and then on the other hand Islam,” says Hegasy. “I don’t believe in this at all. The Jewish Christian relationship was not that nice as people present it today. I myself talk about there being a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. And this is why Essad 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 Essad Bey — who converted to Islam.”

One person who has delved into the Höpp archives is the film maker Ralf Marshalleck. One day while in Prague Marshallek’s script editor gave him a copy of Bey’s book Oil and Blood in the Orient dug up in some second hand book shop, saying, “This could be a good subject for a film.” Marshellek read it in one night and was so bowled over by the book that he started researching the life of Essad Bey with a film in mind.

“It was about Europe from the Oriental perspective. This whole world of Baku and Persia, this melting-pot of the East. Baku was like New York, but in the East. 50 peoples were mixed up together. And this whole fascinating set-up, multi-cultural, economic, political, war-like. And to think about how the world was different outside the West during the great wars. That was what was so fascinating. Like Karl May,” says Marshallek, in reference to another German charlatan writer and author of penny-dreadfuls set in the American West, Balkans and the Middle East.

After getting the cold shoulder from Tom Reiss in New York, Marshallek began sifting through the Höpp archives in Berlin and meeting with the scholar personally before he died of cancer in 2003.

One of the great mysteries for Marschallek was how could Essad Bey write such brilliant exposés of Stalin and his apparatus and still emerge skin intact.  “Why wasn’t he tracked down and attacked. Berlin was full of Russian secret agents. The whole network of the Russian secret service was here. Why didn’t they kill Essad Bey? When they could kill Trotsky in Mexico.”

In the end Marschallek made a documentary on Essad Bey in 2014, travelling to Baku, Positano and shooting scenes in Berlin. The result was an unconventional documentary film, personal, told from the subjective perspective of Bey’s own self by means of flashbacks as the author lay dying in Positano to Baku, Berlin, Vienna, Paris.

One scene that was ultimately taken out of the film was that featuring the Brienner Strasse Ahmadiyya mosque. Deep in west Berlin, in a sleepy residential district of old villas, a Russian Orthodox church from the thirties and a sprawling cemetery, lies Germany’s oldest extant mosque, built in a Mogul style with a bulbous cupola and 32 meter high minarets in 1928. Fridays forty or fifty Muslims from a wide array of Middle Eastern and African countries assemble on Oriental carpets facing the quibla – the prayer niche indicating the direction to Mecca. According to Marschallek, Essad Bey almost certainly would have made his prostrations in this mosque, the only Muslim house of prayer in Berlin in the twenties and thirties.

According to Hassan Haacke, a German Muslim convert who possesses a rambling library of books on Islam including one of Germany’s largest collection of Korans, Essad Bey without a doubt had to do with the Ahmadiyya mosque. “There was nothing else,” says Haacke. According to Haacke, the mosque put out a publication called Der Muslimische Review, which sponsored lectures at the mosque. Essad Bey, says Haacke, was always mentioned.

One question that remains when looking over the life of Essad Bey is to what extent his conversion to Islam was a PR gag, and to what extent it was based on real religious conviction. Unfortunately, in his book Tom Reiss does not delve into Essad Bey’s spiritual life, laughing up his sleeve at what he perceives to be part prank, part religious alibi, part shrewd survival strategy and part youthful eccentricity. For Tom Reiss, Essad Bey remained as always, the Jew from Baku.

The Herald Tribune portrayed Essad 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, I think,” says Haacke. “About his religiosity one can only make conjectures. And I would say – my gut feeling is that – this is only what I think – that he really only used Islam as a vehicle in order to find recognition. Because as an immigrant from the Caucasus, from Russia – there were many Russian immigrants during that time in Berlin, and he would have been lost in the crowd. But through his conversion to Islam and changing his name, by taking up a pseudonym, and writing books on themes which were back then highly regarded, or interested the people, he made himself interesting. And made a name for himself.”

One chilly evening at the end of November, I made it to the Literaturhaus on Fasanen Strasse in Berlin for a lecture on Essad Bey. With me was Kerim Raschid. An American Muslim of mixed Turkish, Austrian, Hungarian and Circassian heritage, Kerim has been at work on an elusive book on Muslims in Germany for 17 years, and one of his main protagonists is Essad Bey. “My feeling, in contrast to my friend Hassan Haacke, is that Essad Bey was indeed an authentic Muslim,” said Kerim. “A Muslim may have his own world-view due to his upbringing and environment, but sooner or later he or she must ‘break on through to the other side’ and acquire a “pan-Islam’ attitude, which entails accepting the truth wherever you find it. Brother Essad Bey attempts this himself when he pokes fun at the internecine bickering of Muslims in Berlin.”

Donning red fezes, Kerim and I listened intently as Sebastian Januszewski gave his talk about Essad Bey in Berlin between 1921 and 1933. Inside these very wood paneled walls, said Januzsevski, Essad Bey had gathered with fellow co-religionists of the Islam Institute, the very same people who had turned on him following the publication of Blood and Oil in the Orient, construing the book as an attack on the East, pandering to loathsome stereotypes, motivated by a wish to “discredit the Orient in the eyes of Europeans,” in the words of a critic.

Before exiting the Literaturhaus an elderly lady took a look at Kerim and myself, musing on our fez get-up, making some ironic comment or other. “Yes, we are members of the Essad Bey Appreciation Society”, said Kerim. And we stepped outside, leaving the building, Essad Bey’s old Islam Institute, behind us. “It’s a funny thing,” said Kerim turning to me, “Stepping down these stairs Essad would have tread so many years ago I can venture to say that the spirit of Bey is walking with us”.

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