Daily Archives: 16 August 2006

Education of Essad Bay Nousimbaoum, Orientalist

On October 17, 1922, Lev enrolled as a student in classes in Turkish and Arabic in the Seminar for Oriental Languages at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität. On his application, he wrote his name as “Essad Bey Nousimbaoum,” from Georgia. This was the first recorded official use of his new name—which was essentially “Mr. Leo Nussimbaum” transposed into Turkish. (However, the word “Bey” had connotations of Turkish nobility, and his new name helped build the impression that Lev was of princely origin.)

The inconvenient detail that Lev had not yet graduated from high school was not mentioned, and it became his great secret for the next year and a half. At first he was slightly disturbed by the university lectures, for he found that “the professors spoke about their subject matter as though they were speaking about completely ordinary things.” But gradually, he understood that the professors saw the Orient as a professional pursuit, while he was driven by “a mysterious compulsion.” Lev started to figure something out—a neat trick, in fact; a mental survival skill. He found that his love of ancient crumbling walls and winding souks was a guiding light he could shine on almost any landscape, no matter how bleak and intimidating it might seem. He would learn to carry a portable “Orient” inside him, one that he could unpack whenever he found a comfortable spot and the right audience.

He began to keep a crazy schedule. He was determined that no one in the Russian gymnasium find out that he was attending the university (under false pretenses), and at the same time no one at the university must realize that he was still in high school. At 6 a.m. each day, he set out from Charlottenburg and walked all the way to the other side of the city to the university. He would spend the morning in seminars while the gymnasium was still full of German girls. When the Russian school opened, at 3 p.m., he would be there just as if he had been loafing all day like his classmates. “While the teacher was explaining a geometric theorem, the Arabic grammar lay on my knees.”…

Lev’s capacity for hard work and mental focus was something that would drive the rest of his short life. The emigre writers were known for drinking and working like fiends, but Lev would soon astound even them. His clandestine academic activities made him feel at times like he was in an “exclusive club,” and at other times as though he lived in another world. He was glad to have a reason for being separate, however. Both the work and the schedule were a sort of emotional survival strategy. “Most likely I would have perished from this leap into poverty, if it had not been for the love of the ancient Orient that kept me going,” he recalled. Lev also found he enjoyed having a secret life. He was different, he knew, because of what he had done and what he was doing. He was now an Orientalist….

On the day of his final examination at the Russian gymnasium, Lev felt lost and hopeless. He had spent far too much time at night school, studying Arabic, Turkish dialects, and Uzbek geography. There was no hope he could pass in his basic subjects—especially Latin and mathematics. He felt a fool and imagined how his and his father’s prospects would become even worse when he flunked the exam. He would not be able to face the old man, who had experienced so much hardship. It would be more than he could bear.

The chairman of the examination committee, a wrinkled old Romanov prince with a monocle sunk impossibly deep into his face, seemed to take barely any notice of Lev during his exam. Then Lev saw he had written on his pad, “in his melancholy aristocratic handwriting” next to the name Nussimbaum, “a very poor candidate.” During the history examination, the old chairman practically seemed asleep as Lev was quizzed, sitting there indifferently and gazing off into the distance. Suddenly, he raised his head, fixed Lev through his monocle, and said: “Tell us something about the dominion of the Tartars and Mongols over Russia.”

The question would already have been the ultimate gift to Lev, even if he wasn’t in his third semester at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität.

“I saw before us the wide Mongolian steppes and the horsemen … and there was no stopping me,” Lev recalled. I think I even forgot that I was in the middle of the examination. I spoke and spoke, I quoted Arabic, Turkish, Persian authors in the original languages. Indeed, I even knew some Mongolian. The committee was dumbstruck—the prince dropped his monocle. Then suddenly he started posing questions, and lo and behold!—he posed questions in Persian, in Mongolian, he even quoted the classics of Oriental literature…. Only later did I find out that the prince was one of the most renowned Orientalists of Russia. The examination committee sweated; the whole thing went beyond their imagination. The teacher suddenly looked like a little schoolboy. What started out as an examination turned into a discussion in all different languages about all sorts of Oriental problems. I think it lasted two hours and it would have continued into the evening if the person sitting next to the prince, a former Russian privy councilor, hadn’t given him a nudge.

The discussion saved Lev. Whatever other mistakes he made on his examinations, the old prince saw his talent and would not let him fail. In place of “a very poor candidate,” the chairman made sure that all his examiners marked Lev as “average.” He could graduate.

SOURCE: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss (Random House, 2005), pp. 193-194, 198-199

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