Daily Archives: 17 August 2006

Looking East from Berlin in the 1920s

At twenty-one, Lev had a young writer’s classic lucky break: perhaps through the Pasternaks, he got an introduction to Die Literarische Welt‘s powerful editor, Willy Haas. In no time he was one of the favorites, part of the inner circle around the charismatic Haas, who gave Lev top billing when most of the columnists were twice his age or older. Haas called him the paper’s “expert on the East,” and that was a timely thing to be. Whatever the reason for Haas’s initial patronage—and spotting an improbable hurricane of talent and energy had to have been the main thing—Lev, or rather “Essad Bey,” became one of the journal’s three most prolific contributors.

Lev’s first article, appropriately enough, was “From the East,” in 1926—a discussion of newspaper journalism in Malaysia and Azerbaijan. His contributions would range from a consideration of the poetry of Genghis Khan (Genghis got a positive review) to “Film and the Prestige of the White Race,” a seemingly frivolous but actually prescient consideration of how images of European and American immorality were lowering the status of the West in the eyes of Easterners, Muslims in particular. Lev prescribed some positive images of Western culture on the double, if the “white race” did not want to permanently lose the respect of the increasingly independence-minded peoples of Asia. He reported on curiosities like “The Eunuch Congress,” describing how the former palace and harem eunuchs of the Ottoman sultan had recently held a trade organization meeting in Constantinople. And he wrote a positive review of the first German biography of Ataturk, concluding that Mustafa Kemal is the “least Turkish of all Turks, who aided the victory of the West with Eastern methods, with cunning, tyranny and deception.”

In these early pieces, Lev pays particular attention to Eastern leaders who know how to use the West to their advantage, like Ataturk and, later, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who becomes a subject of particular fascination. During the 1930s Lev would become obsessed with Peter the Great, the monarch who, more than any other, united East and West in his realignment of Russia to absorb the European Enlightenment. Lev loved and hated Peter, but in the end he was overwhelmed by his subject and could not finish the book. For another author that might have meant wasted years; for Lev it meant bringing his study of Peter to biographies of Czar Nicholas and Reza Shah. (Lev believed that the dictator of Persia came much closer to ruling like Peter the Great than the last czar, Nicholas, ever did.) But in a droller vein, Lev also covered the glamour of the East. In one feature, “Buchara at the Hotel Adlon: The Last Emir, Fairytales from 1,001 Nights in the 20th Century,” he describes in amusing detail how the royal courts of Central Asia, defeated by the Bolsheviks, are now living rather well in the heart of the Potsdamer Platz, entertaining and going to formal parties.

The series of articles Lev wrote for Die Literarische Welt and other papers about the visit of the dynamic Afghan monarch King Amanullah to the German capital in 1928 allowed him to combine his nose for East-meets-West drama with critical political analysis. Though the articles paint a picture of the bleakness of both the geographical and social climate of Afghanistan (it “is inhabited by wild, mutually alien clans … who hate everything foreign [and] patrol their borders on small ugly horses, stare greedily at the armed caravans that come from far away, and show them pyramids of skulls that until recently marked the borders”), Lev also conveys the bright hope that characterized Afghanistan in the twenties, where “in contrast with the other Islamic countries that found a rather humble present on a glorious past, it is a country without a past but with a great future.”

SOURCE: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss (Random House, 2005), pp. 206-208

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