The Passionate Nomad and the Orientalist

Isabelle Eberhardt and Lev Nussimbaum. A truly amazing pair of writers and travellers but you are unlikely to have heard of them. They died young in tragic circumstances in the first half of the 20th century but the thing I find fascinating was that they both assumed Islamic identities fooling the world for years, before being discovered. What is more, Nussimbaum [a Jew] was so right-wing that his classic Azeri novel Ali and Nino was praised by the Nazis and Eberhardt [an attractive young woman] travelled across Algeria for years disguised as a man.

Isabelle Eberhardt, dressed as a Russian sailor

Isabelle Eberhardt was born in Geneva to an aristocratic Russian mother, Nathalie Moerder (née Eberhardt), and Alexandre Trophimowsky an Armenian who an anarchist and had been an Orthodox priest. Trophimowsky was employed as tutor the Nathalie’s children but after her husband died of a heart attack, fathered Isabelle.  Isabelle was registered as her “illegitimate” daughter to avoid acknowledging the tutor’s paternity.

She was well educated, becoming fluent in Arabic and several other languages From an early age she dressed as a man in order to enjoy the greater freedom this allowed her.

Isabelle Eberhardt. The Passionate Nomad

Her first trip to North Africa was with her mother in May 1897 however, her mother died suddenly in Annaba and was buried there. Two years later Trophimowsky died of throat cancer, nursed by Isabelle. Following the suicide of her half-brother, Vladimir, and the marriage of her brother Augustin to a French woman she had nothing in common with, Isabelle’s ties to her former life were all but severed. From then on as recorded in her journals, Isabelle Eberhardt spent most of the rest of her life in Africa, making northern Algeria her home.

Dressed as a man, calling herself Si Mahmoud Essadi, Eberhardt travelled in Arab society, with a freedom she could not otherwise have experienced. She had converted to Islam and regarded it as her true calling in life.

On her travels she made contact with a secret Sufi brotherhood, the Qadiriyya. They were heavily involved in helping the poor and needy while fighting against the injustices of colonial rule. At the beginning of 1901 in Behima, she was attacked by a man with a sabre, in an apparent attempt to assassinate her.

On October 21, 1904, Eberhardt died in a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, Algeria.

Eberhardt wrote on her travels in many books and French newspapers, including Algerian Short Stories, published 1905; In the Hot Shade of Islam, published 1906 and The Day Laborers, published 1922. She finally worked as a war reporter in the South of Oran in 1903.

Nussimbaum was born in Kiev in October 1905. His father Abraam Leybusovich Nussimbaum, was an oil baron in Baku. His mother was Basya Davidovna Nussimbaum, a Belorussian Jewess who committed suicide when Lev was a small child. In 1918, Lev’s father fled Baku from the Bolsheviks,  taking him on a caravan of refugees through Turkestan, Persia and the Caucasus. The Nussimbaums relocated to Paris and finally Germany, where Lev finally converted to Islam and enrolled at university using the name “Essad Bey Nousimbaoum”.

Lev Nussimbaum

Nussimbaum adopted Islam as his official religion in August 1922, in Berlin, at age 17. By the early 1930s, he had become a bestselling author, writing about contemporary historical and political issues.

The transformation of Lev into Essad Bey Nousimbaoum

His political stance was on the monarchist far right. In 1931, he joined the German-Russian League Against Bolshevism, the members of which, Daniel Lazare remarks, “for the most part either were Nazis or soon would be” and also had connections to the pre-fascistic Young Russian movement.

The final transformation

In 1932, Essad Bey married poetess Erika Loewendahl who often appears in photographs dressed as a man. The marriage unfortunately failed, ending in scandal.

Nussimbaum assumed the identity of Essad Bey [purportedly related to to Erir of Bokara] and during this period wrote what has become Azerbaijan’s most famous novel [Ali and Nino]. Before his origins were discovered, the Nazi propaganda ministry included his works on their list of “excellent books for German minds”.

Uncovered as a Jew, Nussinbaum fled Germany to italy where he was initially invited to write a biography of Mussolini before being discovered again. Reduced to poverty, Nussimbaum died of Raynaud’s disease in Positano, in August 1942 at age 36.

Death, disease and suicide run a thread through these two lives but from the catastrophy of personal tragedy, comes imaginative creative writing of the highest order.

Much of the text of this post was derived from sources first published in Wikipedia:



About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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5 Responses to The Passionate Nomad and the Orientalist

  1. Yashil Aliyeva says:

    New Research about to be published shows that Lev Nussimbaum was not the CORE author of Ali and Nino – that like many of the other 16 books which carry his name (which were published during the short period of 8 years), manuscripts were passed to Lev Nussimbaum (Essad Bey), he embellished the text and because his name was more famous, publishers profited by attaching his name. Coming soon.
    Information on Wikipedia is not currently correct.

    Lev Nussimbaum’s pretentious association with Islam was opportunistic. He did not follow Muslim practice but used the identity to sell his books – particularly Mohammed, Allah is Great etc. He even identified himself on a voyage to the United States with his Jewish wife – as Jewish of Hebrew nationality.

  2. Yashil Aliyeva says:

    There is a greater likelihood that Lev Nussimbaum (Essad Bey) did not die of Reynaud’s disease (as is suggested in Reiss’s Orientalist) but rather of Buerger’s Disease. Research shows that doctors in Switzerland did not believe the diagnosis of Reynaud’s was correct. Seems that Nussimbaum continued to hide his nationality (Jewish) and thus the disease was not diagnosed correctly. Most likely EB died of Buerger’s Disease which afflicts young Jewish males, aged 25-40. Tragically, had he quit smoking, it’s likely that he would have survived it. Reynaud’s most often afflicts females.

  3. stevehollier says:

    I look forward to reading the product of your research, once it is completed.
    Steve Hollier

  4. Hugh Paxton says:

    The most intriguing, adventurous, warped, enthused and tragedy-prone family history I’ve ever read. And concise, not to mention very well written. Once again Hollier you get a five star review for your post. Your Blog goes from strength to strength!

    Recording lives, mundane and extraordinary, strikes me as an essential enrichment of our own.

    Unfortunately, Henri, the ex-Koevoet who was going to participate in my rather half-arsed plan to provide sniper protection to ships operating off the Somali coast has, in Erich’s words “turned the revolver on himself”.

    Erich is still alive and as usual is being chased by enraged bull elephants and trying to establish community based hospitality stations in Namibian communal lands. I am happy to report that. But I mourn Henri. I’m not sure whether you met him. But I liked him. Annabel liked him. And I wish I’d written his life story before he lost interest and hope in his own.

    Keep it up Steve.


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