What’s in a name?

December 04, 2016

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Aamer Hussein is a short story writer and novelist living in London.
Aamer Hussein is a short story writer and novelist living in London.

In the summer of 1970 when I was 15, a newcomer to London and discovering a new world of literature in translation, I came upon an intriguing novel in the New Books display at my local library. Titled Ali and Nino: A love story, it was a miniature epic set mostly in Azerbaijan and chronicled the marriage of the eponymous couple — an Azerbaijani nobleman and his Georgian Christian wife — against the backdrop of WWI and the momentous political changes in what became the Soviet Union. The novel had been published in German in 1938 and had only just been translated and published in English; no one knew who the real author was, and the name ‘Kurban Said’ was thought to be a pseudonym. It was assumed, however, that he was an Azerbaijani nationalist who had died during Joseph Stalin’s purges.

It wasn’t until 1998 that I found the book again, now battered, in the library; I bought it for a few coins and decided to reread it over the winter vacations. I was entranced. It’s a beautiful story, combining intimacy with the kind of historical sweep that I hadn’t quite appreciated as a teenager, and a feeling of lived experience which leaves little doubt that the author was steeped in the life and times he was narrating. Entirely by coincidence, the novel, which had been out of print for many years, came out in a new edition the very next year. I immediately put it on a course I was teaching on literatures in translation; several of my students loved it, calling it ‘a Muslim Dr Zhivago’. But the familiar readerly obsession with the author’s biography overwhelmed the discussion; it had been revealed by then in the New Yorker that its creator, far from being an Azerbaijani Shia, was probably Lev Nussimbaum, a Baku-born Jew who had grown up in Azerbaijan and left to escape the revolution. To complicate things further, an Austrian baroness, Elfriede Ehrenfels, may have co-written the novel or even been its sole author as she (and after her death, her family) held the copyright.

The mystery deepened when The Girl from the Golden Horn, another novel purporting to be written by Said, was published in London in 2003. A Turkish-speaking writer who had visited Azerbaijan and who, like me, had been enchanted by Ali and Nino’s robust evocation of character, time and place, reported that Azerbaijani intellectuals discredited the notion that the book’s author was the original Said (whether or not Nussimbaum could lay claim to that name). Had the baroness, intoxicated by the success of the first collaboration, taken over the name to write this Hollywood-style Orientalist romance about an Ottoman princess adrift in Vienna who marries an unbeliever? It seemed likely.


The true authorship of an Azerbaijani masterpiece comes up for debate, and the question of primary and secondary authorship arises …


Excited by the controversies, Tom Reiss — the American writer who had written the New Yorker article in 1999 — produced The Orientalist (2005), a detailed biography of Nussimbaum, setting out to prove that he was the sole author of Ali and Nino. As a child, Nussimbaum had always yearned to belong to Baku where he was born. He had learned its ways and customs through his childhood friends; his fiction portrayed this authentic knowledge. Though he was writing about a lost time and a place he had only experienced in his childhood and adolescence, his native city had left an indelible mark on his memory and imagination. He was also said to have converted to Islam at an early age, renamed himself Essad Bey, and was buried in a Muslim grave.

Publicity poster of Asif Kapadia’s film adaptation of Ali and Nino. — IFC Films
Publicity poster of Asif Kapadia’s film adaptation of Ali and Nino. — IFC Films

The biography was impressive, but I must confess to a certain disappointment that Ali and Nino may not have been written (albeit in a Western language which wasn’t even Russian) by an Azeri. And I wouldn’t have been surprised if Azeri critics had rushed to criticise the work for flaws and inaccuracies. But they didn’t. In 2011, an entire issue of a journal was dedicated to the subject of the novel’s authorship, following a thesis that had been current in Turkish-speaking literary circles since at least the 1990s, and was supported by his heirs, that the author was in fact Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli, a novelist of the generation before Nussimbaum’s. This was substantiated by Chamanzaminli’s diaries, writings and stories, and some elements of his biography.

Today, though, the evidence designating Chamanzaminli as ‘core’ rather than sole author points increasingly to the fact that what we have before us is a either a fascinating case of blatant plagiarism, or of some sort of collaboration in which Nussimbaum, with or without Ehrenfels, translated the work into German with certain folkloric embellishments to make it palatable to the German readers of the time. Matters are complicated by the fact that Nussimbaum knew little Azeri, but Chamanzaminli was certainly alive when the book was published: he died in a labour camp some years later. How much he knew about the finished product we will never know, and I haven’t discovered yet whether he read German. However, ‘Kurban Said’ is the pseudonym Chamanzaminli is meant to have chosen for this work, being a Syed who was willing to sacrifice himself for the cause of his nation.

Today the world has two Kurban Saids — the ‘core author’ with whom Azeris can identify, and the shape-shifting Orientalist who evokes, in his career, so many of the literary theories of the last century about hybridity, métissage, border-crossings and cultural appropriation. Whoever its author might be, Ali and Nino retains its readership and its status as a minor classic which, while deeply rooted in its historical background, transcends simple categories of nation and narration.

In another library — London University’s — I chanced upon a sadder story at just about the time the Nussimbaum biography was in the spotlight. The story was that of Elissa Rhais, an Algerian writer who had been celebrated by her contemporaries in France in the 1920s and 1930s as the first Muslim woman to expose life in the harems and souks of her time in a series of lushly-written romances with exotic titles. However, it seems that her career came to an abrupt end in the ’30s when it was discovered that she was possibly completely illiterate but definitely all, or part, Jewish; her Muslim identity was a pose.

Almost half a century later, a distant relative, Paul Tabet, fictionalised her story in an account which claimed that his father, Raoul, her nephew by marriage and also her secretary, had authored all her books from her orally transmitted tales. Tabet further complicated — or exoticised — Rhais’s story by tracing her origins to a Muslim father, a Jewish mother, and a long sojourn in a harem as the wife of a Muslim merchant. He named her Laila Boumendil, and added a dimension of ‘authenticity’ to her storytelling. Again, the question of primary and secondary authorship arises, of how tales from one culture can be transmitted in another language, and the extent to which this implies a degree of cultural betrayal.

The story that emerged in the wake of Tabet’s fabrications was starker and simpler. Rhais was actually Rosine Boumendil, the daughter of a Jewish baker and his wife, and had been educated in a French school, a privilege that the colonial administration allowed to Jewish but not to Muslim girls in North Africa. It appears that when she arrived in Paris to promote her literary career, she was persuaded to pose as a Muslim woman rather than a Jew, but she certainly seems to have enjoyed the finery and the masquerade of her assumed identity. Critics today hold that while her works about ‘native’ women have a significant element of kitschy pulp in spite of a certain implicit desire on the author’s part to blur boundaries between cultures and present a clear picture of Arab/Berber women’s lives, her (rarer) portrayals of North African Jewish life have more value, as she portrayed the milieu she knew best.

The question of ‘sole’ authorship remains unresolved: the consensus today among critics of Francophone North African literature, however, is that Boumendil, with only a primary education in French, leaned heavily on her children and on her amanuensis, Tabet, to correct, refine and polish her prose. Tabet is, however, given a role in this revised script, if not as sole author, as a collaborator to a greater or lesser degree. The question of a name — Laila or Rosine — revived Rhais’s reputation as an author and different editions of her work brought back into print endorse one or the other account. (For what it’s worth, I choose the Rosine version.)

Rhais was forgotten and it wasn’t until the Algerian war that a young Muslim woman studying in Paris decided to speak bravely in a series of novels about the double oppression of colonialism and patriarchy she had experienced. Fatima-Zohra Imalayen was to be recognised by many readers all over the world as one of the finest North African writers of her time. Acclaimed in France, she was the first writer from the Maghreb to enter the Academie Francaise, but throughout her career, although she was a public intellectual and her real name was known to many, she signed her books with the pseudonym she had chosen to create a literary identity: Assia Djebar.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 4th, 2016