Another Orientalist Report
Tom Reiss’ The Orientalist is reviewed in The Nation, but unlike the raves that have appeared in other major outlets, Daniel Lazare’s critical analysis takes into account both Reiss’s book and the book that started it all–Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino.
Nussimbaum is interesting as a case study, but is he really worth an entire book? Ultimately, the answer depends on our assessment of his literary worth. Reiss, who has clearly put an enormous amount of labor into this volume, writes that Nussimbaum’s dozen-plus works of nonfiction are still “readable” after all these years, while Ali and Nino remains “his one enduring masterpiece.” In an afterword to a recent edition by Anchor Books, Paul Theroux goes even further, comparing Ali and Nino to Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote and Ulysses–“novels so full of information that they seem to define a people.”
This makes Nussimbaum seem very important indeed. But is such lofty praise warranted? Not by a long shot. Overwrought and melodramatic, Ali and Nino is a minor bit of exotica that in ordinary times would be no more than a curiosity but, after September 11, is deeply repellent. Imagine a young Osama bin Laden crossed with Rudolph Valentino, and you’ll get an idea of the kind of hero–and values–the novel celebrates. Nussimbaum presents Ali, an Azeri khan, or chieftain, as a noble son of the desert: brutal, passionate and imbued with an Al Qaeda-like contempt for Western ways. Thus a chemistry textbook, in his view, is “foolish stuff, invented by barbarians, to create the impression that they are civilized.” Women have “no more sense than an egg has hairs,” while European law is contemptible because it does not accord with the Koran.