‘But the hour of our happiness must be mute – speak not, Abdul, and keep your eyes closed ...’
Originally published in 1907, The Nights of Tino of Baghdad is an episodic fantasia, a heady journey through landscapes that author Else Lasker-Schüler had only explored in her mind. A slim volume of sweeping imaginative scope, it sets out from the banks of the Nile before progressing through much of the Arabian world and beyond, including Morocco, Baghdad, Thebes and Constantinople. Along the way, Lasker-Schüler’s proxy Tino – ‘a poetess from Arabia’ – encounters pashas, sultans, moguls, caliphs and khedives, some pure invention, others able to claim dual citizenship of the writer’s emotional life and her imaginitive realm. In bringing together Muslim and Jewish traditions, Lasker-Schüler explores the commonalities of Semitic identity, constructing a private realm away from a Germany increasingly hostile to minorities. A picaresque prose poem, The Nights of Tino of Baghdad echoes imagery and motifs found in the writer’s celebrated verse, in a style that presents the raptures of love and ritualistic acts of violence in the same intoxicating blend of scripture and fairy tale.
Early 20th-century Germany offered few apparitions as wilfully exotic as Jewish writer and artist Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945), an idiosyncratic, café-dwelling fixture of bohemian circles who seemed to know everyone worth knowing. The perpetually impoverished Lasker-Schüler inhabited a fanciful Near East of her imagination, stalking the streets of Berlin and Munich dressed as the Prince of Thebes and incorporating artists and writers of her acquaintance into her own personal cosmography. But even in the more sympathetic atmosphere of the Weimar Republic her timeless lyrical work was slow to generate the appreciation it merited. In 1932 she finally won the country’s top literary prize but was forced to flee once the Nazis took power, living in fraught circumstances in Switzerland before emigrating to Palestine. There she encountered the more prosaic reality of life in the Middle East before dying in Jerusalem in 1945. While Else Lasker-Schüler’s poetry continues to win new devotees in English translation, her prose works are less known outside her native Germany.
FROM THE AFTERWORD
In some ways The Nights of Tino of Baghdad fit squarely into the prevailing schema of Orientalist works. An average early 20th-century German asked to name motifs considered typically ‘Oriental’ would surely have produced a list that overlapped extensively with the book’s own inventory: mosques, palaces, harems, pyramids, palm trees, sultans, slaves, eunuchs, caravans, camels – not to mention intoxicants, barbarism and sensual adventure. But the book is far too singular, its dreamlike disjunction too fractured and alienating for it to serve as an escapist fantasy where, for example, eroticism may be easily accessed; here sex is unmistakably, almost inevitably linked to violence, transgression swiftly punished. The supposition that Lasker-Schüler may have merely constructed a fictional frame through which she could momentarily abscond from the hardship and disappointments of her life is far too simplistic.
In choosing to adopt this realm for her own work, Else Lasker-Schüler was claiming ownership of something that could be, and had been, used against her – her Jewish identity. Rather than retreating further into assimilation, she strode purposefully into a world that was in part Jewish but to an even greater degree Arab. At a time of heightened antisemitism she was exploring the Semitic, embracing a highly modern idea of hybrid identity at a time of monolithic ethno-nationalism. Considering her status as a Jew, a woman, an artist, an impoverished bohemian and (mostly) single mother, it is significant that the personae she adopts are of noble birth (a generous potentate, she later appointed Martin Buber ‘governor’ of her invented city of Irsahab).