Time for a Book Review: Ali and Nino
I’ll never be the world’s best book reviewer, but it’s probably important that you know about Ali and Nino, considered the quintessential novel about Azerbaijan. Written under the mysterious pen name of Kurban Said, and originally published in German, the story is the Romeo and Juliet of the Caucasus. Or the Leyla and Mejnun of the Caucasus. Or, whatever other tragic love story you can plug in here, of the Caucasus. I think it’s appropriate that everything having to do with this book, however, is just as conflicted and disputed as the Caucasus region itself.
We can start with the author. Kurban Said is a pseudonym for, supposedly, Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew born in Kiev in 1905 who lived in Baku until 12 years old. Lev and his father traveled extensively in the region after leaving during the Bolshevik Revolution. Ending up in Europe, Lev became a prolific writer, contributing hundreds of articles for magazines and newspapers, as well as writing numerous biographies including profiles of Stalin and Hitler. Essad Bey, his pen name for most of his works, traveled extensively in Europe and became known as an expert on “the Orient.” Tom Reiss titled his book profiling Lev “The Orientalist”. And to add some more names into this milieu, there is a strong movement in Azerbaijan to attribute Ali and Nino to an Azeri author living around the same time named Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli (say that three times fast!) Evidence is pretty slim in favor of Yusif’s authorship, and the Wikipedia article about Yusif doesn’t even mention Ali and Nino as a possibility.
The story itself meanders a trail as convoluted as the debate of authorship. Ali Khan Shirvanshir is an Azeri prince whose ancestors are a royal family in Persia. He is educated at the Russian school for boys in Baku and falls in love with Nino, a Georgian beauty. His courtship of Nino involves the high-society friends of his father, a trip to Shusha in Karabakh with her Georgian family, and the help of his Armenian friend, Nachararyan, who ends up attempting to kidnap Nino is his car and is summarily chased down by Ali on a legendary Karabakh horse and killed. For months, Ali exiles himself to Daghestan and is later found by Nino, marries her in his Daghestan village and lives in a romantic poverty for a short time. Returning to Baku, they find a city changed by the fates of war, as the Czar’s army has taken over. Ali, Nino, and Ali’s family make a short trip to Persia, where Nino is miserable at the limits put on her by Persian societal norms. After this episode, they also make a trip to Tbilisi, with it’s narrow European streets, to visit Nino’s family. Convoluted enough for you yet?
One of the potential pitfalls in reading this story is the tendency to accept Said’s writings as how things are here. That all Azeris love the desert; that Armenians and Georgians are in love with forests; that all Persians are Islamic fanatics; that Georgia is the Caucasian pinnacle of European modernity; these are stereotypes that Said uses in his book to demonstrate the mish-mash of cultural, geographic, and political norms in the region. The way to read the story is to know that all of those elements exist in some form throughout the Caucasus region. This is not the place where East meets West, where Europe meets Orient, but instead a place where all the elements are as mixed up as the people in the region. Sure, down here in Lənkəran we have a stronger Iranian influence, and the minorities in the north often identify more strongly with non-Azeri groups, but the stereotypes of the region that Said paints are all a part of everyone’s palette here. Azeris I know complain about the desert region around Bakı as much as anyone. Within this framework, it’s easy to see that the Caucasus region is not really the place where East meets West or Europe meets Asia, but instead a self-defined identity, including their own elements along with those imported from Russia, Iran, and Turkey, not to mention elements from the wider world through the development of internet and television. Said brings to light this unique identity by showing how even while Nino is miserable in Persian surroundings, Ali, too is uncomfortable there. And then also when Ali is miserable while hosting European guests, Nino, the “Europeanized” Georgian, too, is uncomfortable with the intrusion of European mores.
These cultural interactions all take place against the backdrop of war, another convoluted struggle as Azerbaijan seeks to come into existence. While Russia and Turkey and England engage in war, Azerbaijan also seeks to emerge as it’s own country, fighting for it’s own independence. The new state attempts to engage foreign countries on it’s own terms, send emissaries abroad, and exert and independent governance. We know that this state of affairs only lasted a short time, as the Soviet Union prevailed in the region. Yet, Azerbaijan’s struggle to exert it’s own identity as an independent state continues today, with the same muddled conflictions that affected Ali and Nino in their relationship together.
I can’t say that Ali and Nino provides a great picture of what it’s like to be in Azerbaijan, but I can say that it provides an excellent corollary to the milieu of cultural, geographic, and political identities that flow through the region. Understanding that the Caucasus is it’s own identity here is paramount to viewing the book’s messages in their entirety. You can find the book here, as well as well-written reviews here, here, and here.