Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Reconsidering the Concept of Authorship: Ali and Nino

with 6 comments

A while back, I wrote a brief overview of the Azerbaijani classic, Ali and Nino. The book is a fantastic picture of the milieu of cultural crossings and interactions in the South Caucasus and its periphery. Kurban Said captures all sorts of conflicts and relationships that define any South Caucasus identity, and then weaves those elements into a beautiful love story, a wrenching political story, a story of youthful elegance. It’s a complicated tapestry, as the scenes move from Baku to Karabakh and Armenia to Iran and the North Caucasus and Georgia. The relationships shift and change as conflict again grips the entire region. And like the South Caucasus, alive with constant shifts in identity, the understanding of the authorship of Ali and Nino shifts, too.

Previously, I wrote that “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”.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have acquired copy of the latest Azerbaijan International volume, Ali and Nino: the Business of Literature (Thank you, Betty!) A serious tome, at 363 pages more of a book than a magazine, it is a colorful and beautifully put-together publication that spans an incredible effort of historical literary research. A foldout page pictures 60 people responsible for the content of the publication and a further 10 pages profiles each of their contributions. In a word, extensive. The breadth of the publication examines nearly every facet of the book, its history, its authorship, its cultural and historical relevance, and as many tangents off those topics as you can imagine. I used the word extensive before. Add thorough to that.

The significance of the publication is apparent in the sheer quantity of information organized and contained within. Yet, the most important aspect is how it deals with the understanding of Ali and Nino‘s authorship. The book runs a robust profile throughout of the authors Essad Bey, Kurban Said, Yusif Vazir Chamanzamanli, Lev Nussimbaum, and Bello Vacca (and more, I guess). But we are also provided with a sober and thoughtful approach to understanding authorship. While Tom Reiss’s The Orientalist claims single authorship to Lev Nussimbaum, Azerbaijan International instead gives us the idea of a more decentralized authorship, where it is understood from the writing and context that the core author of Ali and Nino is Chamanzamanli and there are contributions to the book from other sources through Chamanzamanli’s connections and discussions with other authors such as Lev Nussimbaum. As you page through this volume, dissecting the question of authorship, it quickly becomes apparent the stunning refutation of The Orientalist‘s central claim.

Beyond just a comprehensive rundown of the authorship of Ali and Nino, we are also treated to rich details of cultural and personal history surrounding the region and the authors. For example, we learn much more than just about Yusif Vazir Chamanzamanli’s aversion to alcohol, and its depiction in the book through Ali Khan, in this passage:

However, there are occasions when both Ali Khan and YVC break their abstinence. Specifacally, they join in when the conswequences of offending someone would far outstrip their aversion to drinking. For example, Ali Khan yields in Shusha. “In front of me sat Nino’s father, tonight the ‘Tamada,’ who according to the strict rules, directed the feast…He held a cup in his hand and drank to me. I sipped my glass even though normally I do not drink. “But the Tamada was Nino’s father, and it would have been impolite not to drink when invited by him.” Again, in Tiflis (Tbilisi, Georgia), an elderly woman alleges that the source of the wine is Divinity, itself. “‘Drink, Ali Khan!’ The red Kakhetian wine was like fluid fire. I hesitated, but in the end, rasied my glass in honor of the House of Orbeliani.”

In Yusif Vazir’s personal life, he described a summer evening at a friend’s place in Ashgabad, Turkmenistan. At the time he was infatuated with a young girl named Asiya.

“Then they brought out the bottle of Kakhetia wine from under the bed. The door was closed and they started to drink. They offered me some, too. I didn’t want it. They begged: ‘Don’t be a fanatic, have something to drink.’ “‘I’m not a fanatic,’ I countered, ‘but since I have never taken a drink in my entire life, I don’t want to break my habit.’ “Gulam smiled…then extended a glass. ‘To Asiya’s health.’ I smiled, lifted the glass: ‘Long may she live!’ When I put the glass to my lips, the wine tasted sour. My eyes watered. I set it down. I didn’t understand what those who drank found in this bitter water. I was surprised at my friends. They enjoyed it so much.'” YVC also condemns alcoholism in a letter he writes to friends. “Ashgabad Moslems really enjoy alcohol. They drink vodka as if it were water. Everybody drinks-merchants, traders, beggars, and even pretentious clergy while reciting poetry about wine by Hafiz and Seyid Azim Shirvani and playing with their beads. That’s immoral! Immoral! That’s Ashgabad, Ornament of Asian Paris.”

In contrast, Lev Nussimbaum (Essad Bey) admitted himself to being a heavy drinker. Towards the end of his life, he confided to fa friend: “I was drunk for almost two years. I went quite overboard, even by American standards.”

If you are looking for an overwhelming gateway to the nuances and history, culture, and literature in the Caucasus, there is no better opportunity than to flip to any page in Azerbaijan International’s Ali and Nino: The Business of Literature.


Written by Aaron

May 16, 2011 at 7:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Thanks Aaron!

    You’re right. The story is complex.
    Here’s a quick summary of our findings after six years of research in Azerbaijani and European archives, and extensive library investigation in 10 languages (English, Azeri, Russian, German, French, Italian, Turkish, Georgian, Persian and Swedish!


    For those living in Baku, check out the Ali and Nino Bookstores in the middle of town – across from Ali and Nino Cafe, you can purchase the copy in English or Azeri – 364 pages with 1200 photos. OR Ali and Nino Bookstore in Park Bulvar.

    Those in Europe or US, can order at http://AZER.com.

    Here’s what people are saying about our research, starting with a famous filmmaker from London.

    Betty Blair,
    Editor, Azerbaijan International

    PS. To see more than 100 editions of Ali and Nino in 33 languages, visit Azerbaijan International


    Stay tuned. Next issue of Azerbaijan International, Vol. 16:1 – coming out this summer 2011 – “Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli: His Life, His Works, His Dreams!” Read translations of YVC’s works – his diaries, his autobiographical essays, his articles, his short stories and see what was on his mind – the drive to break down stereotypes and discrimination as it related to religion, nationality, race, gender. And that eternal quest for INDEPENDENCE!!!
    A century ago!

    Betty Blair

    May 16, 2011 at 10:49 am

  2. Aaron,

    I was always puzzled why Ali and Nino is so famous. It does not seem to be a gem of literature anyway and call the work classic of Azerbaijani literature is exaggeration. Perhaps, no one invested in that work before and promoted the book out of proportion as it is done nowadays.
    Frankly, it appeals to orientalist tastes prevalent in XIX century Europe and very poorly executed from literary perspective. If anything it is proper to call that book junk book and characterize it as representation of emerging junk literature of early XX century of Azerbaijan rather than a classic literary work of Azeris.
    Think of John Grisham and David Foster Wallace in America. John Grisham’s books are famous, sold more and read more and surely John’s books appeals to public. D.F. Wallace, on the other hand, is more experimental, appeals to narrow readership and known less than J. Grisham. But if literature is about innovation, striking representation, insightfully written word then D.F.Wallace is the literature per se and J.Grisham (plus Stephen King) is not. J. Grisham entertains and helps you to kill your time. But D.F. Wallace invites you to invest your mind, to think and to explore.
    Forgive me if it sounds elitist rhetoric. But the point is that Ali and Nino is like J.Grisham (weaker than J. Grisham on its literary merits) not like D.F.Wallace.

    Movie-ing Maniac

    May 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    • I agree with you. Ali & Nino is not a masterpiece but a generation novel of the youth who suffered from World War I and made it literature. The publisher may have hoped for it to be a European Gone With the Wind published the same year. Ali & Nino was written for money by an aristocratic Austrian couple who lost their position due to the war. That is why the recognized authoress Baroness Elfriede von Ehrenfels used the pseudonym Kurban Said. Her face appears on a number of book covers and this page. Accodidng to the Geneva Convention of Copyright, valid in Europe from 1886, the person whose name is next to the copyright sign in Europe, but not the USA, has the right to be identified as the author i.e. otiginator of a book. This right was intruded upon in the second wave of publication in the 1970´s. Publishers made a coup to take care of the money instead of the author. Baron Omar Rolf Ehrenfels was Elfriede’s co- writer and vice versa. His face is seen in some book covers, made up and dressed for a film now in the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. Read about him in Wikipedia! The atmosphere of Baku was easy to get from books by Essad Bey and others. AI has done a marvellous work to make Baku known through a fictive story and also an Azeri author although Ali & Nino was not his work. Nor was it Essad Bey´s. In Europe married women did not and do not use their husband’s name, only their own. So when/ if Essad Bey wrote to Mrs Kurban Said, as Tom Reiss claims he did, he wrote to Mrs Elfriede Ehrenfels. Even after the divorce in 1948 she lived at the Ehrenfels family castle at Lichtenau. Omar Rolf’s daughter Leela Ehrenfels inherited the right at Elfriede’s death in 1982. In EU this right lasts for 70 years.

      Siv Hackzell

      October 25, 2011 at 12:15 am

  3. There is no proof that “Ali and Nino” was written by the Ehrenfels husband and wife team – Omar Rolf and Elfriede (Baronness No. 2) registered the pseudonym – but there is nothing in the Ehrenfels castle in Lichtenau, Austria, that would indicate that Elfriede knew and cared about the issues related to Azerbaijan, especially its independence, nor had she or the Baron had ever visited Azerbaijan.

    Yes, they had been to Istanbul, once. But Istanbul is not Baku and the novel carefully describes Baku. Elfriede cared about German classic writers and when the war came, she fled to Greece, taught herself Ancient Greek and published some serious essays about Plato in a German scholarly journal.

    In the 1930s, Elfriede did write articles and a few novels with her husband Baron Omar Rolf Ehrenfels, who did sincerely convert to Islam, but there is no proof that she and/or he are the authors of “Ali and Nino.”

    In the 1990s, the third Baronness Mireille Ehrenfels threatened a lawsuit with Lucy Tal the publisher (and, at that time in her 90s and admittedly not in any financial condition to carry out a lawsuit) back in the 1990s, who felt as publisher she had as much right to the copyright as did Elfriede Ehrenfels who had simply registered the novel with German authorities.

    Furthermore, there would have been a film in the 1970s by Paramount Pictures – but there was such a debate going on between Lucy Tal and Mireille Ehrenfels about copyright that Paramount backed off. See correspondence (Lucy Tal)

    Correspondence between Lucy Tal and her lawyer indicate that Lucy had no idea who Elfriede even was. She had never seen her before. And was quite amazed when she researched the registries to find that Elfriede was claiming to be Kurban Said.

    And there is also correspondence that indicates that Mireille also did not know what role Elfriede had actually played in writing the book but she didn’t care because she felt she could lay claims to it – since Elfriede had registered the pseudonym in her name.

    Read all about it in Azerbaijan International’s research, Vol. 15:2-4. 364 pages, 1200 photos
    “Who Wrote Azerbaijan’s Most Famous Novel – Ali and Nino: The Business of Literature”

    The research indicates that Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli absolutely shared the values in the novel and his diaries and life experiences, his autobiographical essays and articles are very near to Ali and Nino, and exactly his themes.

    Here is what the research shows – as related to the many fingers in the pie – related to Ali and Nino authorship.

    It’s true – Ali and Nino is not a novel on the scale of one written by Tolstoy or Dostoyevski. However, it is an endearing and charming love story about sensitive issues and about those who would wish to overthrow repressive governments (in this case, the Russian Empire and later the Russian Bolsheviks) to gain their own independence and their own chance to shape decisions related to their own lives especially related to race, nationality, religion and gender. What issues are more burning in our day than these?!

    The novel is currently in at least 33 languages and no one can deny that it is loved by thousands of readers.

    See covers

    Betty Blair

    November 13, 2011 at 7:32 am

  4. Hi Aaron. Thank you for sending me Betty Blair’s reply to my comment on your comment about Ali & Nino. As much as Betty Blair deserves all due respect for the energy and hard work she has put in, it is sad that she will not accept, or even fights, a theory contrary to her own. She denies facts and keeps saying there is no “proof” that Elfriede Ehrenfels wrote the two novels published under the pseudonym “Kurban Said”. Betty Blair keeps rejecting knowledge given to her on the European copyright legislation according to the Berne convention starting in the 1880’s, Switzerland first. (Article by copyright owner until 2052, Leela Ehrenfels on Blair’s website azer.com). The US on the contrary entered their own legislation, the latest in 1988 (Copyright, Designs and Patents Act), which means that authors have to register their right in order to have it. Betty Blair, and also her source Tom Reiss on Lev Nussimbaum alias Essad Bey (1999,2005) stick to their faulty belief that the procedure was the same in the Vienna of 1937 (year of publication of Ali & Nino) as in their time USA.
    The right to be identified as the author according to the Berne convention does not include the publisher. The publisher’s right is agreed upon with the author according to drawn contracts. Tal Verlag made the contract with Elfriede Ehrenfels. Tom Reiss saw it in Vienna but refuses to draw the correct conclusions. Betty Blair has joined him. The existing legal contract is the reason why Lucy Tal was wrong when she had her name printed along with the copyright sign in a German edition of 1973. Professor Gerhard Hoepp, the most distinguished historian in this field, refuted the arguments for denying the authorship of Elfriede Ehrenfels in one of his last articles before he died, “Who wrote Ali & Nino: on the archaeology of a legend”. Google “Wer schrieb Ali und Nino?” and you will find facts.
    Betty Blair did not visit the Ehrenfels archive at Lichtenau in Austria. Yet she maintains she knows what is in there. She claims to have found thousands of references to support her claims. It is to get hundreds of references from Tom Reiss only. But are they correct? Tom Reiss was at Lichtenau in 1998 but did not check with “at least two reliable from each other independent written sources” (academic research rule N:o 1) his single, oral source (Mrs Ehrenfels, aged 74, suffering from insomnia due to a heart disease). He landed completely wrong as regards the Ehrenfels’s. See wikipedia article of 4 Nov 2011 on Baron Omar Rolf von Ehrenfels.
    Mr and Mrs Ehrenfels did not go to Istanbul. Mr Ehrenfels did in 1923 together with his friend and brother-in-law to be Elfriede’s brother Wilhelm Bodmershof. He in turn married Rolf’s sister the novelist Imma Bodmershof. The four wrote together, fiction and non-fiction.
    The result of the trip to Istanbul was a film now in the Austrian Film Museum. (Tom Reiss, 2005 calls it a “home movie”). But Mr and Mrs Ehrenfels made car tours of Muslim Europe in 1929 (Yugoslavia) and 1936 (Albania). The latter is described in an article in the journal Islamic Culture published in Hyderabad Deccan July 1936. Their marriage was not at all breaking up, as oral, wrongly remembered gossip from Nazi- occupied Vienna would have it. The Nazi occupation separated the couple as Mr Ehrenfels had to save his life as a well- known anti- Nazist/ fascist. Jewish Max Brod saved Ehrenfels by warning him. (When Prague too was occupied by the Nazis March 1939 Brod escaped to Tel Aviv saving the Kafka written legacy along with himself.)
    Those interested in the cultural setting of the very special period 1914- 1945 are recommended the anthology Islam in Inter- War Europe (London, 2008) edited by Nathalie Clayer and Eric Germain.
    The age mate of Mr and Mrs Ehrenfels, Margaret Mitchell (1900- 1949) did not visit the burning Atlanta of September 1864. Anyhow she could write the masterpiece Gone with The Wind (1936, Pulitzerprize 1937, filmed 1939) about it. All novelists know how to avoid writing a roman a clèf by placing a plot in another city than their own. As post-war Austrians the Ehrenfels- Bodmershof circle had several “Bakus” to choose from.
    Best regards Siv Hackzell, literature historian etc.

    Siv Hackzell

    November 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm

  5. Much of what Hackzell says above is irrelevant to the issue under discussion: Where is the proof that Elfriede Ehrenfels is the true author of the Kurban Said books?

    Siv Hackzell has not examined the research conducted by Azerbaijan International which was carried out over a period of six years and in 10 languages. I invited her to examine the contents, she declined. So much for her claims to serious scholarship!!

    Times were very chaotic during the late 1930s in Austria because of Nazi terror from Germany. Thousands upon thousands of emigrees were living in European capitals and often they had to live “hand to mouth” because they simply could not get work. So this easily explains how a book could have been written by someone other than the person who registered the book.

    No one denies that Elfriede Ehrenfels registered the copyright but that does NOT prove that she herself penned the novels. No matter what the copyright law and the Berne Convention purport – the truth lies elsewhere.

    Furthermore, there is correspondence in the University of New York, Albany archives between Mireille Ehrenfels (third wife of Baron Ehrenfels and mother of current copyright holder of Kurban Said books – Leela Ehrnefels) where Mireille admits that she did not know whether Elfriede had penned the novel or not – but that it was irrelevant because Elfriede had registered the book – and so that settled it for her. Mireille writes that finally the money should be coming to the Ehrenfels family and not to America (where publisher Lucy Tal, a Jew, had fled after the Anschluss in Austria, 1938).

    This quarrel between Tal and Ehrenfels was not settled in Ehrenfels favor until the 1990s. The two women argued so much that Paramount Pictures refused to get involved and do the movie that they had commissioned Paul Monash (Peyton Place) to script. Only in the 1990s did the copyright go to Ehrenfels. By that time Lucy was elderly – in her 90s and she simply gave up as she did not have money to initiate a lawsuit and did not want to end up “out in the street”. To the bitter end, Tal held that as publisher she had as much rights to the copyright as did the Elfriede who Tal insisted had only registered the book. Correspondence exists between Lucy Tal and her lawyer on this topic.

    I spent four days at the Lichtenau Castle in Austria as guest of Ehrenfels niece Leela in September 2005. Clearly, there is nothing definitive there in that castle that would identify Elfriede as the author of “Ali and Nino”. Even I went so far as to track down some of Elfriede’s writings and have them translated into English and analyze the writing style which is totally different than Ali and Nino. And it is ridiculous to say that “post-war Austrians had several Baku’s to choose from” as if you could substitute the streets of Prague or Trieste for Baku.

    Baku is Baku and the streets, buildings and contemporary historical personalities of that period – are described in the novel. But more importantly the issue of independence of Azerbaijan and freedom to make decisions about nationality, religion, race, gender and race – were characteristic of Baku in the early 1910 to 1920. And they run very deep throughout the novel. Not something that has been dropped into a paragraph here and there. Clearly, it was written by someone who deeply felt these concerns.

    Baron Ehrenfels did visit Constantinople in the 1920s but Constantinople cannot be equated with Baku of 1917-1920. It is irrelevant that Ehrenfels was featured in a film made about East / West issues.

    What does Hackzell mean when she says AI relied on hundreds of references from Reiss? She has not read our research and doesn’t know. Furthermore, the real source is the late Dr. Gerhard Hoepp – often Reiss does not acknowledge him. Today, these rare materials were donated by Hoepp upon his death to the Center for Modern Oriental Studies in Berlin.

    Our conclusions are very different – Reiss wholeheartedlly embraces Essad Bey (Lev Nussimbaum). We conclude that Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli who had been writing about these very concerns since 1904-05 was the Core Author but that Essad Bey elaborated passages – particularly folkloric material (EB was a “cut and paste” author so you can find exact references in earlier books to similar legends etc. Furthermore, EB plagiarized passages from Grigol Robakidze when it came to descriptions of Tiflis (Tbilisi) and Tehran.

    Reiss totally dismisses the Chamanzaminli link. Of course, why not? He had already published his findings in The New Yorker in 1999 and then he returned to Baku in 2000 to interview the sons of Chamanzaminli – Fikrat and Orkhan – who invited him to go to the Institute of Manuscripts in Baku and examine Chamanzaminli’s extensive body of work. And Reiss did not show up.

    The research that Azerbaijan International carried out is far more extensive than Hoepp, an East German, who did not explore any Azerbaijani link, nor did Hoepp examine English language resources and there are scores of reviews in English publications such as New York Times and Saturday Review – related to Essad Bey’s works.

    Hackzell calls herself a “Literature Historian,” but the issue of authorship of Ali and Nino requires much deeper analysis than what she has provided above.

    For those who are interested, read more – including all sources and references – at http://azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/ai152_folder/152_index_eng.html.


    April 6, 2012 at 5:58 am

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