Aaron in Azerbaijan

Reconsidering the Concept of Authorship: Ali and Nino


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.