This novel is the most famous book in Azerbaijan, with coffee shops and book stores named after it. The author Kurban Said is unknown – a pen name to conceal an identity of possibly a woman or a Jew (all have been rumoured). I decided to read it after a visit to Baku in Azerbaijan last year and nominated it to my Book Club in east London. Most loved it more than me.
Ali is a local Muslim lad and Nino is a Christian girl from neighbouring Georgia and they both go to nearby schools in Baku in in about 1918. They fall in love but there are the inevitable conflict of their diverse religions (Ali promises Nino she won’t have to wear a veil or be part of a harem), their cultural backgrounds (Nino is more Western and modern, whilst Ali’s family is more traditional), and the battle for their homeland potentially being torn apart by either the Russians or the Ottomans (Arabs). The path of true love does certainly not run smoothly for these two. Due to the nature of the times and the region, women are not valued.
Whilst I enjoyed the themes of identity and conflict running throughout the novel, I struggled to see the appeal of the two main characters to each other. I think the book lacked a certain level of character development for me to engage with them as a couple, rather than as two individuals. The book is quite descriptive but I think my previous visit to Baku helped me imagine how their old town would have been.
All in all I was a tiny bit disappointed with this book, but if you like a historical romance, you will certainly find a unique one here.
Ali Khan Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani have loved each other ever since Ali was crouching under Nino's desk at school prompting the answers to her exam questions. Ali begins the account of their love when he's nineteen years old and in his last year at school, he intends to marry Nino, who's two years younger, when she's passed her final exams. Their youth is no obstacle, but the fact that he's a Mohammedan* of noble Azeri** descent and she's a Georgian princess of the Greek Orthodox creed is. They live in Baku, the oil-rich city on the Caspian Sea, the time is the eve of the Bolshevik takeover.
Their different religions are not only a theological problem, the lovers also belong to different cultures. Ali is an Asiatic*, a proud son of the desert, Nino is a refined European whose family sit at a table for meals, eat with knives and forks instead of with their hands and sleep in beds and not on carpets on the floor.
Ali's father is not against a marriage, he doesn't even insist on Nino converting to Islam provided her children will be Shiites. Nino's parents, however, are dead set against their daughter marrying a barbarian. How the lovers finally get together is thrilling and moving. Sadly, however, the times are not in favour of a couple with such opposing familial backgrounds. The main body of the novel deals with what happens to them and their country during the following years.
I can't imagine a place on earth with a more complicated history than the region of the Caucasus where East and West meet and fight for supremacy. This has been the case for times immemorial and has been heightened by the finding of oil in the Caspian Sea and the consequences of WW1. I can only trust the author they they've done their research thoroughly, not even if I wanted to I would be able to retell the historical facts mentioned in the text.
The author doesn't give them in a lecturing, boring way but in the stories the men tell each other, in this way they're digestible. There is a lot of story telling throughout the novel giving it an air of 1001 Nights. But we're never completely immersed, for example, when Nino has to live in a harem in Persia, we see it through her eyes, the eyes of a European woman refusing to wear the veil or being shaved the eunuch.
We get a lot of local colour, we learn what the Mohammedan men of that time think about women.
"The woman is just an acre, on which man sows..."
"So you believe that a woman has neither soul or intelligence?"
"How can you ask, Ali Khan? Of course, she hasn't. Why should a woman have either? It is enough for her to be chaste and have many children."
We learn what houses look like inside, what people eat and drink, what they cherish and what they loathe. The descriptions are flowery and exuberant. The novel isn't long, it has only 237 pages, if it were longer, readers from the West, who aren't used to such a style, might feel like eating too many sweets. Oriental readers will be pleased, though, as they prefer such a style to a matter-of-fact one.
The attitude towards women may shock some readers or at least puzzle them. Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, isn't that a former Soviet Republic and now a modern, independent state? The novel was published in the 1930s, but traditions die hard, we only have to follow the news in the media to learn that in many countries such an attitude still prevails.
The quality of the novel lies in its ambiguity. The author manages to give both sides convincing arguments. Can the union of East and West ever be completed successfully if both sides are so steeped in tradition? Which compromises are acceptable? The message is to exert tolerance. How many books have been written on the subject, songs sung, pictures painted? Looking at the political situation of the Caucasus and Iran today one knows that in the end art is futile. Still, what can one do but go on preaching tolerance?
It can't be said often enough that if we know something about the author of a book or not, doesn't influence its quality. If it did, all autobiographical accounts would be top notch literature. Yet, if the author's CV is as exotic as Kurban Said's, it's at least worth a mention. I got the novel from an English friend, I had never heard about it before. Imagine my surprise when I realised that I read a translation from my German mother tongue. Yes, German. There was never a Kurban Said, this is the pseudonym of Lev Abramovic Noussimbaum, a Russian Jew, born in Baku in 1905. In 1920, when the Bolsheviks occupied Baku, Lev fled via Tiflis and Istanbul to Berlin, where in 1922 he converted to Islam and called himself Essad Bey. Under this name he published several literary works. From Nazi Germany he fled to Austria, he used the pseudonym Kurban Said then. Later he moved to Italy where he died of a rare blood disease in 1942.
It's widely assumed nowadays that he was the author of the novel Ali and Nino although the original publishing contract was signed by the Austrian Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels. Her niece, who's inherited the copyright for the novel, claims that her aunt is the author.
Whatever - or rather whoever - it doesn't really matter; the novel is Azerbaijan's most famous and most widely published work of literature, it has been translated into 33 languages up to now. In the 1950s Jenia Graman, a German living in England, found a copy in Berlin and translated it into English.
Ali and Nino is a very special read which I'd like to recommend to readers looking for something out of the way. History buffs and readers with a special interest in the Caucasus region and the customs of old Persia will find a lot to chew on. Modern chick lit love stories and macho tales about heroic deeds can only look stale after Ali and Nino.
Btw: The 'Ali and Nino Walking Tour' in Baku lasts three hours, participants are advised to read the novel beforehand.
* This term is used in the novel.
** Azeri - People living in Azerbaijan.