Azerbaijan International

Summer 2000 (8.2)
Pages 74-77

"Ali and Nino" by Kurban Said
Inside the Soul of a Caucasian

Book Review by Elin Suleymanov

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Golden Precipice - Gizil Uchurum

Above: From the movie "Golden Precipice" (Gizil Uchurum) by Fikrat Aliyev (1980), a love story set at the same time as the novel, "Ali and Nino".

Nearly everyone in Baku has heard of the love story of Ali and Nino. These two names - one Azerbaijani and one Georgian - have become a natural combination, like Romeo and Juliet or Leyli and Majnun. Many Azerbaijanis know the outline of the story, in which the love of Ali and Nino - surrounded by the turmoil of early-20th-century Baku - tragically ends with the young man's death and Russia's occupation of the Caucasus. Still, very few have actually read the book by Gurban Said (Kurban Said via Russian).

And indeed, why read a book if you already know the story? I thought so, too. Perhaps this made me hesitant to open the pages of "Ali and Nino" earlier. I also doubted that a mysterious person with the pen-name Gurban Said, whose origins and true identity were so unclear, could tell me anything new or interesting about the place where I grew up.

Well, now I wish I had read the book a long time ago, as it may be a guide to the soul of the Caucasus, or even my own. Here is what someone from Azerbaijan - to be more precise, someone from Baku - thinks of this book that so many have heard about but few have read.

Historical Snapshot
Ali and Nino were both children of the Caucasus, and their love was born in the streets of Baku on the Caspian shores. I don't know what would have happened if Ali had managed to join Nino and flee the Bolsheviks in 1920, but as Said knew only too well, Ali's death fighting for freedom was a natural, if tragic, ending.

In fact, Said knew so much about the Caucasus and its neighbors that it's hard to call him anything but a genius. By most accounts, including a long article published in The New Yorker magazine (October 4, 1999) by Tom Reiss, Gurban Said was a name used by Lev Nussimbaum, of a rich Jewish family in Baku, who later emigrated to Vienna and then to Italy. There are many parallels between Said and Essad Bey, the Islamic name that Nussimbaum often wrote under.

Ali and Nino's passionate love is at the center of the book's events, yet this novel is more than a love story. When read with an open mind and without resorting to stereotypes, the story takes you on a fascinating and remarkably insightful journey to Baku, Tbilisi, the Karabakh, Tehran and the mountains of Dagestan. The book gives its reader a full picture: love and passion; war and revolution; honor and disgrace; mountains and deserts; cosmopolitan Baku, the streets of Tbilisi and ailing Tehran; Islam, Christianity, and newly born Bahaism; Europe and the Orient. Even the story of the Caucasus' greatest warrior, Imam Shamil, is there. Said knew, just as I know today, that no story of the Caucasus would be complete without mentioning Shamil.

The historical figures in Said's book include Fatali Khan Khoyski, a leader of the Orient's first Republic, which happened to be Azerbaijan, and oil baron Musa Naghiyev. The places that Said describes are still there - he even knows how to tell about the soft touch of the Caspian Sea. Most strikingly, describing Ali's thoughts, Said speaks of his love for the dry land around Baku. This is a sign of Said's love and understanding of Baku, his ability to see ancient beauty in the sands and never-ending winds of Absheron, the land that gave the Zoroastrians their sacred flames and Azerbaijan its name, the Land of Fire.

When Nino tells Ali that for foreigners, his beloved Baku is just a dusty town in the desert, Ali responds that this is "because they are foreigners."

Said's attention to detail is pointed out by every reviewer of the book. For me these details are precious because they include descriptions of turn-of-the-century Baku, picnic grounds around Shusha, even the narrow streets of Tbilisi. At one point, Said describes the horse ride that Ali takes with his father through the Wolf's Gates (Qurd Qapisi) to the oil derricks of Bibi Heybat. Today, many drivers take that same shortcut to avoid the busy streets of downtown Baku.

East-West Identity
Yet it is important to look beyond these details into what I think is the main theme and the universal appeal of "Ali and Nino" - the love of two people as each one struggles to define his or her own identity at a time of turmoil. The love story is universal, but the book is unique to the Caucasus. Only superficially is this book about Europe and Asia, both terms being very misleading here. Nor it is really about the differences between Islam and Christianity.

Both Azerbaijan and Georgia are European in many ways, but in many ways they are not. For those used to simple definitions of geographic and cultural classifications, this may come as a disappointment. It's not easy to define a place where different cultures have been meeting and influencing each other for centuries. There's a simple Azeri saying about this region at the crossroads of East and West: "Bura Qafqazdir", meaning "This is the Caucasus." The union of Ali and Nino is not a union of Europe and Asia, as an outsider may rush to conclude, but a union of two of the many distinct and yet related cultures of the Caucasus.

Said reminds his reader about this again and again. Nino is horrified in Tehran, whereas Ali feels out-of-place at a party for the British at his new Baku home and refuses to go to Paris. He tells Nino: "I'd be just as unhappy in Paris as you were in PersiaLet's stay in Baku where Europe and Asia meet." More important is something only implicitly hinted at by Said - that, while not as uncomfortable as Nino, Ali, too, is a stranger in Iran, and Nino's role as the hostess at a Western party is very much a charade. However, they are both happy in Baku, Tbilisi, Shusha, and symbolically, a mountain village of Dagestan. This is because they are at home in the Caucasus.

In general, the book is full of symbolism. Some of it is obvious; some of it will only be noticed by a person who knows the Caucasus and its legends well. For instance, in an episode frequently mentioned by reviewers, Ali chases Melik Nachararyan on a famous golden horse from the Karabakh as Nachararyan speeds away with Nino in his new car. The specially bred horses of the Karabakh have long been the pride of the Caucasus, a symbol of honor and nobility. Nachararyan's shiny new car, on the other hand, is not so much an attribute of Europe as it is a reflection of his rejection of his own Caucasian identity. Nachararyan doesn't feel like someone from the Caucasus anymore, and that allows him to do the unthinkable - betray his friend Ali and try to steal his bride.

Choosing Sides
Said brilliantly describes the birth of a new Caucasus. A brief, turbulent period in Azerbaijan's history shows the struggle of various empires over the Caucasus. Russians, Persians, Turks, British - all of them appear in the story.

For Ali's friends, who were eager to fight in World War I on the side of the Russian Czar, Turkey's declaration of war against Russia changes things dramatically. In one amazing moment in the book, a devout Shiite named Seyid Mustafa doesn't know whether to tell Ali to support the Czar or the Turkish caliph, who is a Sunni.

Imperial politics enter the story again later when the Turkish army - seen as liberators by the people of Azerbaijan - has to withdraw from Baku and be replaced by the British because of an agreement signed in the "faraway port of Mudros" between the British and the Turks.

Said's writing is also very prophetic. It foresees historical events that happened long after the book was written. For instance, he saw the seeds of discontent in pre-Pahlavi Iran, which would define its history throughout the 20th century. In Iran, Ali realizes that despite a cultural affinity, he cannot live there - it is not the Caucasus. While the melodic poetry of Middle Eastern rubayyats is the entertainment of choice in Iran, in Baku a wild Caucasian dance - "Shamil's Prayer" (Lezgian) - is danced at parties.

"No, I was not made to display Ferdowsi's verses, Hafiz' sighs of love and Sa'di's quotations," Ali thinks. "The fragrance of the Persian roses had suddenly vanished, and instead the clear desert air of Baku and faint scent of sea, sand and oil was around me." New Azerbaijan and old Iran drift apart. Leaders of the short-lived independent Azerbaijan find their refuge in Istanbul, just like earlier Azerbaijani nobles looked for asylum in Iran.

Ali returns to Baku and refuses his cousin Bahram khan's call to build a new, reformed Iran, despite the fact that both Ali and Bahram khan are of the same blood of the family of Shirvanshirs.

A New Azerbaijan
The birth of a new Azerbaijan suddenly becomes another prophetic element of the book. Loyalty to this new independent Azerbaijan is what divides Ali and his father - not religion or tradition. For the father, who has always lived under imperial rule and whose ancestors died leading soldiers of one empire, a new Azerbaijan is simply too unfamiliar. He says to Ali before leaving Baku for Iran: "I don't like our new flag, the noise of the new state, or the smell of godlessness that hangs over the townI am an old man, Ali Khan. I can't stand all these new things. You are young and brave, you must stay here. Azerbaijan will need you."

Said also knew how to look far beyond the surface. One example is the character of the aforementioned Seyid Mustafa - strong, almost a fanatical follower of Shiite Islam. Mustafa's words are at times intolerant, yet he is also a spiritual and tactful man. He is not a fanatic; he is "the lonely guard on the threshold of our True Faith." Mustafa's views are very conservative, yet, unbelievably, he is the man who accompanies Nino on her journey to be married to Ali. He is even the one who presides over their marriage. At the end of the book, it is not Mustafa who resorts to violence, but the Bolsheviks. They kill his father, beat him and stuff pork into his mouth at the doors of the mosque where he has come to pray. Mustafa's appearance in the book is just another example of the depth of Said's writing.

Despite the cultural differences described in the book, Ali and Nino never feel alien to each other. Neither one is strongly rejected by family or friends. It is the war - brought on by external powers - that separates Ali and Nino. Tolerance among people with strong beliefs and ancient cultures is a very important lesson of Said's book.

Every time I am about to recommend "Ali and Nino" to someone, I hesitate because I am afraid that the essence of the book will be overlooked behind today's stereotypes, the convenient notion that cultures clash rather than coexist and misleading words like "Europe", "Asia", "West" and "Orient". Many see the book precisely in that way. I even saw one review mentioning the gender aspects of the story, or Ali's death in ethnic conflict. As I said earlier, "Ali and Nino" should be read with an open mind, without resorting to stereotypes and keeping in mind when it was written.

When I say that "Ali and Nino" is about the soul of the Caucasus, I mean that it brings up those questions that many of us in the Caucasus ask ourselves as we try to define our ever-evolving identity. It is also about the choices we all make as we build our new countries. The events described in this book strangely resemble our own day. Just like the beginning of the 20th century, the beginning of the 21st is a trying time for the Caucasus. Let's hope that our own story does not have a tragic ending like the one by Said.

In the book's finale, Ali, a noble young man from Baku, dies on a bridge in Ganja, a city in northern Azerbaijan, just as his ancestors from the House of Shirvanshir did defending this land. Unlike them, Ali Khan Shirvanshir dies in Ganja - not fighting in an army of someone else's empire - but in the ranks of his new country, the first Republic of Azerbaijan. The book ends with a note written by Ali's friend Iljas Begh: "Ali Khan Shirvanshir fell at quarter past five on the bridge of Ganja behind his machine gun... The life of our Republic has come to an end, as has the life of Ali Khan Shirvanshir."

It was my republic, too.

I'm not sure that the mystery of Said's true identity will ever be proven. Perhaps it is even better that way. This amazing book belongs to Said - whoever he is - a man who knew about love, about the Caucasus, who understood people around him better than they understood him, and who managed to look into my soul decades before I was born.

Elin Suleymanov lives in Washington, D.C. "Ali and Nino" by Kurban Said was reissued by Overlook Press in 1999, with English translation by Jenia Graman. The book is now available at our AI STORE, click ENTER, then click on BOOKS. Writer Tom Reiss investigated the mysterious authorship behind "Ali and Nino" for an article in The New Yorker entitled "The Man From the East" (October 4, 1999, page 68).

Azerbaijan International (8.2) Summer 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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