Summer 2004 (12.2)
"Ali and Nino" by Kurban Said
the Soul of a Caucasian
by Elin Suleymanov
articles related to Ali and Nino:
and Nino Covers: Novel is Published in 33 Languages
Betty Blair (AI 12.3)
2 Editorial: The World of "Ali
and Nino" It's Our World too! Betty Blair
3 Baku City Tour: "Ali
and Nino" Walking Tour - Fuad Akhundov and Betty Blair
4 Photo Essay: Then
& Now: Baku 100 Years Ago at the Peak of Oil Baron Period
How to Collect Kurban Said's Novel "Ali and Nino"
Betty Blair (AI 12.3)
to Editor: Copyright - Leela Ehrenfels (AI 12.4)
"Ali & Nino" Rediscovered - Ismail Kafescioglu
1998, we first published Elin Suleymanov's review of the novel,
"Ali and Nino: A Love Story" [See AI 6.4, Winter 1998].
We felt it was so valuable that we wanted to reprint it again
in our issue to accompany the "Ali & Nino Walking Tour
Unlike most reviews of this book that are available in the Western
press, Elin brings his own unique perspective since he himself
is Azerbaijani who grew up in Baku and has lived, worked and
studied abroad. In the beginning, Elin was not interested in
a book about his city, thinking he knew all there was to know
about it. But once he read it, he couldn't stop praising the
author's depth and sensitivity in portraying Baku, in the context
of the Caucasus on the eve of the Bolshevik takeover in 1917
The novel, "Ali and Nino: A Love Story" by Kurban Said
[Gurban Sayid] was originally published in the German language
in Vienna, Austria in 1937 by Tal Verlag. The first time it was
ever published in the United States was in 1970 by Random House,
New York. The current edition in English (US) is by Anchor Books,
2000. The translation is by Jenia Graman.
"Ali and Nino" is now available in English, Azeri or
Russian at Azerbaijan International's
store on the Web - AZER.com. Search: "Kurban".
Nearly everyone in Baku has
heard of the love story of Ali and Nino. These two names - one
Azerbaijani (Ali) and the other Georgian (Nino) - have become
a natural pairing - like Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet"
or Nizami's "Leyli and Majnun".
Above: "Ali & Nino: A Love Story"
is available in English, Azeri (Latin) and Russian. Visit AI Store. In Baku, contact
the Azerbaijan International office at Tel: 492-87-01 on Istiglaliyyat
Many Azerbaijanis know the plot of the story, in which the love
of Ali and Nino - surrounded by the turmoil of early-20th-century
Baku - ends tragically with Ali's death and Russia's occupation
of the Caucasus. Still, very few have actually read the book.
And, indeed, why read a book if you already know how the story
ends? I thought so, too. Perhaps, this is why I was so hesitant
to open the pages of "Ali and Nino" earlier. I also
doubted that a mysterious person who goes by the pen name Kurban
Said, and whose actual identity is so mysterious and uncertain,
could tell me anything new or interesting about the place where
I grew up - my beloved city of Baku.
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, and more specifically
- even my own. Let me reflect and share what someone from Azerbaijan
- to be more precise, someone from Baku - thinks about this book.
Above: The author of the novel "Ali &
Nino" is still under dispute. But many identify the pen
name Kurban Said [Gurban Sayid] with Leo Nussimbaum. He is the
boy in the third row with the large ears here as a guest at a
Christmas party in 1908 at the home of the Ashurbeyli Family.
Their daughter Sara is center on the first row. Courtesy of Oil
Baron Ashurbeyov family.
Ali and Nino were both children of the Caucasus, and their love
was born in the streets of Baku along 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 the author 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 the neighboring
countries 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, Kurban Said was
a name used by Leo Nussimbaum, who was born of rich Jewish parentage
in Baku. After the Bolshevik occupation of Baku, he later emigrated
to Vienna and then to Italy. He wrote the book in German in 1937
while living in Austria. There are many parallels between Said
and Essad Bey, the Islamic pen name under which Nussimbaum often
Betty Blair's Note:
Since 2004 more research has been carried that shows that Essad
Bey (Lev Nussimbaum) did not know a lot about the Caucasus. He
invariably copied other people's work or enhanced other people's
manuscripts. Ali and Nino is such a book as well. Research shows
that the original ideas belong to Azerbaijani writer Yusif Vazir
Chamanzaminli and that Essad Bey enhanced passages, particularly
sections related to folklore.
Essad Bey is not the core writer
of the novel Ali and Nino. The paper trail leads to Chamanzaminli.
See research to support these statements in Azerbaijan International
15.2-15.4: "Ali and Nino: The Business of Literature. Who
Wrote Azerbaijan's Most Famous Novel?" Also see ALI-NINO.com.
Left: The wedding photo of the son of one of the wealthiest
Oil Barons in Baku. Balabey Ashurbekov and his wife Ismat in
Ali and Nino's passionate
love is the driving force at the center of the book's plot; yet
this novel is more than a love story. When read with an open
mind and without resorting to stereotypes, this story takes you
on a remarkably insightful journey to Baku, Tbilisi, Karabakh,
Tehran and even to the mountains of Dagestan.
The book's canvas is very broad and includes love and passion,
war and revolution, honor and disgrace, mountains and deserts,
cosmopolitan Baku, as well as the streets of Tbilisi and ailing
Tehran, Europe and the Orient. It deals with Islam, Christianity,
as well as the newly emerging religion known as Bahaism.
Even mention 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. There are actual Oil barons mentioned in the book
- Taghiyev, Naghiyev and Asadullayev.
The places that Said describes are still there. He even knows
how to tell about the soft touch of the Caspian Sea. Most strikingly,
Said writes of his love for the dry, desert-like terrain around
Baku. This is an indication of how deep Said's love and understanding
of Baku was and 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
When Nino tells Ali that foreigners think his beloved Baku is
just a dusty town in the desert, Ali understands their lack of
attachment: "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
such familiar descriptions, such as turn-of-the-century Baku,
the narrow streets of Tbilisi, the picnic grounds around Shusha
[from which all Azerbaijanis have since fled for their lives
as Armenian military forces have occupied this city from 1992.
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.
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 political crisis
and turmoil. The love story is universal, but the book is distinctly
set in the Caucasus. Only on a superficial level is this book
about Europe and Asia, both terms being very misleading here.
Nor it is really about the differences between Islam and Christianity
as some would claim.
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
it is 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 he refuses a work assignment
in Paris. He tells Nino: "I'd be just as unhappy in Paris
as you were in Persia [primarily since she was confined mostly
at home and had to wear the chador]. Let's stay in Baku where
Europe and Asia meet," the author concludes.
More importantly is the implication that, Ali, too, is a stranger
in Iran though he's not as uncomfortable as Nino was, 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,
in the 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 can only be detected 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 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
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
Muslim (Ali is Shiite).
Imperial politics enter the story again later when the Turkish
army - portrayed as liberators by the people of Azerbaijan -
must 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 prophetic. It anticipates historical events
that happened long after the book was written. For instance,
he saw the seeds of discontent in pre-Pahlavi Iran, which would
shape its history throughout the 20th century. In Iran, Ali realizes
that despite a cultural affinity to the place, 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" (Lezginka)
- is danced at parties.
"No, I was not made to display Firdowsi'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 an empire, a new Azerbaijan
is simply too unfamiliar. The father tells Ali just as he is
getting ready to leave 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 town. I 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 below the surface. One example
is the character of Seyid Mustafa. He's a strong, almost fanatical
follower of Shiite Islam. Mustafa's words are at times intolerant,
yet he also is 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 even 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 entrance of the mosque where he has come to pray. Mustafa's
appearance in the book is just another example of the depth of
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 - not cultural differences - that separates Ali and Nino.
Tolerance among people with strong beliefs and ancient cultures
is one of the very important lessons of this book.
Every time I am on the verge of recommending "Ali and Nino"
to someone, I hesitate because I am afraid that the essence of
the book will be overlooked behind today's stereotypes, especially
the convenient notion that cultures invariably clash, rather
I'm afraid words like "Europe", "Asia", "West"
and "Orient," "Christian" and "Muslim"
might be misleading. Many see the book precisely like that. I
even came across 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 while keeping in mind the time frame
in which the book 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 are making as we
build our new countries. The events described in this book strangely
resemble those that we are facing today. Just like the beginning
of the 20th century, the onset of the 21st century is a trying
time for the Caucasus. Let's hope that our own story does not
end tragically as the author's did.
In the concluding pages of the book, 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 died 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 Ilyas Bey who wrote:
"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."
That was my Republic, too.
I'm not sure that the mystery of Said's true identity will ever
be proven. Perhaps, it's even better that way. This amazing book
belongs to Said - whoever he is. Undoubtedly he was 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 is graduating
from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts,
in May 2004.
Writer Tom Reiss whom Elin mentions in this article, investigated
the mysterious authorship behind "Ali and Nino" for
an article in The New Yorker entitled "The Man From the
East" (October 4, 1999, p 68). Reiss was convinced that
the author, indeed, is Nussimbaum. But the question of Austrian
Baronness Elfriede Ehrenfels has not seriously been addressed.
She is registered with Austrian Book Directories as the pseudonym
for Kurban Said.
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