It’s an old and familiar story: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Except in Ali and Nino, getting the girl back involves committing murder, the boy and girl struggle with their differences, and they do not live happily ever after.
Often called the national novel of Azerbaijan, Ali and Nino explores the extraordinary conflicts that plague this country sitting astride the border between the Christian West and Muslim East. The influences of traffic between those regions gives Azeri culture a rich, sometimes volatile, mixture. When combined with Azerbaijan’s oil resources and the heat of nationalism that fueled World War I, that mixture explodes. Unfortunately, two young lovers are caught in the destruction.
Ali Shirvanshir, a romantic young man from a wealthy and influential Persian family, is educated in a Czarist academy which introduces him to the technological and intellectual advantages of Western culture. Early in the book, though, he decides that his heart is pulled to the spiritual and physical purity of his Islamic heritage. His attraction to Nino Kipiani, a beautiful and wealthy Christian girl from a Georgian family, disturbs him – he loves her and wants to marry her, but finds her (relatively) liberated life both shocking and exhilarating.
When they finally are married (after treachery and violence interrupt their courtship), they try living in Tehran among traditional Muslims, but Nino resents the veil and harem, and is upset when she witnesses Ali in the throes of a religious trance. They return to Baku on the cusp of World War I, but Ali’s allegiance is to Azerbaijan not Russia, so he refuses to join the Czar’s army. In the aftermath of the Revolution, he helps to form the independent country of Azerbaijan, and even represents its government, along with Nino, to the Western powers. But when the Red Army invades, Ali sends Nino to Paris to save her and their unborn child. Knowing that he can be no more happy in Paris than she was in Tehran, and wanting to defend his homeland, Ali stays behind in a desperate and futile attempt to resist the invasion.
There are many remarkable things about this book, the first of which is its timeliness. Written in 1937, it opens a window onto a part of the world most Americans only became aware of in 2001. Given that the same dynamics of Russian expansionism drive the ongoing Chechen war, that the Sunni/Shi’ite division Ali details forms an undercurrent to conflicts in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and that oil politics still drive Western interests in the region, author Kurban Said unwittingly demonstrates that short-term thinking should not drive American involvement in the region. As a brief introduction to current affairs, it is both revealing and painless.
The second remarkable aspect is the story of the book’s authorship, which is contested even today. Kurban Said was a pen name, probably for Lev Nussinbaum, the son of a Jewish merchant in Azerbaijan, or (less likely) for Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli, a popular Azeri writer. The copyright was held by Baroness Elfriede von Ehrenfels, and it was she who collected royalties on European sales. Tom Reiss, whose New Yorker article on Said led to a full-length book called The Orientalist, follows Lev Nussinbaum’s life as he created one identity after another in a quest for recognition. A biographer of both Stalin and Mussolini, Nussinbaum shed names and histories like old clothes, and for a time was celebrated in Germany’s highest social circles as a traveler from the exotic East. He and the Baroness may have created the Said identity to collect royalties, which as a Jew in Germany he could not. Reiss writes that national policies requiring identity cards and documented family histories may have caught up with Nussinbaum, leaving him stranded in a small Italian town without access to the money the Baroness collected from sales of Ali and Nino. He died in 1942.
Ali and Nino is not only a compelling love story and window into the minds of cross-cultural travelers, it contains passages of considerable beauty and moments of humor that stay with the reader. Whoever the real Kurban Said was, he could write.
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Check for The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss
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