The Azerbaijani novel Ali and Nino
Geschreven door Elkhan Alasgarov
Dinsdag 18 Augustus 2009 12:12
On the surface, the Azerbaijani novel Ali and Nino tells the story about a complicated romance between two young people from different backgrounds. At the same time, the book is a window into the country’s social, political and cultural life during the tumultuous period around World War I. Until today, the identity of the book’s author remains shrouded in mystery.
Ali and Nino, translated into Dutch in 2008 by the publisher Bezige Bij, is a love story that takes place in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku during the last years of World War I. This period is marked by Azerbaijan’s short independence from 1918 to 1920 and the invasion of Russia’s Red Army. This book is often referred to as a national novel of Azerbaijan which explores the extraordinary conflicts that plagued this country sitting astride the border between the Christian West and the Muslim East.
The novel is an excellent guide to old Baku and the Azerbaijani traditions as it explores the ancient country and its capital:
“There were really two towns, one inside the other, like a kernel in a nut. Outside the Old Wall was the Outer Town, with wide streets, high houses, its people noisy and greedy for money. This Outer Town was built because of the oil that comes from our desert and brings riches.
Geschreven door Elkhan Alasgarov Dinsdag 18 Augustus 2009 12:12
There were theatres, schools, hospitals, libraries, policemen and beautiful women with naked shoulders. […] Inside the Old Wall the houses were narrow and curved like oriental daggers. Minarets pierced the mild moon, so different from the oil derricks the House of Nobel had erected.”
The influences coming from the Eastern and the Western regions give Azeri culture a rich, but sometimes a volatile, mixture. This mixture sometimes explodes in turmoil, such as when Azerbaijan’s rich oil resources combines with the heat of nationalism that fueled World War. The two young lovers in the novel are caught in this time of turbulence.
Shirvanshir, a romantic young man from a wealthy and influential Azerbaijani family, is educated in a Czarist academy which introduces him to the technological and intellectual advantages of the Western world. Early in the book, he decides that his heart is pulled to the spiritual and physical purity of his Islamic heritage. However, 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. Ali’s love for Nino is such that he rebels against the traditions and treats her with great respect. The book is a superb introduction to life and culture in the old Azerbaijan, and at the same time is a classic love story in the midst of a war. It blends bravery, love and passion, while also introducing the reader to a strong traditional culture and its patriarchal society. The following is an excerpt of a discussion between Ali and his father when Ali decides to marry Nino:
“A woman is a fragile vessel […]. Do not beat her when she is pregnant. But never forget: you are the master and she lives in your shadow. You know that every Muslim is allowed four wives at a time. […] Cover her with presents if you want to, give her silks and jewels. But if you ever need advice, and she gives it to you, do the exact opposite. That is perhaps the most important thing to know.”
The journey of the two lovers, who have to overcome opposition to their relationship and the deceit of a mutual friend, takes them from the shores of the Caspian Sea to the Caucasus Mountains in Dagestan where they get married, then to Persia and finally their return to Baku. However, they find themselves embroiled amidst warfare. To save his wife and his daughter, who was born in the meantime, Ali sends them to Georgia, promising to join them within three days while he stays behind to defend the newly declared independence of his country, Azerbaijan. The tides turn against the country when the Red Army invades, while Ali stays behind in a desperate and futile attempt to resist the invasion. He sacrifices himself for his country.
Even until today, the authorship of Ali and Nino is the subject of speculation and controversy. Some believe that it was written by Kurban Said, which was the pen name of Muhammed Essad Bey, which is itself the assumed name of Lev Nussimbaum. He was born in Azerbaijan in 1905. In the chaos of the Russian Revolution, Kurban Said left Baku for Berlin, where he wrote books on Prophet Mohammed, Nikolas II, Lenin, Reza Shah Pahlevi and, in an act of considerable daring, even proposed himself as the official biographer of Mussolini. He died in italy’sPositano in 1942. Others claim that the author of this book is an Azerbaijani writer named Chemenzeminli.
Decades after it was written, the novel remains relevant and has been published in at least 30 languages as diverse as Arabic, Bengali, Catalan, Cantonese, English, French, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Persian, Russian and Urdu. Readers interested in literature and history should add Ali and Nino to their book shelves.
Elkhan Alasgarov is the First Secretary of the Embassy of Azerbaijan in The Netherlands.