Summer 2000 (8.2)
Nino" by Kurban Said
the Soul of a Caucasian
Review by Elin Suleymanov
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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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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).
(8.2) Summer 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.
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