Azerbaijan International

Summer 2004 (12.2)
Page 18

The Baku of "Ali & Nino" - It's Our World too!
by Betty Blair

Other articles related to Ali and Nino:
1 "Ali and Nino" Covers: Novel is Published in 33 Languages ­ Betty Blair (AI 12.3)

2 Review: Inside the Soul of a Caucasian ­ Elin Suleymanov (AI 12.2)
3 Baku City Tour: "Ali and Nino" Walking Tour - Fuad Akhundov and Betty Blair (AI 12.2)
4 Photo Essay: Then & Now: Baku 100 Years Ago at the Peak of Oil Baron Period - (AI 12.2)
5 Article: How to Collect Kurban Said's Novel "Ali and Nino" ­ Betty Blair (AI 12.3)
6 Letter to Editor: Copyright - Leela Ehrenfels (AI 12.4)
7 Letter: "Ali & Nino" Rediscovered - Ismail Kafescioglu (AI 10.3)

It's Oil Show time again in Baku - the 11th Annual Caspian Oil and Gas Exhibition. And once again, we've tried to produce a magazine that would provide visitors with a glimpse of what Baku is all about. In this Summer issue, we've published the "Ali & Nino Walking Tour", brainchild of Fuad Akhundov, who has done more than anyone else in this city to popularize the history of the Oil Baron period with tours of its architectural treasures.

The tour, which takes about three hours, wanders through the Old City (Ichari Shahar) and down some of the most prestigious and architecturally intriguing streets of Baku.

We think it's one of the best ways to get an introduction to the beauty, magnificence and opulence of the city's architecture of the Oil Boom era. But this Walking Tour is designed to do more than that.

Based on the novel, "Ali & Nino: A Love Story," the book was originally published in 1937, faraway from Azerbaijan (Austria), in a foreign language (German), by someone who felt the necessity to disguise his true identity with the pen name Kurban Said. Some claim the author was Leo Nussimbaum; others, Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli. In 1971 Random House brought out the English version of "Ali & Nino" for the first time. The following year, Life Magazine acknowledged its popularity by noting: "If Kurban Said can't push Erich Segal "Love Story" off the bestseller list, nobody can!"

It's our world too! Photo by Meg Hayes of Portland, Oregon, who was on a medical assignment in Baku.
Left: It's our world too! Photo by Meg Hayes of Portland, Oregon, while on a medical assignment in Baku.

Most of the story takes place in Baku within a perimeter of a few kilometers. The plot is simple: two young people have fallen madly in love - the guy, an Azerbaijani aristocrat; the girl, a Georgian princess.

Ali comes from a traditional Muslim background; Nino, from a more Europeanized progressive outlook and of Christian tradition. Both are extremely conscious of their differences - both in their own personal belief system and from society's expectations.

In fact, much of the book is spent elaborating on these problems. But both Ali and Nino, either out of optimism or, perhaps, naivete, keep hoping that their love will be strong enough to bridge the enormous gaps of their traditions, practices and beliefs. To further complicate the plot, the novel is set in turbulent, uncertain times (around 1917-1918) which, in reality, turns out to be the eve of the Bolshevik takeover of Baku that led to the Soviet occupation of Azerbaijan for more than 70 years (1920-1991).

About 20 years passed between the time when the actual political and historical events of the story took place and when the book was published. This gave the author, who himself was living in exile, time to reflect upon his world that had been turned upside down. But the political situation had not quieted down. Europe was on the verge of World War II. The Soviet Union was at the height of Stalin's repression when many intellectuals went to bed wearing their street clothes for fear of a sudden dreaded knock at the door in the middle of the night. The future could not have looked more bleak.

"Ali & Nino" is so full of personal reflection and political analysis and reads so true, that you constantly have to remind yourself that it's a novel, not a journal. In truth, it reads more like a docu-drama begging for cinematic format.

The book has been touted as more useful than any guidebook or academic text for truly understanding the soul of the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia) of the early 20th century, pre-Soviet period. Some would claim that "Ali & Nino" is a treatise about the basic differences between East and West, tradition and modernism, race and religion. We would suggest that the issues run much deeper. And more significantly, the issues are extremely relevant to the explosive political situation that we as members of the world community find ourselves in today.

Over and over again, the author pounds away at the main issues: "What will happen to us? What will happen to our country?" And now 80 years after the events of the story, the author, by implication, demands of us: "And what will happen to our world?" How are we to synthesize all the conflicting beliefs and contradictions? How can we find creative ways to live side by side in friendship, justice and truth? For as the novel so poignantly concludes: to fail to find the solution to this issue is as deadly today as it was for Ali, whose body was found riddled with eight bullets as he fell from the bridge in Ganja cradling his submachine defending his own country.

For readers, who are serious about understanding this historical period, and this particular geographical location, or who are just interested in a fast-moving, delicious love story, we highly recommend "Ali & Nino" for summer reading. If you're in Baku, we hope you'll find time to meander the streets, take photos and give a physical context to these dramatic, soul-searching scenes.

"Ali & Nino" is a book that makes you think long after you close the last page. Its issues take you far beyond the narrow winding streets of Baku's Old City to a world hungry for viable solutions.

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