Azerbaijan International

Summer 2004 (12.2)

The Ali and Nino Walking Tour
by Betty Blair and Fuad Akhundov

Constitutional Court
Ganjlik Square 1

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In the novel "Ali & Nino" this building was then a two-story residence belonging to Haji Hajibaba Ashumov [Ashum in the novel]. From this vantage point, Ali positioned himself on the roof of this house in an effort to defend the Old City from the March 1918 attack by Armenians and Bolsheviks.

From "Ali & Nino", pages 187 ff.

"Slender and dainty the old minaret rose in the pale light of the moon. Dark and threatening crouched the shadows of the old fortress wall. From far away came the sound of iron on iron-somebody was sharpening his dagger, and it sounded like a promise.

"Then the telephone rang. I got up and stumbled through the darkness. The voice of Ilyas Bey [Oil Baron Taghiyev's son] came through the receiver: "The Armenians have joined the Russians. They demand that all Mohammedans [Muslims] surrender their weapons not later than three o'clock tomorrow afternoon. We refuse, of course.

"You'll be at the machine gun at the wall, left of Tsitsianashvili's Gate. I'm sending you another 30 men. Prepare everything for the defense of the Gate."

"I put the receiver down. Nino was sitting up in bed, staring at me. I took up my dagger and tried its sharp edge.

Below: Burned out building from the March 1918 attack by Bolsheviks and Armenian Dashnaks that left an estimated 10,000 Azerbaijanis dead. Photo: courtesy of Azerbaijan National Photo Archives.

"What is it, Ali?"

"The enemy is at the gate, Nino." I dressed and called the servants. They came, broad-shouldered, strong and clumsy. I gave each of them a gun, then I went down to my father. He was standing in front of the mirror, a servant brushing his Tsherkess [Circassian] coat.

"Where is your position, Ali Khan?"

"At the Tsitsianashvili Gate."

"Good. I'm in the Hall of the Benevolent Society [Ismayiliyya Building, now Academy of Science Presidium, that was burned during this 1918 attack]." His saber rattled, he fingered his moustache. "Be brave, Ali. The enemy must not come over the wall. If they reach the Square [now Sabir Gardens] outside the wall, use your machine gun.

"Assadullah [Asadulla] is bringing in the farmers from the villages. They will attack the enemy from the rear in Nikolai [Nikolayevskaya Street and now since Azerbaijan's Independence, known as Istiglaliyyat Street]. He put his revolver into its holster and blinked tiredly. "The last boat to Persia sails at 8 o'clock. Nino must be sure to go. If the Russians win, they will rape all women."

"I went back to my room. Nino was talking on the telephone. "No, Mama," I heard her say, "I'm staying here. There is really no danger, you know. Thanks Papa, don't worry, we've got enough food. Yes, thank you. But please don't worry. I'm not coming, I'm not." She raised her voice on the last word, it was a cry. She put the receiver down. "You're right, Nino," I said, "you wouldn't be safe at your parents' house either. At 8 o'clock the last boat leaves for Persian. Pack your things."

Left: Preparing to defend the Inner City against the attack. Note cannon in cart. The novel, Ali and Nino, describes this bloody confrontation. Courtesy: Family Album of Farid Alakbarov.

"She blushed deeply. "You're sending me away, Ali Khan?" Never had I seen Nino redden like this. "You'll be safe in Teheran, Nino. If the enemies win, they'll rape all women."

"She raised her head and said defiantly: "They won't rape me, Ali Khan-not me. Don't worry."

"Go to Persia, Nino, please! There's still time."

"Stop it," she said severely. "Ali, I'm terribly afraid, of the enemy, of the battle, of all the terrible things that are going to happen. But I'm staying here. I can't help you, but I belong to you. I have to stay here, that's all there is to it." That was all. I kissed her eyes and felt very proud. She was a good wife even when she defied me.

I left the house. Dawn was breaking. Dust was in the air. I mounted the wall. My servants were crouching behind the stone battlements, their guns at the ready. Ilyas Bey's 30 men were watching the empty Duma Square [now in the area of Baksovet Metro]. There they were with their black moustaches and brown faces, clumsy, silent and tense. The machine gun with its small muzzle looked like a Russian nose - snub and broad. All was quiet around us. From time to time the liaison patrols came running silently along the wall, bringing short messages. Somewhere old men and priests were still trying to negotiate for the miracle of a last-minute reconciliation.

"The sun rose, and heat flooded from the leaden sky to sink into the stones. I looked across to my house. Nino was sitting on the roof, her face turned to the sun. At midday she came to the wall, bringing food and drink. She looked at the machine gun with frightened curiosity, then she crouched silently in the shade until I sent her home. Now it was 1 o'clock. From the minaret, Seyid Mustafa sang his prayer - plaintive and solemn.
Then he joined us, awkwardly dragging his gun behind. He had stuck the Koran into his belt. I looked across to Duma Square, outside the wall. A few people were hurrying across the dust, anxiously bent low, as if in fear of an immediate attack.

"A veiled woman ran shouting and stumbling after her children, who were playing in the middle of the square. One, two, three. The bells of the Town Hall rang out, shattering the silence. And at the same moment-as if these bells had miraculously opened the door to another world-we heard the first shots from the outskirts of the town."

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