Azerbaijan International

Summer 2004 (12.2)

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

Azerbaijan State Economics University
Istiglaliyyat 6
(Nikolayevskaya Street)

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In the novel, "Ali & Nino", this building served as Ali's High School and goes by the name of "Imperial Russian Humanistic High School". Original, however, it housed the "Realni Technical School" and was built in 1901-1904 under the direction of architect D. Buynov.
On the eve of graduation, Ali complains about the irrelevancy of his high school curriculum as a Muslim student amidst Russian instructors. Fearing that his son may not graduate, his father bribes school officials.

From "Ali & Nino", page 6.

"During these years many things had happened [the decade of the 1910s]. A new headmaster had arrived who liked to grab our collars and shake us because it was strictly forbidden to box a pupil's ears. Our religious instructor explained at great length how merciful Allah had been to let us be born into the Mohammedan [Muslim] faith.

"I was nearly held back for another year because I did not know the difference between the Gerundium and the Gerundivium. My father went for advice to the Mullah at the mosque, who declared that all this Latin was just vain delusion. So my father put on all his Turkish, Persian and Russian decorations, went to see the headmaster, donated some chemical equipment or other, and I passed.

"A notice had been put up in the school, stating that pupils were strictly forbidden to enter school premises with loaded revolvers. Telephones were installed in town, and Nino Kipiani was still the most beautiful girl in the world.

Below: Baku's Manuscript Institute was originally built as the first boarding school for Muslim girls. It opened in 1901. Oil Baron Taghiyev, illiterate himself, recognized the need for a strong education for women and financed the building project and the administration of the school. Courtesy of Taghiyev's relative Saida Mirizade-Abdullayeva.

"Now all this was coming to an end. The final exam was only one week away, and I sat at home and pondered on the futility of Latin tuition on the coast of the Caspian Sea.

"Another delightful scene in "Ali & Nino" reflects the mischievous character of some of the students. Ali's graduating class had created a hoax as an excuse to cover themselves when they wanted to play hooky from school. They used to fabricate a story about how lepers had escaped from a local leprosarium.

"At the graduation party, Ali, as class spokesman, informed his teachers of the closure of the leprosarium, leaving the graduating classes that would follow scrambling to connive their own excuses for cutting classes.

"The following scene takes place in the opulent Oriental Hall on the Second Floor of Taghiyev's Residence (See No. 25). It is possible to see this room today as it is part of the National History Museum and open to the public and well worth the visit as it is the most ornate and tastefully decorated private hall that existed in Oil Baron days as well as today in Baku."

Below: City School No. 5 named after Pushkin. Early Soviet period. Note that boys and girls are enrolled in the same school. Ali and Nino went to separate schools. National Photo Archives.

From "Ali and Nino: pages 32 ff.

"The Leprosarium was the invention and the secret of our form [class at school]. The Russian teachers had no idea of what was going on in our town and the surrounding countryside, even if they had been living and working here for years. To them, we were just wild natives, who might do anything. So we had told them that there was a Leprosarium near Baku. [Actually, there is a leprosarium in the Gobustan region about an hour's distance from Baku].

"If any of us wanted to play truant, the form's spokesman went to the form's teacher, and teeth chattering, told him that some of the sick had broken out and were in our town. The police were looking for them. They were supposed to be hiding in the part of the town where the pupils lived, who wanted a bit of time off. The teacher blanched and gave his pupils permission to stay away till the sick were arrested. This might be a week, or even longer, it depended. No teacher ever dreamed of enquiring at the Bureau of Sanitation whether there really was a Leprosarium near. But tonight [Graduation Night] the Leprosarium would be closed.

"I went into the already crowded hall. In a corner sat, surrounded by his teacher, our headmaster, wearing a solemn and grandiose look for the occasion. I went to him and bowed respectfully. When it came to dealing with the headmaster, I was the spokesman for the Muslim pupils, because I had a monkey's instinct for languages and dialects. While most of the students betrayed their non-Russian descent in their first Russian sentence, I could even imitate the separate dialects. Our head master came form Petersburg and, therefore, one had to speak "Petersburgian" to him; that is, lisp the consonants and swallow the vowels. This does not sound very beautiful, but it's very, very high class. The headmaster never dreamed I was pulling his leg, and was pleased about the progressive Russification of this far borderland.

"Good evening, sir," I said modestly.

"Good evening, Shirvanshir, have you recovered from your exam fright?"

"Oh yes, sir, But since then I have had an awful shock."

"What was that?"

"Well, this thing about the Leprosarium. My cousin Suleyman was there. You know he is a Lieutenant in the Salyan Regiment. It made him quite sick and I had to nurse him."

"But what is the matter with the Leprosarium?"

"Oh! Sir, don't you know? Yesterday all the sick broke out, and marched towards the town. Two companies of the Salyan Regiment had to be turned out to deal with them. The sick had occupied two villages. The soldiers surrounded these villages and killed everybody - sick or not sick. Just now all houses are being set on fire. Isn't it dreadful, sir, the Leprosarium has ceased to exist. The sick, rotting pieces of flesh falling off them, rattling in their throats, lie outside the town gates. They are being slowly drenched with oil and burned to death".

"Pearls of sweat appeared on the headmaster's forehead. He was probably thinking that really it was time to ask the Minister for a transfer to a more civilized place.

"Terrible country, terrible people," he said huskily. "But there you see, children, how important it is to have an efficient government and magistrates who can act quickly." The form surrounded the headmaster and listened, grinning at the lecture about the Blessing of Order. The Leprosarium was finished. Our successors would have to think up some new idea of their own. "

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