Book Review: “Ali and Nino” for Kurban Said

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“Here we are, the representatives of the three greatest Caucasian people: a Georgian, a Mohammedan, an Armenian. Born under the same sky, by the same earth, different and yet the same, like God’s Trinity. European, and yet Asiatic, receiving from East and West, and giving to both.” (Ali and Nino, p.80)

Ali and Nino is a book published in 1937  in Vienna in German by an unknown author who went by the name “Kurban Said”. Most agree he was an Azeri Jew (who converted to Islam) called Lev Nussimbaum. The book was found by Jenia Graman in a Berlin bookshop and translated it into English. May Graman’s memory be a blessing for introducing this valuable book to the world. This novel is one of Azerbaijan’s prized possessions. It depicts a time when though minor problems existed between the peoples of the Caucasus, they were relatively living in peace. Not only is it a romance novel but truly a masterpiece in historical fiction. 

Ali is a Muslim Azeri and Nino is a Christian Georgian. Ali and Nino are in love (surprise!); they indeed go through hurdles with their parents and society in general, but marry nevertheless.  You would think the story would revolve around their love and struggles in being together — or so that’s what I thought. They end up in Tiflis (Tbilisi), a village in Dagestan, and Tehran; yet they yearn (especially Ali) for Baku. This book is rich in describing the Baku of pre- and post- World War I, its history, people and socio-political situation. Oil had been discovered few years back and the city was booming, yet suffering from an identiy crisis. Is Baku Asiatic, as Ali claims it to be, or European, as Nino wants it to be? 

Ali had an Armenian friend (who later betrays him), and though criticized for it by other Muslims, he vows to protect this friend if troubles against Armenians were to occur. In fact, news of the Armenian massacres arrive to Baku from Anatolia, and Turanism, an ideology which supports a pan-Turkic nation, is openly discussed amongst the Muslims (to the dismay of the Christian population). At the end of the book, Ali gets an opportunity to work as a diplomat in Paris for the newly founded Azerbaijani Republic, but he refuses. His love for Baku is greater than anything else. Tragedy strikes after the Russian invasion and what happens afterwards is not explained. The novel ends unexpectedly. I got upset. I need to read more!

What a beautiful read this book was. What an enchanting and cosmopolitan city Baku must have been. I began thinking of the hatred Armenians and Azeris harbour today… what has nationalism done to us? — the novel thoroughly describes Karabagh and its main city, Shusha (destroyed by the Armenians during the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 1988-1994). There is little to no trace of the Muslims who lived there, today I assume. We could’ve lived together, yet the Armenian and Azeri elite destroyed every prospect for peace. 

Baku, a multicultural city, with Azeri Muslims, Georgians, Armenians, Russians, Jews, Persians and others walking through its streets, is today, no more. I try not to romanticize the old days, for racism and other-ing existed even then. No one would have predicted the aftermath of 1920 (when the book ends). Pogroms against Armenians, the displacement of the Azeris and other heinous events took place. I need a sequel. This is not a history book though, but a novel — a rare gem. Curse you Kurban Said for leaving me thirsty for more! 

“Nino, I think there’s no place like Baku.”

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