Nothing ignites as much interest and speculation among readers as the mysterious identity of an author. For more than 60 years the author of Ali and Nino was unknown. Numerous research lead to two possible candidates – the Austrian baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels and the Ukrainian Jew Lev Nussimbaum, who converted to Islam and took the name Essad Bey. It was subsequently agreed that Essad Bey was the author of the novel, although many still believe that the baroness in fact co-shared the authorship.
Well of course a novel about the eternal clash between the East and the West should in fact be written by a man who incorporates both. Given the mystery still surrounding the authorship, I was quite excited to get my hands on Ali and Nino although I did have my doubts. It wasn’t technically speaking an Azerbaijani novel given the definition I had accepted (i.e it had to be written by an Azerbaijani author). After finishing it, though, I have no doubts or remorse, for Kurban Said (whoever he or she or they might really be) truthfully captures the essence of living in a country that is neither East nor West, neither Asiatic nor European, neither Muslim nor Christian. A country that for centuries has been regarded as the gate between Western civilization and Eastern tradition – belonging in both and in neither. A country people from diverse backgrounds and religions have struggled (and still struggle) to live together in and to form a national identity that is always somewhere in between.
Set in the years before and during WWI, Ali and Nino is supposed to be a love story. At least that is what the caption says. It seems God (or whoever) just poured a bit out of everything in Baku – there were Persians, Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Poles and Mohammedans. In class children were given a choice – do you want to belong to Europe or to Asia? As for Ali, doubt was out of the picture. Born into a Muslim family of heritage, he was raised with the stories of his brave predecessors who died for the protection and continuance of the Muslim tradition. And yet the heart seldom obeys tradition or family (or logic and reason for that matter) and Ali’s heart takes him on the outer side of the wall, closer to Europe that he would conceivably would like to be.
Nino, a Princess, is born into a progressive Georgian family, which rejects the so-called ‘barbarian’ customs and beliefs of the Mohammedans, especially regarding women. Raised free-spirited and progressive by her parents, Nino would never agree to the veil, to the inferior position of women in the Muslim society, to living in a harem and to repressing her voice. Such a bond seems inconceivable and frankly impossible. And yet we seldom fall in love with the ones we are supposed to. Although Baku is quite cosmopolitan, the differences between Ali and Nino’s beliefs become even more unbearable with the escalation of the East-West conflict. Despite the fervent passion between them, neither Ali nor Nino seem prepared to compromise.
Beyond the love story a grander and more important story is developing. As WWI breaks out, the Azerbaijani must decide where their alliances lie – with the long-time occupier Russia or with the Turks promising to liberate it and support the newly formed state. With the West promising to bring along civilization in the form of infrastructure, education and healthcare or with the East with its hundreds of years of traditions. As Ali and Nino are struggling to find a compromise in their relationship so is Azerbaijan struggling to discover what truly defines it as a nation. It seems quite amazing how little has changed since 1937 when this novel was written. Supposedly we are going forward – to integration and acceptance – and yet I feel the gap between the East and the West has never been wider. I wonder what the next generation would look like.
In addition to being a page-turner, Ali and Nino proved to be quite educational. Kurban Said (again whoever he might be) paints a thorough picture of Azerbaijan – politics, love and nature interwine in a magical way to show that probably nothing is either black or white, wrong or right, East or West. And above all (however cheesy that might sound, for me especially) that love could actually flourish in the most barren soil.
He who thinks of tomorrow can never be brave.
A wise rule demands that a man should keep away from women when he stands at life’s crossroads.