‘Ali & Nino’ By Kurban Said (1937)

Selection_079Ali and Nino is a love story, but much more. It is also a period piece and the definitive, and so far unrivalled, story of Baku City and of Azerbaijan’s troubled and multiple births; and more than that, the ideal and concise first window on the mind set and character of the Transcaucasian peoples and their religious mores.

More again, its authorship was wreathed in mystery and oddity. The novel was first published, in German, in Austria in 1937. Its central characters are Azeri, Georgian and Armenian (first clue for the modern reader: a recipe for trouble), but self evidently, it was created by none of these: it needs an outsider to write with such insight and balance. Or two: depending which edition you pick up, there are differing claims for authorship. Both are fascinating. Both editions share an adulatory introduction by Paul Theroux, no less – another clue to the book’s merit.

But to begin at the beginning. Ali Khan Shirvanshir, Azeri and Shia Moslem, is about to finish school in his home town of Baku, and already in love with Nino Kipiani, Georgian, and Christian, at the best girls’ school in the city. This being a little before the outbreak of World War I, both study in Russian. Their romance is all-consuming, but fraught with problems: welcome to the Caucasus. Language, families, religion and customs frown upon them, and we see an echo of Shakespeare’s Verona. The author(s) regale us with their developing love affair, while throwing a double or triple focused light on our heroes’ values and expectations, seriously, but often with wit and humour. Even outrageous (to modern, liberal eyes) statements of religious can’t/dogma make the reader smile. Not for me to pre-empt your reading pleasure.

The questions, conflicts and choices of peoples astride the European-Asian frontiers, the same ones that give the Russian Eagle two heads, one looking West, one East; are sharply dissected. So too the vastly different views of peoples who live under or yearn for the sharp desert horizon, burning sun, starry skies and endless movement… against those at home with forest, green, farming and settlement. Cain or Abel, if you will.

While hero, heroine, friends and families are developing, they do so under the ever darkening cloud of looming war and revolution. The Caucasus is under imperial Russian rule, doomed. The Azeris are yearning for independence. But Turkey, Iran, even Britain, and soon Soviet Russia all intend to extend their empires.

Remember: at the time, Baku was the world’s largest oil producer; sits on the old Silk Road; and was often seen as the key to conquering Persia and/or India. The mix is potent, and with oil, ethnicity and religion, explosive. As the personal and geopolitical narrative unfolds, we get to travel to Georgia, Persia, Dagestan and all over Azerbaijan.

How does it all pan out? Read your history books, and ‘Ali and Nino’ to find out. Why should I spoil the suspense? There are a few clues above. If you are thinking of visiting the south Caucasus, or already there, ‘Ali and Nino’ is essential and very enjoyable reading. If in Baku, buy it at the eponymous bookshop, on Fountains Square, and read it over a peaceful brew at their café opposite. Have a hankie handy.