We were a very mixed lot, we forty schoolboys who were having a geography lesson one hot afternoon in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia: thirty Mohammedans, four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians, and one Russian.
The opening lines of Ali and Nino takes us back to a classroom in Russian-controlled northern Azerbaijan at the wake of World War I, to Baku, an oil-boom port city on the Caspian Sea. The ethnic mosaic of Muslim Azeris (mostly Shi’i), Armenians, Jews, and Russians, the continued Russian colonial rule that dated back to early 19th century, the oil boom, and various imperial rivalries all gave rise to social, religious, and ethnic tensions that characterized not only life in Baku but in other cities across the Caucasus and the Balkans. The novel may be described as a Caucasian version of Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric, or of Romeo and Juliet: it tells the tale of two young lovers, an Azeri Muslim boy and a Georgian girl who try to overcome religious divides and rising ethnic tensions to preserve their love, against the odds.
The story is told from the point of view of Ali Shirvanshir, a young man who, despite his love for the Georgian Nino, closely identifies with his Muslim heritage and the Shirvanshahs, his aristocratic ancestors who once ruled the region. Romance between a Muslim and Christian is forbidden by both religions, and the two lovers face a world that is rapidly changing and increasingly polarized. The Old Town is where Ali lives, and it is a different world than that of the Outer Town, where Russian culture and control dominate. In the Outer Town:
There were theatres, schools, hospitals, libraries, policemen and beautiful women with naked shoulders. If there was shooting in the Outer Town, it was always about money. Europe’s geographical border began in the Outer Town, and that is where Nino lived.
After two major wars against Persia in the early 19th century, Russia established its rule over the Caucasus as a whole, occupying northern Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. A massive migration of Muslim Turks to the Ottoman Empire and Iran took place in the course of the 19th century as greater Azerbaijan was divided between Iran, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Modern national borders were absent, and people moved between these empires frequently. In the novel, for instance, Ali’s uncle from Persia visits Baku for medical reasons, and Ali vacations at his uncle’s house in Tehran.
Much blood has flowed through the centuries in the alleys of our town. And this blood makes us strong and brave. Zizianashvili’s Gate rises up opposite our house, and here too noble human blood has been shed, becoming part of my family’s history. That was many years ago, when our country Azerbaijan still belonged to Persia, and Hasan Kuli Khan ruled over Baku, its capital.
Old Baku is described as the beautiful maiden (Maiden’s Tower) over whom many heroic and proud men have fought for centuries against the Russians, sacrificing their flesh and shedding their blood in order to save her, to save their city and culture. But Nino, as a Christian woman, represents Europe, alien and intrusive. Nino sees Muslim culture through a Russian, western lens, with which she views the world she describes as ‘barbarian,&rsquo...read more