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,’ though she is also deeply attracted to it and to Ali. More than anything else, she and her family are concerned about the way Muslim culture treats women. Therefore, the question of marriage to a Muslim boy raises deep-seated anxieties on both sides. The novel is punctuated by passages that place Ali and Nino worlds apart, in the Old Town of Baku and the Outer Town that represent the Muslim and Christian cultures with their ever-growing tensions and tractions.
Our old town is full of secrets and mysteries, hidden nooks and little valleys. I love these soft night murmurs, the moon over the flat roofs, and hot quiet afternoons in the mosque’s courtyard with its atmosphere of silent meditation. God let me be born here, as a Muslim of the Shi’ite faith, in the religion of Imam Ja’far. May he be merciful and let me die here, in the same street, in the same house where I was born. Me and Nino, a Christian, who eats with knife and fork, has laughing eyes and wears filmy silk stockings.
These tensions, which are mostly hidden below the surface, emerge during World War I, when the local population is ordered to sign up and volunteer for the war on behalf of Russia. But most Muslim Azeris, like Ali, support the Ottoman Empire and are awaiting the arrival of Turkish soldiers to settle old feuds. In addition, ethnic tensions between Muslim Turks and Armenians engulf Baku and the Caucasus and threaten to pull apart the pluralist society of Baku as was the case in many Balkan and Anatolian towns. Ali is torn between his love and loyalty to Nino and his political sentiments. When an Armenian kidnaps Nino, Ali is enraged, determined to take revenge to defend his honor. He captures and marries his sweetheart. Ali and his family have strong ties to Persia, and flee there during the war. Ali and Nino end up in the Shah’s Harem on soft pillows and silk blankets, after a long journey. Ali starts writing his memoir in Persia, having a sense of the looming future in his hometown. But Nino is unhappy and forces Ali to leave the “Asiatic country,” where women are only objects of desire, to return to Baku. When the British take over Baku from Turkish forces, Azerbaijan gains a short-lived autonomy and Ali becomes the minister of foreign affairs for a brief period. The Bolshevik revolution and the ensuing civil war divide Azerbaijan once more between the Christian forces led by Russia and the weak local forces. Ali falls in a bloody battle against the Russians on a bridge dividing Ganja. Thus ends the transitory autonomy of Azerbaijan Republic.
The authorship of Ali and Nino remains a mystery despite recent debates and disputes about the real identity of Kurban Said, a pseudonym used by the author. For a long time, he was thought to be the local Azerbaijan Muslim author and diplomat, Yusuf Vazir Chamanzaminli (1887-1942), who perished in Stalin’s Gulag. But an American author by the name of Tom Reiss has argued in his book The Orientalist that the author was Essad Bey or Levi Nusinbaum (1905-1942) who converted to Islam and fled the Bolsheviks in 1920 and published the novel in Germany in 1937. Betty Blair, the editor of Azerbijan International, has recently argued that the real author was Chamanzaminli and that Essad Bey in fact revised the story and published it under his name.
Regardless of who the real author of Ali and Nino may be, it is clear that the historical and political backdrop to the novel shares several historically and politically significant features with similar novels written in the Balkans after World War I. Ali and Nino is a novel about love, nostalgia, Muslim-Christian encounters, ethnic tensions at the dawn of imperial rivalries, the rise of nationalisms that tore apart communities of faith and pluralist societies like Baku in the Caucasus and Bosnia in the Balkans, and a world and lifestyle that was once the norm but is no longer even an ideal.