Ali & Nino is set in the country of Azerbeidshan (Azerbaijan), circa 1918. It reads as both a 19th century romance and a 20th century historical/political novel. Ali, a young nobleman, falls in love with a Nino, a Georgian princess. They’re engaged to be married. Their relationship must overcome religious differences (he is Muslim, she a Christian) and world events. It begins on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution and ends with Azerbeidshan part of the Soviet Union.
Geography is an important element to understanding the plot, so a world map from the period might be worth looking up (though not necessary, the author does a pretty good job of explaining the small nation’s precarious situation). Baku – the city where much of the action takes place – is on the Western tip of Azerbeidshan, directly across the Caspian Sea from Russia. Turkey and Armenia are to the East, Georgia and the Ukraine are North, Persia/Iran is to the South. When the book opens the Russians hold Baku, but Azerbeidshan will pass through many hands before the last page.
Ali Khan narrates the novel, and we learn that the story we are reading is from his journal. In it he tells of his & Nino’s childhood in Baku, their courtship, marriage and the birth of their child. Throughout their story, eventually overtaking it, are the politics of the period and region. There is a moment when a Georgian, speaking of Georgia, tells Ali, “We are between the two claws of a pair of red-hot tongs. If the Germans win – it’s the end of the land of Tamar. If the Russians win – what then?” When Ali repeats this to Nino she asks him what about Azerbeidshan? He replies, “For us it’s different. We are lying on the anvil and the Grand Duke (of Russia) holds the hammer.” This small country, we are frequently reminded, is where Europe and Asia meet. It is the gate between two cultures, and it is Ali & Nino’s home.
Ali is a product of both old Persia and new Europe, though he identifies himself as a Muslim. When he tells his father that he has “defended Asia with machinegun, bayonet and dagger” his father replies:
You are a brave man, Ali Khan. But what is bravery? Europeans are brave too. You and all the men who fought with you – you are not Asiatics any more. I do not hate Europe. I am indifferent to it. You hate it, because there is something European in you. You went to a Russian school, you have learnt Latin, you have a European wife. How can you still be an Asiatic? If you had won, you yourself would have introduced Europe in Baku, even without realising it, or intending to.”
Comfortable in each culture, Ali is content in neither. Nino is very much a European woman, her only binding tie to Asia is her love of Ali. Baku is the only place where they can exist together happily. His & Nino’s relationship can be read as a metaphor for the impact of the two cultures colliding and coexisting, however briefly, in the microcosm of Azerbeidshan. What is shocking is how little has changed. Many of the cultural issues and conflict they deal with are familiar to a reader 3 quarters of a century later.
When Nino is kidnapped by the Albanian who (incongruously) helped arrange her engagement, Ali hunts down and brutally kills the man with his friends’ aid. As he moves away from the corpse one asks “What’s to be done with the woman? Will you stab her or shall I?” Another holds a dagger out to him and says “Kill her, Ali Khan”. The third nods and advises, “We’ll throw the body into the sea.” Yet all three believe absolutely that she was abducted against her will. When Ali declines to have Nino killed, the friend with the dagger tells him (smiling dreamily, mind you) that, “Her life belongs to you. You can take it, you can spare it. The Law permits either.” Earlier, when Ali is worrying about the repercussions of an interfaith marriage to Nino, this same friend tells him that it does not matter what faith his wife is, as women have no souls. The treatment of women, at times, makes Ali and Nino a difficult book to read.
Which is the power of fiction. Because perhaps you can dismiss a news story about an honor killing in Palestine as the action of a monster and change the channel. Disentangling yourself after 200 pages from a hereto sympathetic character, who sees it as a reasonable option, is not as easy. Ali chooses not to kill Nino. But not because he feels it would be wrong. Honor killings are not only tolerated, Ali’s friends and family esteem him more for killing the Albanian (and their esteem would have increased had he sacrificed Nino). You are left in no doubt that if one of his friends had made a different choice, about their own wife or fiance, Ali would not have objected.
Ali’s love for Nino does not require him to reject what he has been taught. In his mind, it just does not apply to their circumstances. Nino expresses concern about being confined to a harem, refuses to wear a veil and before their marriage worries about Ali taking multiple wives. Ali does not make her do any of these things, not because he agrees with or even tries to understand her feelings, but because he loves her and wants her happy. And while Ali is written as a sympathetic and admirable protagonist – what if he didn’t love Nino? Or stopped loving her? How quickly and easily could Ali & Nino shift into a different kind of story?
As it is, Ali & Nino is cinematic in its scope. It reminds me of a period film and I’m honestly surprised one hasn’t been made. There are lyrical, evocative passages about the desert that read as if they come from some centuries old Middle Eastern text. And then the author inserts a sentence that deals with contemporary practicalities. This constant juxtaposition of old and new, modern and traditional, creates for the reader a snapshot of an ancient culture on the cusp of the twentieth century. When Ali tells his father he wishes to marry, his father responds,
‘I’ll build a villa for you. I know of a place on the Esplanade. I suppose there’s a stable there. During the summer you can stay at Mardakjany. You’ll have to call your first son Ibrahim, in honour of our ancestor. I’ll give you a motor car, if you want one. But there’s really no point in having one, we haven’t got the roads for them. A stable full of horses is better.’
In another passage, Ali describes a caravan arriving in Baku – a harbinger of what is to come.
Camels came into town from the desert, with long sad steps, carrying sand in their yellow hair, looking far into the distance with eyes that had seen eternity. They were carrying guns on their humps, the barrels hanging down their sides, crates with ammunition and guns: loot from the big battles. Turkish prisoners of war in their grey uniforms were marched through the town, tattered and bruised. When they came to the sea, little steamboats took them to the Island of Nargin, where they died of diarrhoea, hunger or homesickness. If they escaped they died in Persia’s salt deserts, or in the leaden waters of the Caspian Sea. The war, that had begun so far away, had suddenly come close to us.
This combination of romance, history and beautiful prose is a winning one. It’s no surprise that over the year Ali & Nino has been translated into dozens of languages. And unlike many books of the period, it has aged well. The story is the antithesis of the formulaic 19th century romance plot. There is an honesty, integrity and (most important) substance to this novel that – while you may not be comfortable with everything between its covers – you can’t help but respect.
Note: The life of Kurban Said, whose real name was Les Nussimbaum, is a fascinating story in and of itself. There is a swirl of controversy over whether or not he actually wrote Ali & Nino. I haven’t read it yet, but readers interested in a nonfiction book dealing with its (alleged) author’s life should try The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange & Dangerous Life by Tom Reiss (available through Random House).
Publisher: Anchor Books, New York (2000).
ISBN: 978 0 385 72040 3
Publisher: Overlook Press, New York (1996?).
ISBN: 978 0 87951 668 0