Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said
I am now so, so far behind in my posts, but I really want to talk about these books...
Ali and Nino is widely considered to be the Azerbaijani novel; it's a movie and everything. And indeed, it was a fascinating read and a good novel! It was originally written in German and published in Vienna in 1937. Sheer luck brought it back into prominence (instead of complete oblivion) after World War II. But...who was Kurban Said? It's a mystery! At least, it was a mystery for a long time. My edition says that Kurban Said was probably a writing team comprised of an Austrian baroness, Elfriede Ehrehfels, and Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish man born in Baku who converted to Islam and had to flee to Europe during the Russian Revolution. After Hitler took power, he moved from Germany to Austria, where he became an intimate of the baroness' circle. Wikipedia has a very different opinion and says that at least half of this is nonsense. It appears to be a real mess, complete with accusations of plagiarism, and I guess it's all still quite a mystery.
Just before World War I, in a Baku dominated by Russia, Ali is a wealthy, well-educated young Muslim. Nino is a Georgian Christian girl from a prominent family. And Ali has been in love with Nino since they were children. Once he graduates, at about age 18, he wishes to marry Nino, but there are a few complications. Nino doesn't want to be forced to wear a veil or be part of a harem. Ali's father is indulgent, but wishes to postpone the marriage for a while. Nino's parents are similarly hesitant (Nino is 17!). Ali uses an Armenian friend as a go-between, but when he kidnaps Nino in order to marry her himself, things turn ugly. Ali kills him, but spares Nino (to his friends' consternation); he goes into hiding in Daghestan.
Nino eventually tracks Ali down, and they marry immediately, living in young married blissful poverty. Only the Russian Revolution takes Ali away; he feels it his duty to serve his country in the turmoil between the Bolsheviks and the Ottomans. (There is a lot about exactly what a Muslim man's duty might be in the context of WWI.) Soon the young couple have to flee to Persia, where Nino has to live in an empty harem; she is miserable. Happily Azerbaijan declares independence, Baku is peaceful for a time, and they become prominent citizens, acting as cultural ambassadors between East and West. But when the Bolsheviks reappear, Nino has to leave with their child, and Ali has to fight a hopeless battle.
There is a lot about East and West, Islam and Christianity, male and female, desert and farmland. Ali feels himself to be fundamentally Eastern, a man of the desert and of Islam, but in his love for Nino, a Christian and European who looks to the west, he is able to build bridges with her. Together they construct a life that exemplifies an equal partnership and love between the two; their values are always in some tension, but also always considerate of the other's claims. The tragedy of the novel is that the rest of the world won't let such a thing exist for very long.
A great novel, and one I enjoyed a lot. Recommended for those interested in Caucasian literature or cross-cultural romances.