Kurban Said's novel captures a romance between two unlikely lovers, Nino, a Georgian Christian, and Ali, an Asian Shia Muslim. The story unravels in and around 1903 in the exotic city of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
My brother who recently visited Tiblisi, the capital of Georgia, was given this novel by his student guide who called this book the national novel of Azerbaijan. His curiosity sufficiently aroused, my brother started reading the novel that very evening and finished it within the next 48 hours! It was therefore not a surprise for me, that Ali and Nino was the book he gave me for Christmas this year.
The story is about two individuals, who in today's world would perhaps never have met, far from falling in love as they do in the novel! Mr. Said, if he were a contemporary writer, would certainly have invoked the ire and hatred of fundamentalist groups across the world for having coined a situation such as this. He would even have joined the ranks of Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie for having transgressed socio-cultural taboos. So, should credit be given to Mr Said for having dared to create a story about love, honor, and conflict amid and despite a changing world; as Ali puts it, "The fragrance of the Persian roses had suddenly vanished, and instead of the clear desert air of Baku and the faint scent of the sea, sand and oil was around me." Said was possibly referring to the oil boom in Baku that the Nobel family made their riches on, when "five gallons of good oil could be bought for one cent"! Alongside, Said could also see the chasm that was developing between the two great religions of the world that had thus far peacefully coexisted in Baku through mutual respect and understanding. Kurban Said's heart-rending tale of love transcended all the apparent differences between Ali and Nino, until the war intervened. The families of the two lovers and their communities are not only accepting of their love, but even wish to give it the sanctity of marriage. This is what makes the novel so unique, and Said, its creator, a maverick, even so a 'madjnoun' (a lover and a madman) for having envisioned a utopia such as Baku and for daring to conjure a romance such as that of Ali and Nino.
Ali, the Muslim Azerbaijani, is very proud of his Asian heritage that provides him with "the soul of the desert man... desert that does not ask, does not give, and does not promise anything . . . The desert man ... has but one face and knows but one truth, and that truth fulfills him." Nino, on the other hand, a Christian Georgian who loves Paris, clearly sees herself as European, and is 'of the woods...is full of questions...and has many faces." Nevertheless, the two fall in love, and this love blossoms in the Caucasus, against the grim backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Baku's diversity becomes a perfect setting for such a love to flower; a place where Ali goes to school with " forty schoolboys ...in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia: thirty Mohammedans, four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians and one Russian.'' It is ironic though, that Azerbaijanis, like Ali, felt quite an affinity and shared such bonhomie with their Christian neighbors even as they shared their Shiite faith with Iran and their language with Turkey!
This novel carries an aura of mystery around it since its authorship has been questioned numerous times, and it is still uncertain as to whether the Austrian Baroness Ehrenfels or Nussimbaum, a Jewish convert to Islam, has authored this tender romance. Originally published in Germany somewhere in the thirties, it was translated into English in 1971 and has a foreword by Paul Theroux who calls this work a "living proof that art is indestructible and transcendent...and part of its message is that governments rise and fall, wars rage, cities are laid waste, people are displaced, and authors die...written words remain...it is of little consequence who wrote them" thereby attributing Said's work the universality of a classic.
Ali and Nino is a novel that so poignantly explores ethnic identities and their impact on our personalities as they interact in an ethnically diverse environment. The Kurdish, the Turkish, the Armenians, the Tutsis, the Hutus, the Sudanese, the Palestinians, the Kashmiris, the Kikuyu and every other group in the grips of ethnic conflict would find many parallels within this rich saga of cultural coexistence. The question is, having drawn the parallels, will they come out the wiser having learned a lesson in cultural coexistence, or will they simply discard Said's novel as just another irrelevant romance...