Friday, April 23, 2010

Kurban Said's Ali and Nino

I finally finished reading Kurban Said's Ali and Nino: A Love Story, a gift from my Azeri host, Vali Huseynov.  The novel was published in 1937, and Kurban Said is likely a pseudonym.  The novel was most likely a collaboration between the Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels and Essad Bey, who was born Lev Nussimbaum in Baku, Azerbaijan, but took the name Essad Bey when he converted to Islam from Judaism as a child. 

Like most love stories, this one ends tragically; however,I enjoyed the book not for its love story but rather for its depicition of Ali and Nino's cultural conflict.  Nino is a Georgian Christian living in Baku; Ali is an Azeri Muslim.  Their love symbolizes the meeting of the West and the East. 

I once asked Vali if Azeris think of themselves as Europeans or as Asians.  He told me that this book actually begins with this very question.  Even in the conclusion, the author describes Baku as the place where East meets West, although this is more an expression of the war during which the Russians overtake the newly independent Republic of Azerbaijan (for +70 years until Azerbaijan gains its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union).

It is probably an unfair or absurd question to ask.  And yet, it is not without precedent in the USA.  When I was a little boy, it was not uncommon for us to identify ourselves to each other by way of our ethnically hyphenated ancestry.  I was, depending on the audience, Irish-American or German-American.  I think for my grandparents' generation possibly and my great-grandparents certainly, this split identity was something tangible, as tangible as the accented English on their tongues.  Today, my children don't think this way.  In fact, they are often perplexed by the question, "who are you?" as if the answer were obvious.

I would love to hear what my friends in Georgia and Azerbaijan they think about the novel (if they have read it) and the question posed by the Russian teacher in Ali's Baku school: 
It can therefore be said, my children, that is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia. (4)


  1. The best present for the best reader.!!
    Jeyhun Orujov

  2. You are too kind, Jeyhun. Have you read Ali and Nino? What did you think?

  3. unfortunately I haven't read this story.But I promise I will read it and I will definetely comment.I also was asked the question 'do you consider yourself as european or asian? when first time I was asked this question i was baffled because i never consider myself european.I consider myself turkish and caucasian which makes us different.Turkish because my ancestors are turkish, caucasian because of place where i am living. Gulshan

  4. Gulshan, that's a great response! Sometimes, questions which are important to one person (are you European or Asian?) are not the questions being asked or answers being formed of another person. Thank you many times over for your response, and I look forward to reading what others have to say.

  5. I am really appreciate that you add this issue to your blog. Thanks.
    After return from Georgia i read this book. Just after finishing it pushed me to another world. The world where i faced with pure love of two young and so detailed aspects of life. This book made me to return to old root of nation and understant deeply the concept of being Caucasian and live in this region. another thing that impressed me was the follow of situations during entire book.
    By one word it was amazing and wise.

  6. I have other things to say. but may be after reading the book i'll comment in another way."Reactionary Asia"this statement is not fair, i think.Asian culture is one of the oldest and valuable one.european culture was created from Asian culture. Till islam was accepted everything was flourishing in Asia. .I don't say that islam is bad religious,but it should be separated from the government(policy). but those times and still in some Asian countries it is like that. I want to say that religious should be separated from the government on time.And unfortunately still most of the countries are being ruled by non democratic presidents(if we can call them president they are mostly dictators).These people are reactionary. They know how to deal with their opponents.If you want i can tell you what methods they use. GULSHAN

  7. I am really enjoying the postings! Please continue. Gulshan, I am interested in hearing more from you. Someone wrote of "being Caucasian," and I wonder if that is a more fitting description for people of the Trans Caucacus region, if Europe v. Asia is just not the most apt question.

    When the French protested the US involvement in Iraq in the early part of the last decade, Secy. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the French objections as "Old Europe" and that the US was interested in the "New Europe." Reading Ali and Nino made me think again about who he meant when he invoked a "New Europe": Moldova? Macedonia? Serbia? Croatia? Hungary? Georgia?

    On another note, for most of its written history, the USA has always looked to Europe for its own ancestry and history. However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a great writer named Richard Rodriguez, an American of Mexican descent, argued that the US should stop looking to the East (Europe) and start looking to the South (Central and South America) for its history.

    Just some thoughts, which were inspired by your thoughts!:) Please, keep writing!

  8. "Donald Rumsfeld, who's one of those faces of the administration, said he didn't want to deal with old Europe; he was far more interested in New Europe...when he said 'New Europe' he meant places like Scruvovia, Vivonia, Jujovia; places where tractors are ministers, and people sit down to a dinner of boiled radiators. Places that aren't that swish, really, and are going to do whatever America says because they're hoping one day to see a photograph of a pot of jam."
    (Dylan Moran)