Kurban Said – Ali & Nino (1937)
Setting: Azerbaijan during the First World War, with interludes in Tbilisi and Teheran.
What it’s about: A tragic romance against a backdrop of shifting cultures and politics. A Muslim boy and a Georgian Christian girl maintain their love as a fragile balance betweens different groups falls apart under the strain of war. There is great nostalgia for an earlier era where different groups co-exist at a cross-road of cultures, if not always peacefully than with relative mutual respect:
Nino’s sadness disappeared in the bazaar’s many-coloured pell-mell Armenian peddlers, Kurdish fortune-tellers, Persian cooks, Ossetian priests, Russian, Arabs, Ingushs, Indians: all the peoples of Asia meet in the bazaar of Tiflis.”
Their relationship must survive intolerance, traditions (honour killings, bride-kidnapping) and the clash of ideologies as first the Ottomans, then the Bolsheviks, advance on Baku.
But the novel more often resembles the parts of peaceful parts of War and Peace, when high society tries to maintain norms and traditions in the shadow of a war that threatens to change everything. The inhabitants certainly feel the sway of world events: oil derricks – “black machines that torture the oil-drenched earth” – surround the city “like an evil dark wood” even as local lords continue to treasure their prize horses. However, it war and global industry remain too often a distant menace – I would like to have seen the writer explore how oil exploration, total war and communism affect the lives of the various communities, instead of seeing their traditions anthropologically-detailed museum-style.
The arrival of the Bolshevik army – often referred to simply as “Russian deserters” is treated as yet another invading army, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, the Mongols and the Tsars:
Scarlet banners with rather senseless slogans were stretched from one side of the street to the other. Market women gathered at street corners, demanding freedom for America’s Indians and Africa’s Bushmen.”
Read it if you liked: Its style is a cross between the romantic adventure stories of the imperialist age and the Great Game – Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan – and the aristocratic or bourgeois family sagas of Tolstoy or Stefan Zweig. It is worth reading just for the vivid visits to Caucasian cities at the start of the 20th century.
The best book from Azerbaijan? There is much mystique around the authorship of this novel – so much so that a book has been written about it: The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, whose investigations leads him to state that Kurban Said is a pseudonym used by Lev Nussimbaum who grew up in Baku, with parents from Belarus and Georgia. His own life, like this novel, defy geographical definitions and remind us that movement and integration, not ethnically-defined nation states, had long been the norm in the Caucasus before the Soviet era.
While the protagonist is a Shia Muslim, there is a strong condescension throughout that leaves the distinct feeling that, despite the knowledge and deep appreciation for the different cultures, it has been written by a European Orientalist documenting, rather than actually experiencing, the society on the page. The constant talk of the European West meeting the Asiatic East, both competing for the soul of Baku and its youth, feels imposed by the writer on the voices of the wise elders who pontificate about it. It seems a pity for a novel that looks kindly on so many different groups, races and ethnicities to boil everything down to a clash between Europeans and Asiatics. It is also surprising how little sympathy a book written by a Jew in 1930s Austria has for the genocide of the Armenians, whose plight is rarely mentioned even though it happens offstage for much of this novel.
The Baku park where Ali and Nino meet is a prime example of the subtle clash of civilisations. The park is a failed attempt by the authorities to make the city more European, but it is “a big dusty garden with spare sad-looking trees and asphalt paths”. The lake is an empty reservoir:
The Town Council’s idea had been that it should be filled with water and have swans swimming about. But that was as far as it went. Water was expensive, and there was not a single swan in the country. The reservoir stared up at the sky eternally, like the empty eyesocket of a dead cyclop.”
While you will be hard-pressed to find something more authentically Azerbaijani, you could try the short stories of Sabir Ahmadli . Strong, sardonic stories of war during and after the fall of communism. Some stories are almost reportage, others are fantastical, like the story told by a dead protestor floating at sea writing a letter to their mother, whose story is interrupted by seals bumping into him (“Mother, one moment, so many seals are swimming around me here in the sea!”).