No Loaded Guns in Class

Thomas de Waal

  • Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, translated by Jenia Graman
    Vintage, 237 pp, £6.99, October 2000, ISBN 0 09 928322 0

Oil production in Baku on the Caspian Sea began in the late 19th century and within a few years the city had become the wealthiest in the Russian Empire, producing more oil than the United States. Immigrants flooded in, turning a desert town in Azerbaijan with a population of 14,500 in 1872 into a metropolis of 143,000 inhabitants by 1903. The newcomers included Nobels and Rothschilds and thousands of poor Jews attracted by the possibility of freedoms they didn’t have in the rest of Russia. Poor Muslim farmers became millionaires when oil was discovered on their land. A small-scale cultural renaissance followed, bankrolled by the new millionaires, and in 1907 the new Baku theatre proudly showed the ‘first opera of the Islamic East’, Uzeir Hajibeyli’s Leyla and Majnun. For a time it seemed as though East and West were in fertile union.

The confidence of that period is still evident in the architecture of Central Baku: on one street, named in accordance with the successive protocols of tsarism, Communism and independence, Neoclassical balconies and buttresses scroll extravagantly off big limestone buildings modelled on originals in Italy and the South of France. There is an exuberant concert hall copied from the casino at Monte Carlo, a Muslim Philanthropic Society housed in a Venetian palazzo and a Palace of Weddings based on an Italian castello. The initials of the early oilmen and their wives are entwined in stone over the lintels of their houses.

The boom lasted one generation. The archetypal Baku story of rags to riches to rags was that of Haji-Zeinalabdin Tagiev. The illiterate son of a stonemason, he became ridiculously wealthy when a gusher was discovered on his land. He built the city’s first theatre, its first secular girls’ school, the Muslim Philanthropic Society and a shopping arcade that is still in use. He was made an Honorary Citizen of Baku and a march was composed in his honour. But impermanence was written into the script. Baku was a haven for revolutionaries like the young Stalin, an energetic agitator in the oil industry. The urban proletariat, mostly Russian and Armenian, went on strike in 1905, briefly seized power in 1918 and in 1920 acted as the advance guard for the Red Army, which swallowed up boomtown Baku for good. After Tagiev’s death in 1924 the Soviet authorities threw his wife onto the street; she died in destitution.

The old man makes a flickering appearance in Kurban Said’s extraordinary Ali and Nino as Seinal Aga, a pathetic old man: ‘His soft hands with the thick blue veins trembled. These hands could hardly write their owner’s name, but they ruled over seventy million roubles.’ To understand the charm and fascination of Ali and Nino, one has to think what it would be like for a young boy with a vivid imagination to grow up in this city which doubles in size every five years. Ali’s family is comfortably off, but surrounded by evidence of much greater wealth. Walking to school down Nikolaevskaya Street each day, he passes Cossacks, gangsters, prostitutes and Russian schoolgirls in starched white uniforms; in his class at school there are pupils of eight nationalities; there is a picture of the Tsar on the classroom wall but the Russian Empire is crumbling. The childhood of the author of Ali and Nino – and of his hero – was a vivid and contradictory affair.

Ali Khan is a young Muslim from a noble Persian family, who lives in the old city. The novel perfectly records the onrush of adolescence that Baku – and the narrator – are experiencing.

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