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.

I, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, had been three times to Daghestan, twice to Tiflis, once in Kislovodsk, once in Persia to stay with my uncle, and I was nearly kept down for another year because I did not know the difference between the Gerundium and the Gerundivium. My father went for advice to the Mullah at the mosque, who declared that all this Latin was just vain delusion. So my father put on all his Turkish, Persian and Russian decorations, went to see the headmaster, donated some chemical equipment or other and I passed. A notice had been put up in the school stating that pupils were strictly forbidden to enter school premises with loaded revolvers, telephones were installed in town, and Nino Kipiani was still the most beautiful girl in the world.

Nino is a Georgian Christian. To win her parents’ approval, Ali enlists the help of Nachararyan, a tubby Armenian. Nachararyan helps to persuade Nino’s parents that a match with Ali is acceptable, but then betrays Ali by kidnapping Nino. Ali murders the Armenian and then flees, Romeo-style, across the mountains to Dagestan. Civil war and revolution intervene and the book ends with the Bolshevik takeover in Baku.

The novel flies along at a terrific pace. Like the canvases of the illiterate Georgian peasant painter Pirosmani, it is faux-naïf on the surface, but there are reserves of dark wit underneath. The panache is Eastern, the humour Western; caricature, the author/ narrator suggests, is the mode typical of the Caucasus, and here it sometimes tilts towards prejudice, particularly when Said writes about rotund Armenians or imperialist Russians. Most of the time, however, he gets the essence of a place. In Tiflis, for example, the leitmotif is the terror inflicted on their guests by over-zealous Georgian hosts: Nino’s cousins are ‘soldiers at the front of Georgian hospitality’. In Nagorno-Karabakh, then as now disputed by the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Said mocks the Karabakhis’ (still prevalent) tendency, to claim ancient Karabakhi ancestry for everything and everyone:

Even when I was just on the way to Shusha the driver of my coach pointed at the little stone bridge we were about to cross and said proudly: ‘This bridge was built by Alexander the Great when he went forth to immortal victories in Persia!’ ‘1897’ was chiselled in big figures on the parapet. I pointed this out to the coachman, but he only waved his hand: ‘Och, sir, the Russians put that in later, because they were jealous of our glory!’

Said also satirises the English as they make a half-hearted attempt to prop up independent Azerbaijan against the Bolsheviks in 1919. Ali, with his Europeanised wife, is deputed to give a drinks party as part of a campaign to persuade London to recognise Azerbaijan’s independence. The English guests, with their red faces and clumsy gestures, make small talk and drink whisky: ‘The officers smoked cigars, but no one put his feet on the table, though that was the one thing we had expected them to do.’ One of the more thoughtful Englishmen interrupts his own internal conversation about whether Azerbaijan should cast off from Persia and move towards the West:

‘I was a consul in Persia for twenty years,’ he said, ‘and I feel it is a great pity to see the old solid forms of oriental culture crumble, and the orientals of today trying to imitate us, and despising their ancestors’ customs. But they may be right. After all, it is their affair to choose how they want to live. In any case I’ll admit that your country is just as ripe for independence as, shall we say, the Republics of Central America. I think our Government will soon recognise your state.’ I was an idiot, but the object of the evening had been achieved.

Like his city, Ali is formed by a mixture of tradition and rapid innovation. He feels comfortable in the desert but loves a woman who would prefer to live in Paris. Nino goes mad with boredom in Teheran and he is restless in Tiflis. Their relationship only works within the ambiguities of Baku. In fact the differences between them heighten their desire: in a sex scene in their house in old Baku, newly decorated in Western style, Ali tells how ‘for the first time we sat down on a bed and I held a European woman in my arms.’ His predicament is like that of his native city: he cannot contain all the possibilities that confront him; his life is being pulled apart.

The contradictions of Azerbaijan extend to the art of war. Ali has been brought up with a respect for violence as part of the way men conduct themselves. His father tells him that to die in battle is ‘the natural death of our family’. But the global conflict that begins to spread towards the Caucasus is a very different thing. Ali watches camels from the south ‘carrying guns on their humps, the barrels hanging down on their sides, crates with ammunition and guns: loot from the big battles’. The First World War is introducing the technology of modern warfare into Azerbaijan, and the locals will soon use it to destroy each other. By the end of the book all its main male characters are dead.

It is in the spirit of Baku, and of Ali and Nino itself, that the novel should have been written not by a Muslim, but by a Jew using a Muslim pseudonym. Even the basic facts of the life of Lev Nussimbaum, who is, as far as we know, the author of the novel, are disputed. He appears to have been born in Baku in 1905, the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman, to have learned German during his childhood and to have fled the city at the age of 14 in 1919. Settling in Germany, he assumed and shed a series of personae, before settling for the identity of a Muslim convert and writer, Essad Bey. Under that name, he wrote biographies of Nicholas II, Stalin and Mohammed as well as a book entitled Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus. As Nazification intensified, his German friends protected him and in due course he became Kurban Said. It was under this name that he wrote Ali and Nino, as well as another novel, The Girl from the Golden Horn. Nussimbaum’s changes of name failed to protect him, however. After his father perished in a concentration camp, he fled to Italy, where he died of an obscure blood disease in Positano in 1942.

The first edition of Ali and Nino came out in German in Vienna in 1937: not a good time to publish a love story about a Muslim and a Christian. The book’s English translator, Jenia Graman, found a copy on a Berlin bookstall after the war and published her version in 1970. Since then, different publishers have bought the rights and reissued it, but it has never sold well. One German edition made an ill-judged attempt to turn it into a Caucasian version of Love Story, with a bodice-busting heroine sighing on the cover. Then the Soviet Union fell apart, the Caucasus opened up again and Azerbaijan became an independent country. A new generation, for whom Ali and Nino captures the charm of the region while making fun of its descent into nationalism, has taken up the novel. Perhaps this time it will get the readership it deserves.

The authorship question, meanwhile, has not been fully resolved. The descendants of Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof, an Austrian friend and perhaps lover of Nussimbaum’s, insisted to Tom Reiss – an American writer currently preparing a biography of Said/Nussimbaum – that she was the author of Ali and Nino. And recently in Baku I spent an afternoon with an elderly civil servant who tried to prove to me that his father, an Azeri writer called Yusif Vezir Chemenzeminli, was Kurban Said. Chemenzeminli was a nationalist poet who was appointed Ambassador in Istanbul by the independent Azerbaijani Republic of 1919-20 and who fled to France when the Bolsheviks took over. He came back to Azerbaijan in the late 1920s, but was arrested and died in the Gulag. Several of his writings have remained unpublished. To help his case, his son produced a list of circumstantial similarities between his father’s work and Ali and Nino; none of them was surprising, given that Kurban Said and Chemenzeminli were both writing about the Caucasus. On the other hand, he also showed me an early short story by his father called ‘A Cold Kiss’, in which the narrator, a Muslim schoolboy, describes a love affair with a girl called N.

And if Nussimbaum was the real author, how did he manage to describe the Caucasus in such detail? After all, he had left Baku in his early teens. There are several possible answers. Perhaps his father helped him or perhaps he knew Chemenzeminli in the 1920s in France and helped himself to some of his material. But ‘A Cold Kiss’ turned out to be a conventional and misogynistic story about a relationship that failed because of the ‘triviality’ of womanhood. It has none of the sparkle of Ali and Nino, much of which is supplied by Nino herself, quite the equal of our hero and full of inventiveness in her attempts to stop Ali making an overly Eastern bride of her. Chemenzeminli would never have created a character who tears up the Persian Government’s regulations on how women should conduct themselves and plays out elaborate schemes of revenge against the Persian servant who wants to confine her to the harem. Finally, my civil servant destroyed his own argument when he insisted that Ali and Nino could not have been written by a Jew, that it was ‘a pure Azerbaijani novel’. The reverse is true. Ali and Nino is an elegy to Baku and the Caucasus which gently ridicules all its inhabitants. It could only have been written by someone who was both insider and outsider; it is hard to conceive of a more appropriate identity for the author than that of an exiled Baku Jew.

Azerbaijan is still living with the consequences of the abrupt lurch into modernity described so well in Ali and Nino. The Soviet Union made it more modern after its own fashion, and in education and infrastructure it is one of the most advanced Muslim states – so ‘advanced’ that there are few traces of Islam left. Baku is still a laboratory for Western experiments, most recently the idea hatched in Washington of Azerbaijan as a ‘strategic bridgehead’ linking the energy resources of the Caspian Sea and Western Europe. A new generation of Western businessmen has moved in since new oilfields were discovered in the early 1990s. Nussimbaum would surely have enjoyed writing about these men who sit in Baku’s Irish pubs with their briefcases and mobile phones, being chatted up by local whores.

Ali’s school on Nikolaevskaya is now an Economics Institute and the Filipoyants Coffee Shop, where Ali and Nachararyan meet, a shop selling imported electronic goods. The newspapers are full of bewildered admiration for the West. There are few Ninos left – most of the non-Azerbaijani population has gone – but a lot of Alis remain, trying to decide whether living in a city so beautiful and so interesting is a blessing or a curse.