Ali Khan Shirvanshir is the only son of a noble Baku family, a Shiite Muslim who loves the desert, the walls of his city and its Eastern ways. He also loves Nino Kipiani. Nino is a Georgian Christian beauty of princely blood, a city girl who remembers the wooded hills of her homeland while she longs for the ever more accessible pleasures and inventions of the West. They are opposites in many ways, not least because of their religions, and yet their love overcomes all obstacles. Topical? You bet. Ali and Nino was first published almost seventy years ago and yet this story of love winning through could have been written as a salve for our own world, caught between the opposing tactics of radical Christians and Muslims.
This extraordinary novel is credited to a man called Kurban Said, although this is clearly a nom de plume. The author’s real identity was a matter of speculation until an American journalist picked up the trail. Tom Reiss spent years in Azerbaijan, Central Europe and the United States tracking down the story behind the novel’s authorand published his findings last year in a biography, The Orientalist.
Kurban Said, it appears, was formerly known as Essad Bey but had been born Lev Nussimbaum, the son of a Baku oil magnate. Rather like his novel’s protagonists, Nussimbaum’s parents came from two very different communities: his father was a Jew from nearby Tiflis (home to Nino’s family in the novel), his mother an unpredictable Bolshevik. The young Lev seems to have turned his back on his parents’ traditions and found greater fascination in the narrow lanes of the old city, in the lure of the desert and the call of Islam. Facts seem to have been less important to him than appearances and fantasies, something which became increasingly pronounced after his mother’s suicide in 1912 and even more acute after the arrival of Russian troops in Baku in 1920 forced him and his father to flee. They went first to Constantin
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