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A Lost World

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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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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 Constantinople, then to Berlin and Paris, before Lev ended up in New York, where he married an uptown heiress. By then he was a writer of international renown and significant income – his biography of Stalin was a bestseller and his social activities were monitored by the New York Times. He had also shed his original identity and adopted the name of Essad Bey and the appearance and manners of a Baku Muslim prince, although there is still doubt as to whether he actually converted to Islam. He was eventually unmasked, hounded by the American press who had so recently doted upon him, and sued for divorce by his wife, who cited as grounds the fact that she didn’t want to be married to ‘plain Lev Nussimbaum’. He returned to Europe, first to Austria and then to Italy, where the war caught up with him in Positano. Cut off from friends and family, unable to lay his hands on his money, wracked by debilitating illness and supported by the charity of strangers, he died penniless in 1942. Many of the events of the author’s life are to be found in the plot of his most celebrated novel. At the opening of Ali and Nino, Russian forces occupy Azerbaijan and the city of Baku, and Russian tutors teach in the schools the young lovers attend. Their innocence gives a new twist to the book’s central tension of Muslim versus Christian, East versus West, tradition versus modernity. The first scene lays it out neatly, with Ali’s professor taking a class on the region’s geography and explaining that Azerbaijan has a foot in both East and West: ‘It is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to backward Asia.’ In spite of his teacher’s obvious preferences, Ali Khan admits that ‘I rather like Asia.’ When Nino hears about this later she protests: ‘if we were in Asia they would have made me wear the veil ages ago, and you couldn’t see me’. The story is narrated by Ali, who emerges as a young man of great wit and with an even greater sense of belonging. Sitting on the roof of his family’s palace, he muses, ‘What was it to me that there were other towns, other roofs and other landscapes. I loved the flat sea, the flat desert and the old town between them.’ But this love for his place in the world is counterpoised by his love for Nino. For a while it looks as though it may be possible for them to play out their story among the grand houses and twisting lanes of old Baku. Ali graduates from school, spends the summer with Nino’s family and, after overcoming her family’s objections on account of his religion, becomes engaged. He can see the future rolling out in front of him. He will live and ‘die here, in the same street, in the same house where I was born. Me and Nino, a Christian, who eats with knife and fork, has laughing eyes and wears filmy silk stockings.’ But this is the Orient, where no narrative ever runs straight: in an episode that brilliantly illustrates the pressures that threaten to pull the young lovers apart, Ali sees Nino driving in the car of an Armenian school friend. Told that his fiancée is being abducted, Ali mounts a horse, rides after them and stabs the Armenian to death. He escapes the inevitable blood feud by lying low in neighbouring Dagestan, where Nino comes to seal their bond. But even more than by their own passions, the couple are threatened by the conflicts and pressures of the world beyond their borders, by the First World War and then the Russian Revolution and, finally, by the oil boom that transforms Baku from a sleepy town, caught between flat sea and flat desert, into the prize of the Caucasus, where Nino in cocktail dress and Ali with whisky in hand entertain European and American oil people: the writing is on the wall, the end is at hand. One of the keys to Ali and Nino’s enduring popularity is the power with which it conjures up a lost world. When Kurban Said wrote it, in Austria in 1936, that world was already lost to him. The writing of the novel was his testament and he packed it with the sort of evocative minutiae that only the lovelorn retain, as for instance when he describes the picnic grounds at Shusha, or the streets of Tblisi, or the soft caress of the Caspian Sea. He is just as evocative when writing about people, whether actual historical characters such as Imam Shamil, one of the great heroes of the Caucasus, or when capturing some of the essence of the regional character, as when he describes a verbal dual between two poets, ‘two valiant lords of song’, who hurl insulting lines at each other to the delight of their audience. This evocation of the Caucasus and the narrator’s adoration of the desert life, of proud warriors, ruthless rulers and heroic mullahs, of opulence and poverty, passionate love and bloody feuding, put the novel firmly in the Orientalist camp, but not, as some critics would have it, in the body of work that Edward Said attacked so definitively in Orientalism. Edward Said’s attack was reserved for outsiders, mostly Westerners, who succeeded in suppressing the Orient by glamorizing its backwardness. Kurban Said’s novel has glamour aplenty, but it is supplied by a child of the country, a man whose adult life seemed to be a denial of his origins but who reveals himself, however obliquely, in one of his last works. I first heard about Ali and Nino years ago, when my lover began reading me a passage on the Tube in London. It was so engrossing, so beautiful, that it transported us away from the drab reality of London commuting to a place where passion ruled. When we emerged, we were long past our stop and nearing the end of the line. You have been warned: Ali and Nino can seriously colour your view of life.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 10 © Anthony Sattin 2006


About the contributor

Anthony Sattin is the author of The Pharaoh’s Shadow and The Gates of Africa. He has spent much of his adult life travelling in the Middle East and North Africa.

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