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"One feels as if one had dug up buried treasure--. An epic of cultural change that seems more immediate than this morning's headlines."--The New York Times
"The brilliant sunset light [Ali and Nino] sheds on a millennial civilization is like living history; the alien yet immensely human characters draw one into their world with vivid conviction. The rescue of this novel is certainly an important literary event."--Mary Renault
"An emotional magic carpet...Rich, exciting, and brightly amusing as well as sorrowful along the way, page after iridescent page."-The Plain Dealer
"A beautiful novel." -Paul Theroux
"A wonderful book. Ali and Nino is the best love story I have ever read, and one of the best adventures." -Michael Feld, The Globe & Mail
"Heartbreaking...[A] shimmering classic." -Entertainment Weekly
We were a very mixed lot, we forty schoolboys who were having a Geography lesson one hot afternoon in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia: thirty Mohammedans, four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians, and one Russian.
So far we had not given much thought to the extraordinary geographical position of our town, but now Professor Sanin was telling us in his flat and uninspired way: `The natural borders of Europe consist in the north of the North Polar Sea, in the west of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the south of the Mediterranean. The eastern border of Europe goes through the Russian Empire, along the Ural mountains, through the Caspian Sea, and through Transcaucasia. Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia's cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia.'
The professor had a self-satisfied smile on his lips.
We sat silent for a little while, overwhelmed by such mountains of wisdom, and the load of responsibility so suddenly laid upon our shoulders.
Then Mehmed Haidar, who sat on the back bench, raised his hand and said: `Please, sir, we should rather stay in Asia.'
A burst of laughter. This was Mehmed Haidar's second year in the third form. And it looked as if he might stay there for anotheryear, if Baku kept belonging to Asia. For a ministerial decree allows the natives of Asiatic Russia to stay in any form as long as they like.
Professor Sanin, who was wearing the gold-embroidered uniform of a Russian High School teacher, frowned: `So, Mehmed Haidar, you want to remain an Asiatic? Can you give any reason for this decision?'
Mehmed Haidar stepped forward, blushed, but said nothing. His mouth was open, his brow furrowed, his eyes vacant. And while four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians and one Russian were highly delighted by his stupidity, I raised my hand and said: `Sir, I too would rather stay in Asia.'
'Ali Khan Shirvanshir! You too! All right, step forward.'
Professor Sanin pushed his lower lip out and silently cursed the fate that had banished him to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Then he cleared his throat and said pompously: `You at least can give us a reason?'
`Yes. I rather like Asia.'
`Oh you do, do you? Well, have you ever been in really backward countries, in Teheran, for instance?'
`Oh yes, last summer.'
`There you are. And have you found there any of the great aquisitions of European culture, for instance motor-cars?'
`Oh yes, very great ones indeed. Holding thirty and more people. They don't go through the town, only from one place in the country to the other.'
`These are called autobuses, and they are in use because there are no railways. This is reactionary. Sit down, Shirvanshir.'
I knew the thirty Asiatics were jubilant, they showed it by the way they looked at me. Professor Sanin kept angrily silent. He was supposed to make his pupils into good Europeans. Suddenly he asked: `Well—have any of you been to Berlin for instance?' It was not his day—the Sectarian Maikov raised his hand and said he had been to Berlin when he was a small boy. He remembered vividly a musty spooky Underground, a noisy railway and a ham sandwich his mother had prepared for him. We thirty Mohammedans were deeply indignant. Seyd Mustafa even asked to be allowed to leave the room, as the word `ham' made him sick. And that was the end of our discussion about Baku and its geographical situation.
The bell rang. Relieved, Professor Sanin left the room. Forty pupils rushed out. It was the big break, and there were three things one could do: run into the courtyard and start a fight with the pupils of the adjoining school, because they wore gold cockades and buttons on their school uniforms, while we had to be content with silver ones, or talk amongst ourselves in a loud voice in Tartar, because the Russians could not understand it and it was therefore strictly forbidden—or cross the street quickly and slip into the Girls' Lyceum of the Holy Queen Tamar. This I decided to do. The girls strolled about in the garden, wearing chaste blue dress-uniforms and white aprons. My cousin Aishe waved to me. She was walking hand in hand with Nino Kipiani, and Nino Kipiani was the most beautiful girl in the world. When I told the girls of my geographical battle the most beautiful girl in the world looked down the most beautiful nose in the world and said: `Ali Khan, you are stupid. Thank God we are in Europe. If we were in Asia they would have made me wear the veil ages ago, and you couldn't see me.' I gave in. Baku's undecided geographical situation allowed me to go on looking into the most beautiful eyes in the world. I left the girls and dejectedly played truant for the rest of the day. I looked at the camels, at the sea, thought of Europe and Asia, of Nino's lovely eyes and was sad. A beggar approached me, his face and hands rotten with disease. I gave him money, he made to kiss my hand, but I was frightened and snatched it away. Ten minutes later it occurred to me that this had been an insult, and for two hours I ran around looking for him, so I could put it right. But I could not find him, and went home with a bad conscience. All this had been five years ago.
During these years many things had happened. A new headmaster had arrived, who liked to grab our collars and shake us, because it was strictly forbidden to box the pupils' ears. Our religious instructor explained at great length how merciful Allah had been to let us be born into the Mohammedan faith. Two Armenians and one Russian joined, and two Mohammedans were not with us any more: one because he, in his sixteenth year, had married, the other because during the holidays he had been killed in a blood-feud. 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.
Now all this was coming to an end, the final exam was only one week away, and I sat at home and pondered on the futility of Latin tuition on the coast of the Caspian Sea. I loved my room on the second floor of our house. Dark carpets from Buchara, Ispahan and Koshan covered the walls. The patterns represented gardens and lakes, woods and rivers, as the carpet weaver had seen them with his inner eye, unrecognisable to the layman, breathtakingly beautiful to the connoisseur. Nomad women in far away deserts collected the herbs for these colours from wild thorny bushes, Long slender fingers squeezed out the juice. The secret of blending these delicate colours is hundreds of years old. Often it takes more than a decade for the weaver to finish his work of art. Then it hangs on the wall, full of secret symbols, allusions, hunting scenes, knights fighting, with one of Firdausi's verses, or a quotation from the works of Sa'adi in ornamental script running at the sides. Because of these many rugs and carpets the room looks dark. There is a low divan, two small stools, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, many soft cushions, and among all this, very disturbing and very unnecessary, books of Western knowledge: chemistry, physics, trigonometry—foolish stuff, invented by barbarians, to create the impression that they are civilised. I closed the books and went up to the flat roof of the house. From there I could see my world, the massive wall of the town's fortress and the ruins of the palace, Arab inscriptions at the gate. Through the labyrinth of streets camels were walking, their ankles so delicate that I wanted to caress them. In front of me rose the squat Maiden's Tower, surrounded by legends and tourist guides. And behind the tower the sea began, utterly faceless, leaden, unfathomable Caspian Sea, and beyond, the desert—jagged rocks and scrub: still, mute, unconquerable, the most beautiful landscape in the world. I sat quietly on the roof. 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. The noisy crowd who come looking for oil, find it, get rich and leave again are not the real people of Baku. They don't love the desert.
The servant brought tea. I drank it and thought of the exam. It did not worry me. Surely I would pass. But even if not, it would not really matter. The farmers of our estates would say that I could not tear myself away from the House of Wisdom. And indeed it would be a pity to leave school. The grey uniform with its silver buttons, epaulettes and cockade was very smart. I would feel degraded in civilian clothes. Not that I should wear them for long. Only for one summer and then—then I would go to Moscow to the Lazarev Institute for Oriental Languages. I had decided this myself, for there I will be miles ahead of the Russians. It will be very difficult indeed for them to learn all the things that are second nature to me. And the uniform of the Lazarev Institute is the best of all: red coat, gold collar, a slender gilt sword, and kid gloves even on weekdays. A man has to wear uniform, or the Russians despise him. And if the Russians despise me Nino will not take me for her husband. But I must marry Nino, even though she is a Christian. Georgian women are the most beautiful in the world. And if she refuses? Well, then I'll get some gallant men, throw her across my saddle, and off we go over the Persian border to Teheran. There she will give in, what else can she do? Life was beautiful and simple, seen from the roof of our house in Baku.
Kerim, the servant, touched my shoulder. `It is time,' he said. I rose. On the horizon, beyond the Island of Nargin, a steamboat appeared. If one could trust a printed slip of paper, delivered by the Christian telegraph messenger, then my uncle was on that boat with his three wives and two eunuchs. I was to meet him. I ran down the stairs to the waiting carriage. Quickly we drove to the noisy port.
My uncle was a person of distinction. Shah Nasr-ed-Din had graciously bestowed upon him the title Assad-ed-Dawleh—`Lion of the Empire', and now no one was allowed to address him in any other form. He had three wives, many servants, a palace in Teheran and big estates in Mazendaran. He came to Baku because one of his wives, little Zeinab, was ill. She was only eighteen, and my uncle loved her more than his other wives. But she could not have any children, and just from her my uncle wanted an heir. Neither the amulets given to her by the dervishes of Kerbela, nor the magic words of the wise men of Meshed, nor the old women of Teheran, experienced as they might be in the arts of love had helped her. She had even made the journey to Hamadan. There stands, hewn from the red stone, the giant statue of a lion, staring forever across the vast desert with strange, mysterious eyes. It was erected by old, half-forgotten kings. For many centuries women have made the pilgrimage to this lion, kissed his mighty member and hoped for motherhood and the blessing of children. Poor Zeinab had not been helped by the lion.
Now she was coming to Baku, seeking the skill of Western doctors. Poor uncle! He had to take along the two other wives, old and unloved as they were. For thus custom decrees: `You may have one, two, three or four wives, if you treat them equally.' Treating them equally means giving the same to all, for instance a journey to Baku.
But really all this had nothing to do with me. The women's place is in the anderun, in the inner part of the house. A well brought up man does not talk of them, nor does he enquire after them or ask to give them his regards. They are a man's shadow, even if the man only feels happy in the shadow. This is good and wise. We have a proverb in our country: `A woman has no more sense than an egg has hairs'. Creatures without sense must be watched, lest they bring disaster on themselves and others. I think this is a wise rule.
The little steamboat came to the landing stage. Hairy-chested broadly-built sailors put up the accommodation ladder. Passengers hurried out: Russians, Armenians, Jews, quickly, hastily, as if it were important not to lose a single minute. My uncle did not show himself. `Haste comes from the devil,' he would say. Only after all other travellers had left did the neat figure of the `Lion of the Empire' appear on deck. He wore a coat with silk lapels, a small black fur cap, and slippers. His broad beard and his nails were tinted with henna, in memory of the Martyr Hussein's blood shed a thousand years ago for the true faith. His eyes were small and tired and his movements slow. Behind him, visibly agitated, walked three figures, sheathed in black veils: the wives. Then came the eunuchs: one with a face like a wise dried-up lizard, the other small, bloated and proud because he was the guardian of His Excellency's honour. Slowly my uncle descended. I embraced him, reverently kissing his left shoulder, though strictly speaking this was not necessary in a public place. I did not waste a glance on the wives. We stepped into the carriage. Wives and eunuchs followed in covered equipages. Our entourage was such an impressive sight, that I ordered the driver to make a detour along the Esplanade, so the town might admire my uncle's splendour.
Nino stood on the Esplanade and looked at me with laughing eyes. My uncle stroked his patrician beard and asked for news in town. `There is nothing much,' I said, for I knew my duty was to start off with unimportant things, and only later to pass on to what really mattered. `Dadash Beg has stabbed Achund Sadé to death last week, because Achund Sadé came back to town although he knew the danger, having kidnapped Dadash Beg's wife eight years ago. He was stabbed on the day he came. Now the police are looking for Dadash Beg. But they won't find him, although everybody knows that he is in the village of Mardakjany. Wise men say Dadash Beg has done well.' Uncle nodded, he agreed. Was there any other news? `Yes. The Russians have found much new oil in Bibi-Eibat. The great firm of Nobel has brought a big German machine into the country, to fill up part of the sea, and drill for oil.' Uncle was very surprised. `Allah, Allah', he said, and pursed his lips in a worried frown. `... at home everything is all right, and God willing I shall leave the House of Learning in a week's time.'
I went on talking, and the old man listened attentively. Only when the carriage drew near our house I looked to the side and said indifferently: `A famous doctor from Russia has arrived in town. People say his knowledge is great, that he sees past and present in people's faces, and that from this he can predict the future.' Uncle's eyes were closed in noble boredom. Quite detachedly he asked for the wise man's name, and I saw that he was very satisfied with me. For all this was what we called Good Manners and Aristocratic Upbringing.
1. Early in the novel, as Ali reflects on his hometown, he thinks, "God let me be born here, a Muslim of the Shiite faith, in the religion of Imam Dshafar. May he be merciful and let me 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" [p. 19]. Why does Ali love Baku so much? Why does he prefer to be an Asian rather than a European? In what ways does the above passage prefigure the novel's main thematic developments?
2. Set on the eve of war, Ali and Nino is an intimate love story impinged upon by vast historical and political forces. In what ways do these forces threaten and ultimately destroy their happiness? How is their romance intensified by the chaotic period in which they live? Is there any sense in which Ali and Nino are fortunately placed in time and circumstance? How would their lives have been different had they lived in Persia, for example, rather than Azerbeidshan?
3. When Ali asks his friend, the fundamentalist Seyd Mustafa, whether Nino should become a Muslim after they marry, he replies, "Why should she? A creature without soul and intelligence has no faith anyway" [p. 96]. And later Ali's father advises him to refrain from beating his wife when she's pregnant but assures him that he must be her master. How does Ali react to these characterizations of women? Does he think of Nino in these terms? In what ways does their relationship defy these expectations? Do you think attitudes toward women in Islamic countries have changed much during the sixty years since the novel was published?
4. Whydoes Nachararyan "kidnap" Nino? Why is it significant that he wishes to marry her in Moscow and then take her to Sweden? What is the symbolic value of Nachararyan fleeing in a car and Ali chasing him on a horse? Of the way Ali kills him? What larger trust has been betrayed by Nachararyan's treachery?
5. When Nino visits Ali in hiding, he says that "she hid her face on my breast, and every movement of her slender body was like the call of earth, thirsting for the fulfilling benediction of rain. Tenderly I moved the cover down. Time stood still" [p. 172]. What has Nino risked to make this visit? What does this risk say about the nature of her love? In what sense is their love made of something more fundamental than customs and cultural expectations? In what sense does it exist outside the realm of time?
6. Why does Ali decide not to fight for the Czar against the Germans? How is this decision first received? In what ways does Ali more accurately perceive the future of the region—and his own role in it—than his friends who fight for the Czar?
7. In many ways Baku, with its multi-ethnic population, is a metaphorical marriage of East and West, Asia and Europe, tradition and modernity. How does Ali and Nino's literal marriage bring these cultural oppositions into union? What tensions arise because of their different backgrounds and desires? How do they resolve these tensions?
8. Why is Ali swept up in the religious procession of flagellants and dervishes in Persia? What state is he trying to achieve? Why does Nino react so vehemently when she sees him behaving like a "fanatic barbarian" [p. 238]? Why doesn't Nino leave him at this point?
9. Ali describes camels coming into town "with long sad steps, carrying sand in their yellow hair, looking far into the distance, with eyes that had seen eternity" [p. 113]. Elsewhere, he says "Darkness enfolded our town, and it seemed to be an animal in ambush, ready to pounce or to play" [p. 16]. What is the effect of this kind of writing? What other metaphors or especially vivid or imaginative descriptions stand out in the novel? How would you characterize Kurban Said's style? In what ways is that style suited to the story?
10. How is Nino forced to behave in Persia? How is her character more fully revealed in these constricted circumstances? From whom does she exact a measure of revenge? In what ways is it important for the novel to show us this world?
11. Throughout the novel, Ali's love for his country and his culture come into conflict with his love for Nino. Why do you think he chooses to stay and defend the short-lived Republic of Azerbeidshan, even though he knows it is doomed, rather than flee to Paris with Nino and their child?
12. Given Ali's character and beliefs, is the outcome of the story inevitable? What does Kurban Said seem to be saying about the fate of romantic love in the face of impersonal historical forces? Is it significant that Ali's destiny is determined on a bridge? What is the emotional effect of the novel's ending?
13. Near the end of the novel, we see Ali in the act of writing it. And we're told that the book has been rescued by his friend Iljas Beg. Does this narrative device alter the effect of the story?
14. Much of the novel's charm comes from its vivid depictions of traditional ways of life. One such scene occurs during the poetry duel, before which "two valiant lords of song" hurl insults at each other. "Your clothes stink of dung, your face is that of a pig . . . and for a little money you would compose a poem on your own shame, " says one. "You can't sell your talent because you never had any, " replies the other. "You live off the crumbs that fall from the festive table of my genius" [p. 45]. What do such scenes add to the novel? How are they relevant to the approaching political and cultural upheaval? Where else in the novel do you glimpse a way of life threatened with extinction? Where else do you find comic relief?
15. In what ways does reading Ali and Nino deepen your understanding of recent conflicts in the region involving former Soviet Republic and Muslim minorities?
Posted September 25, 2013
This is a gorgeous love story with East meets West at the start of the First World War. The descriptions, the feelings, the love are all superb. A literary piece that has endured.
Posted June 14, 2007
Great book if you want to read all about Eastern people and their culture. But a love story? From the very beginning, Ali and Nino are in love. That's about it. It's just given that they are crazy about each other. The two main characters were shallow and boring. The writing wasn't that great. I'm sorry. My girlfriend and I read this book together thinking it would move us, and both of us were extremely disappointed. It may be a love story in a different country and a different time, yes. But we both found the book boring and a waste of time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 10, 2006
It is really very beautiful love story and besides this it shows us the hard times of Eastern people in the period of WW1 and Russian revolution.What comes about author-there is still some discussions about it-as many people in Azerbaijan think that the real author is Yusif Vazir Camanzade,another novelist of that period(by the way,he has a little story about love between azeri and georgian),some others think it is that jewish man.But the names of people,especially the millioners are real-there lived such people in Azerbaijan and even Ilyas xan himself was real person and he died as I know when russians established soviet government in Azerbaijan.I think Ali himself is a real person from family Shirvanshah,an old family that ruled in ancient Azerbaijan(but it is my version,not official).Though I reallly don't know who wrote it,but for a foriegner who lived in Azerbaijan it is too good(knowing all traditions and love the country).Maybe the jewish man read a diary of a 'real Ali' or something like this.But anyway,I recommend everyone interested in East and West differences read it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 6, 2004
There is a documentry about the author out in Holland now, called Alias Kurban Said. It traces the mystery around the identity of Kurban Said. There are various stories around his background, he may not even be the Juwish Lev Naussimbaum. His name, political background, religion and economical position vary in every story. The Dutch film is shown in the (Dutch) cinema's this november. It is a contribution to your reading pleasure, while the novel is the knot where everything comes together. Director: Jos de Putter. Title: Alias Kurban Said.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 9, 2002
It is a very great love story. And it's not just a love story. You learn a lot about the Muslim culture, the tradition, the thoughts of Muslim men, and some Persian history. Being a woman, I felt uneasy reading certain parts of the novel, but it was a candid portrayal of women by Muslim men. Given the situation and their backgrounds, Ali proved to be a good man, husband, soldier, and loyal to his homeland. Similarly, I was very happy to find that Nino never lost her self-dignity and remained true to her values while respecting Ali's as well. Their love was stronger than the cultural barriers that separated them. Interestingly enough, due to much civil unrest, young Ali and Nino were forced to make more adjustments to their lives than most people ever would in their very short life together. Also, the descriptions of the landscape and the day-to-day lives are so vivid that it helped me visualize life in such an unknown place to me. The translation is a bit weak in certain parts, but aside from that, it makes a great novel to read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 21, 2000
Quite simply, this relatively short novel is one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century. Ali Khan and Princess Nino, the title lovers, are sympathetic characters who seem to have stepped out of a fairy tale at times. Indeed, the story itself often reads like a fairy tale. Regardless of the author's true identity, Kurban Said writes like no other novelist of that era; the writing borders on poetry in its expressive power and sheer beauty. Yet, like other great love stories, this one is deceptively simple, too. Ali and Nino become emblems of their respective cultures and worldviews (Muslim vs. Christian, East vs. West, Tradition vs. Progress), and their tragic story is wrenching in its profundity and in its continued relevance to our own times. Only Graman's translation (from the 1970's) comes off as less than completely effective; perhaps it is time for another English version.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.