(Author: Kurban Said) + (Year: 1937) + (Goodreads)
This book is widely compared to Romeo and Juliet and even Dr. Zhivago and advertised as one of the best love stories of the last century. But in my opinion it is much more than just a love story. In fact, I’m not sure if I should call this a love story at all. Many may decide to contradict me, but I will explain below. Due to the fact that I found much more depth to Ali and Nino than just the star-crossed-lovers theme, I showed some generosity with the rating, even though the narrative and writing weren’t so much to my taste.
Another note that I would like to make is that I usually review books in the language I read them, in this case – Azerbaijani, but there are some things about Azerbaijan that I would like to say here and which I hope will reach my western friends.
(I’m also very excited about the movie which, I think, is currently filming. starring the lovely Maria Valverde as Nino.)
Ali and Nino does start out as a romance. As we flip through the pages of Ali‘s memoirs of sorts, we see just how in love he is with her and that she also shares his feelings. What is beautiful about their love at the beginning is how uncomplicated it is. They love each other and that is that. Their families accept it, their friends accept it, society accepts it. Despite of religion, culture and personal beliefs, the simple fact exists that Ali and Nino are in love.
With the development of the plot, however, we witness a completely other side of this story. Layer after layer all sorts of events add up to form a relationship between the characters which is so complicated and at moments even dark, that I state again my uncertainty to see this book as a love story. The childish romance between the characters becomes stained with blood after Nino is kidnapped by another man and by the laws of honor killing, Ali can take her life for it. He doesn’t – out of love, out of honor?
After Ali flees Baku he spends a very long time away from Nino. A narrative about Nino’s actions after he leaves show a much darker shade of her personality. She is no longer the dear child he dreams of, but instead a girl who only dances with the Russian boys at balls and has a dog she regularly beats in public.
The rest of their relationship develops in a whirlwind of events, in the middle of which we see its many sides. Love is such a small part of it – there is passion, hate, tenderness, honor, stubbornness, shame, helplessness, belief, anger and so much more. Page after page we are shown not only the character’s personalities on their own, but also how they change when they are together and also due to the unfolding events in Azerbaijan.
So is this love? And if so, what is love? Is it the simple fact that your world is someone else? Or should love be looked for in the not-so-beautiful reality of being with someone for many reasons and not just childish romance? Maybe it’s the latter. I am just going to leave this here. The quote is my own translation, so forgive me if it doesn’t do justice to the original.
“Suddenly I felt that nothing in this world is more valuable and sacred to me than Nino’s eyes full of laughter…”
On the other hand, Ali and Nino is also extremely valuable on several other subjects out of which I’m going to talk about one, and I would like here all westerners to think about it: This book shows the struggles the Azerbaijani people go through in their self-identification. With one foot their are standing in Asia, proud, beautifully wild, owners of ancient traditions and a religion which at that period has no place in the West. And then, with their other foot, they are tiptoeing on Europe, their culture is changing and developing, both thanks to their geographical location and due to the fact that they have such a (painfully) strong relationship with Russia. Of course it is confusing – from the way they should treat their women, to the questions which are posed many times in the book: Should we keep our tradition to eat with hands or instead eat with knives and forks? Should we drink wine, like the western people, or should we follow the Islamic rule of abstaining from it? And what about pork then?
And yet, Azerbaijan is the first Muslim country to grant the women the right to vote(1917) and it did earlier than Austria and Germany(1918), France(1945) and much earlier than Portugal(1976). There are many more to be added to this list, but I think you got the point that I’m making. Azerbaijan is also the first Muslim country to have operas and theaters, for that matter. Why am I getting into this? Because there are certain countries we don’t know all that much about and with the help of Ali and Nino you can learn not only how developed Azerbaijan was even at the beginning of last century(not even going to talk about today, Google it and see for yourselves), but also how they came to be like that and what struggles they went through to get there. Because I, on behalf of other people, get ashamed when I tell someone I’ve visited Azerbaijan and they reply something within the vicinity of “Ohmigosh didn’t they like shoot at you and like make you wear like a veil???”. No. Not even close.