Date finished: 1/3/12
How I found this book: There was a reference to Azerbaijan in Persepolis which piqued my interest in the country. Some internet browsing for Azerbaijani books led me to Ali and Nino. It wasn’t available in my public library, but I was able to request it from another library.
Ali and Nino is the first book I’ve read for this project that I would have been very unlikely to come across otherwise. The book was originally (1937) written in German by an pseudonymous author. It is billed as a romance, but it is as much, if not more, a social commentary. The plot of the book does indeed revolve around the relationship between Ali, a Azerbaijani Muslim, and Nino, from a Georgian Christian family around the time of WWI. Their relationship is emblematic of the position of Azerbaijan, perched between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ cultures. The idea is that only in the middle ground of Azerbaijan is their relationship possible. ‘Eastern’ in Ali and Nino generally refers to Islam, a culture of honor, and an affinity for the desert while ‘Western’ refers to Christianity, European culture and technology (cars, for example, are a rarity in Azerbaijan at the time, even amongst the wealthy), and an affinity for the forest.
Unfortunately, the process of trying to catch up on writing commentary on the books that I’ve read means that it has been over a month since I finished reading the book. It turns out that it’s much easier to write these immediately after reading the book, as I did for The Tiger’s Wife. (If you’re keeping track, that’s why this one is out of order.) So, I’ve decided just to get this one posted so that I can keep going. Ali and Nino was definitely an enjoyable read though. My favorite aspect was the satire and the discussion of Eastern and Western cultures. The author makes fun of both sides but I felt like he was ultimately respectful of both.
In the course of the book, Azerbaijan is only actually a country for a brief moment of glory. Otherwise it is controlled by Russia which wants access to the tiny country’s oil reserves. Being controlled by Russia, there is some expectation that the young men in the story will fight for Russia in WWI. Some of them do, but mostly out of a thirst for adventure or a sense of honor rather than any feeling of association with Russia. Ali himself fights only when Azerbaijan is directly under attack. (Interestingly, it turns out that he is looked down upon in Iran for having acted as a soldier. The Iranian elite at the time apparently valued poetry and arts over military, whereas in Azerbaijan both are admired. It would be interesting to know whether this portrayal of Iran at the time is accurate. It certainly doesn’t fit with my perception.)