Saturday, December 09, 2006


ali and nino

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 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.’

Thus began ‘Ali and Nino’ one of the most fascinating books I read this year. This little masterpiece, originally in German (first published in Vienna in 1937) by one “Kurban Said” led Tom Reiss to start his equally fascinating search for the real author who turned out to be Lev Nussimbaum, a jew who converted to Islam when he was 18 , a son of a rich oil baron in Azerbaijan.Tom Reiss went on to write the critically acclaimed “ the Orientalist” about him which I already mentioned in my previous post (“the good jews” July 4, 2006).

Paul Theroux in his introduction in this new edition (2000) said that "…part of Ali and Nino’s achievement is a bravura display of passionate ethnography, of life lived in a particular area. In this respect Ali and Nino resembles , for example, Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote, and Ulysess, novels so full of information that they seem to define a people- full of lore and peculiarities, and saturated with a powerful sense of place. And incidentally, we may begin to understand why Azerbaijanis consider this their ‘national novel’. These ambitious narratives contain everything you need to know about their time and culture."

It’s a pity that ‘Ali and Nino’ is so little known that you’d be hard pressed to find it in any bookshop so I considered myself very lucky indeed that I found one copy in the on going Big Book Shop sale at Atria PJ and I bragged about this to this American friend who first introduced and sent a copy of “the Orientalist” to me all they way from Indianapolis many months ago and now he’d be interested to have a copy of Ali and Nino if you don’t mind please, and so I scurried back to Atria to get another copy but as always happen in life, good things don’t come twice and I’ve been to the shop almost once a week for the past several weeks and pored over every single volume of books on sale but couldn’t find any more volume of this book. What is worse, every time I went I came back with another bag of books and I think I’ve spent well over RM400 in this sale alone.

Looks like I’ve to finish the book, and once finished had to sadly part with it. It’s not my way to lend people books so I either keep them or give them away and I don’t have much choice. So good bye ‘Ali and Nino’. I hope I’ll get another copy somewhere some times.


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