The outstanding Azerbaijani novel is Ali and Nino by Kurban Said, a tragic love story set in Baku in the turbulent years of World War I, the October Revolution and its aftermath. It relates the love between the Muslim Azeri Ali and the Christian Georgian noblewoman Nino, as a metaphor for Baku’s early-20th-century cosmopolitanism and the cultural crosscurrents in the Southern Caucasus.
The discovery of oil in the mid-19th century had transformed the region, turning a minor town on the periphery of the Russian Empire into a thriving industrial centre attracting entrepreneurs and investors from far afield. In their wake, Romantic Nationalism began to influence the Azeri elite, who sought to assert a specific identity within imperial Russia. Dilemma’s ensued between modernization and traditionalism, European or Asian orientations, Muslim or secular lifestyles. All this was woven into the novel’s setting and narrative fabric. The main characters symbolize the various cultural presences in Baku, their unconditional but fraught love affair reflecting the perplexities of emerging identities and cultural dilemmas amidst political crises. The turbulence of the period – World War I, the October Revolution, the country’s brief independence between 1918 and 1920 as the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (ADR), and the violent take-over by the Bolsheviks in 1920 – frame the novel’s development. Ali is killed in battle against the Red Army in Baku in 1920 (Nino having sought refuge in European exile); with the death of the young and idealistic Ali, the young and promising ADR comes to an end as well.
Ali and Nino was first published in German in 1937 by an Austrian publisher. The novel was fairly successful among Third Reich readers, the “Orient” still being a fashionable theme in art and literature. After a period of relative obscurity and occasional short-lived rediscoveries, the novel gained widespread fame in the 1970s and became an international bestseller, with translations into more than 30 languages.
As the novel reached global celebrity, the question of its authorship came up. Who was Kurban Said? The first inquiries were launched by western scholars. Research spearheaded and summarized by Tom Reiss in his biography The Orientalist (2005) identified “Kurban Said” as Lev Nussimbaum, a Baku-born Jew who had left Azerbaijan after the revolution and who after a few years of wandering had moved to Berlin. In Berlin he converted to Islam and gained some literary success, initially under the name of Essad Bey. The Nazis having discovered Essad Bey’s Jewish identity, Nussimbaum changed his nom-de-plume, moved to Italy, and from then on published under the name of Kurban Said.
In the penumbra of Reiss’s research, other theories were put forward. Some claimed that Kurban Said was an Austrian baroness, others that he was a Georgian writer, or an obscure Italian bon-vivant.
In Azerbaijan the question remained dormant until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, and the ethnic conflict erupted between Azerbaijanis and Armenians over the disputed region Nagorny Karabah. Until then the novel had been anathema, since it was vehemently anti-Bolshevik and depicted violent historical conflicts that failed to fit the official USSR doctrine of the “Friendship of the Peoples”. After the Nagorny-Karabah conflict that doctrine had lost all credibility; and after the Soviet Army had entered Baku in January 1990, in order to “reinstall stability” following pogroms against the Armenian population, Azerbaijan moved towards independence. Historical parallels with the 1920s were propitious for a rediscovery of Ali and Nino.
The novel was first translated into Azeri in 1990, and soon the question of its authorship also began to loom in Azerbaijan. The fact that Azerbaijan’s most famous novel was apparently not even written by an Azerbaijani was unpalatable, and a revisionist campaign was started. The Azerbaijani author Chamanzaminli was put forward as the putative real author of Ali and Nino. Chamanzaminli, called Yusif Mirbaba oğlu Vazirov in real life, had been born in Shushi (Nagorny Karabakh) in 1887 and passed away in a Gulag camp in 1943. He is celebrated as one of the outstanding Azerbaijani writers of the 20th century, representative of a generation of nation-builders rooted in the late 19th century, who had been prominent in the short-lived ADR. Chamanzaminli was arrested for nationalist sympathies in Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937.
The campaign launching Chamanzaminli as the real author of Ali and Nino was initiated by his sons and taken up by the Azerbaijani government, with the primary aim to prove the novel’s essential and undiluted Azerbaijani nature, and with the secondary aim to capitalize on the novel’s view of Azerbaijan as an ideal gateway between East and West, Asia and Europe, tradition and modernity. What is more, all the themes that had been taboo in Soviet times – the ethnic clashes with Armenians, the struggle against the Bolsheviks, the fight for independence and the search for a national identity in a context of imperial hegemony – were essential building blocks for the young country’s self-image in the crisis decade of the 1990s.
The question “Who is Kurban Said” is still vexed. The novel’s Orientalist exoticism indicates that its author wrote at some remove from the country in which it was set, despite his intimate knowledge of Baku society. The theories trying to dismiss the Nussimbaum auhorship appear more far-fetched and contrived to fit a political interest, and have been pursued with relentless stubbornness by their adherents, leading even to “edit wars” on the book’s Wikipedia page. If anything, the enigmatic nature of Kurban Said’s identity has added to the novel’s continuing allure and standing as a national Azerbaijani classic. A film version was produced in 2016, financed by the Azerbaijani government and giving the tale a more nationalistic slant.