Translated by Jenna Graman


Ali and Nino owes a debt to Romeo and Juliet. It is a tale of thwarted love between the patriotic Muslim Azeri Ali and the beautiful Georgian Orthodox princess Nino, who is from a more liberal background. Ali and Nino live in oil-rich Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, which has been a consistent lure for exploitation by the West, while their opposing ideals and the encroaching war place their love story under constant threat.

Nino represents a cultivated European-influenced civility and enjoys vices such as wine. She longs to travel throughout Western Europe and loves to walk through the whispering trees. Ali, in contrast, is from a deeply conservative and strongly patriarchal background. He is spooked by forests and is all wild desert and bloodlust and unbridled masculinity. I mean, he’s actually a total nightmare. He gallops around on a rare red-gold horse, and during one battle he literally drinks the blood of his enemies. He’s a massive stereotype. But you can’t deny he really feels things.

Ali’s old school friend, the devout Imam-to-be Seyd, says things like:

“A wise man does not court a woman. The woman is just an acre, on which the man sows.”

Seyd even advises Ali that women lack intelligence and a soul:

“Why would women have either? It is enough for her to be chaste and have many children.”

Wow. So wise!

He advises that it is ok for Ali to marry Nino without requiring her to convert to Islam as

“No Paradise or Hell is waiting for a woman. When she dies she just disintegrates into nothing. The sons of course must be Shiites.”

Right, that sounds reasonable.

Like Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, this book is set in the world of the blood feud, a state of affairs that is set in stone:

“The blood-feud is the most important basis of state order and good conduct, no matter what Europeans say.”

Kadare covers his territory with much more nuance, however, and is, let’s face it, a Nobel Prize nominee and all round better writer.

The cover design of the edition of Ali and Nino that I read, printed by Vintage and with an introduction by Paul Theroux (which contains spoilers), looks like it’s been produced by a bot, it is so riotously clichéd. The bottom half of the front cover features a camel caravan in silhouette beneath an image of a young woman’s intense eyes, which gaze out from the upper part of the cover.

The identity of the author who wrote under the pseudonym Kurban Said was shrouded in mystery when Ali and Nino was first published in Vienna in 1937.

Was the writer the Austrian countess who had signed the publishing contract, and if so how on earth did she know so much about pre-First World War Azerbaijan?

The book was eventually attributed to a friend of hers, Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish émigré and convert to Islam who had fled the Azerbaijani capital Baku during the Russian Revolution.

A copy of Ali and Nino was later unearthed in a Berlin market by Jenna Graman, who translated it, and the novel was duly published in English in 1970. To be honest, I wish she’d left it on the book stall instead.

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