The first world war is just about to start. In Baku, two lovers are desperately trying to stay together.
Behind glow-up lights and tacky mint-blue décor, an all-American smoothie bar leads to a hallway behind a bookshelf and into a basement-floor speakeasy. In addition to delicious red draft beer and weekly trivia nights, Woland’s is also one of the only spaces in Tbilisi where you can find a wide selection of books in English – for free.
I first borrowed Ali and Nino from there on my first visit, but as I found excuses not to finish the 240 pages, the story stretched on, becoming involuntarily intertwined with my own journey. I followed the heroes of the story from Tbilisi to Baku and to the outskirts of Tehran, through the ashura ceremony in Iran and the wild Caucasian mountainscape with its famous race horses and rolling hills. I finally finished the book in Azerbaijan, on a taxi back to Baku, my personal journey in the Caucasus ending where the plot of the book had picked off.
(Don’t worry, in the end I did manage to return the book when I got back to Tbilisi.)
Beautifully written, Ali and Nino might have been one of my favourite books this year; so let me take you on this literary journey with me through the Caucasus.
Ali and Nino
A Mullah with sunken cheeks, wearing a heavy turban, said in a soft tired voice: ‘The difference between Persians and non-Persians is this: We are the only ones who can appreciate beauty.’
Ali and Nino by Kurban Said is one of the books that defines accessible literature in the Caucasus – at least if accessibility is defined by language, as the book is one of the few pieces of work translated into English. The plot follows Ali Khan and Nino Kipiani, a Muslim Azeri boy and a Christian Georgian girl madly in love and fighting to overcome all obstacles tossed in their way.
The story moves around the region in leaps and bounds, starting from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and moving through Tbilisi (Georgia), Shushi (Azerbaijan), Dagestan (Russia) and Tehran (Iran). The book is not only geographically diverse, though, but also gives a glimpse into the rapidly changing political state of the region around the end of the 1910’s – form the start of the First World War to the establishment of the Republic of Azerbaijan as a part of the Soviet Union.
The story is often hailed as the “Romeo and Juliet” of Caucasus – to be fair, probably falsely. One element that is too often underplayed, though, is the absolutely beautiful language printed on the pages. “How fast runs a horse from Karabagh, and how fast drives a car from Europe?” While some themes might be controversial and the main narrator very much biased, the masterful storytelling makes Ali and Nino the classic it deserves to be.
Love and other lies
Close your eyes, cover your ears with your hands and open your soul.
When I came into Baku, the sky was grey and the wind from the Caspian Sea cold.
Azerbaijan had not originally been on my itinerary; but after reading through the first chapters of Ali and Nino I knew I had to see it. The Baku Ali lived in sounded like a magical, mystical place. What I found, though, felt a little different.
After two days, I had made no connection to the people staying at my hostel. There were half a dozen young Turks who seemed to always be playing ping-pong; an older man who either didn’t speak English or didn’t speak at all; and a Danish guy who told an Iranian guest that he ‘likes Iranians, in Scandinavia it’s the Iraqis and Somalis always causing trouble, never the Iranians’.
This was as far from the sophisticated conversations about politics and war that Ali Khan would have been having with his father and family friends. They would have laid on richly decorated divans sipping tea brought in by a servant. I imagined this, glued to my phone pretending I didn’t hear the sleeping staff member snoring on the opposite couch, clutching a questionably clean cup of stale tea.
Above all else, Ali and Nino is a love story. So, in search of romance, I went out with a guy from Texas. Unlike Ali and Nino, in love with each other since their early school days, I had met him that same morning on Tinder and mostly just swiped right because he had superliked me. At the pub, he leaned back and looked at me and told me that I seemed like a person who puts others through tests, that I like to analyse others and think that I know them best just based on my observations. He said it with a condescending smirk.
I think he was just trying to find a reason as to why things were so icy between us. In truth, I didn’t want to get into this guy’s head; I had disliked him the moment I saw him in the street, and everything he said just kept proving my first impression correct.
Our old town is full of secrets and mysteries, hidden nooks and little alleys. I love these soft night murmurs, the moon over the flat roofs, and the hot quiet afternoons in the mosque’s courtyard with its atmosphere of silent meditation. God let me be born here, a Muslim of the Shiite faith, in the religion of Imam Dshafar. May he be merciful and let me die here, in the same street, in the same house where I was born. Me and Nino, a Christian, who eats with knife and fork, has laughing eyes and wears filmy silk stocking.
Later, as we were walking along the seaside promenade, he suddenly stopped answering my comments and questions. We walked in silence for ten minutes. At one point he pulled out his iPhone and it slipped onto the pavement, and he didn’t even flinch. Then he informed me that he was going to a Soviet-style bar in town and disappeared without saying goodbye.
I was left alone at the promenade between families and lovers and groups of friends. The sun was setting, finally pushing away the dreary grey, changing the palette behind the skyline into soft yellow and orange. Ali and Nino might have meandered about this same boulevard a hundred years earlier; or their muses, as the story is definitely not based on real life. They would not have been looking at the three modern fire-shaped skyscrapers in the distance, Baku’s Flame Towers, but they would have felt the heat of this land of oil and fire.
Okay, so maybe I couldn’t find love in Baku. But what about something else? While the carrying theme of the book is the love story, the issue creating tension between the lovers are their different cultures. As I travelled from Tbilisi, a city with a distinctively European feel with its hipster cafés and cool neighbourhoods, through Azerbaijan and finally to fully Middle Eastern Iran, I started to see the different sides to Ali and Nino’s complicated love.
The nifty drift between the East and the West
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:’ — 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 be therefore said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia.’
Baku, with its tin trinkets and copper dishes, sand-coloured mosques and delicate balconies seems like a mixture of Persia, Georgia and the Soviet Union. It felt a lot more Asian than Georgia that had been my last stop. In fact, 90% of the population of Azerbaijan are Muslims. If you ask Georgians, they’ll tell you it’s the most Christian country in the world. (Armenians might argue the same.) Still, the whole Caucasus – Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia – are often described as standing on a line between two worlds: the West and the East, Europe and Asia, the modern and the traditional.
Geographically, the Caucasus area belongs to West Asia. Culturally, though, the question is a little trickier, since many people living in the Caucasus consider themselves Europeans. All three countries are contestant in the Eurovision Song Contest (although after Australia entered the game, that statement might not have much value.) Georgia seems to hope to even become a member of the European Union, although with pressure from Russia (LINK to Russia) that might not be happening anytime soon.
Ali and Nino lived in the same city but in different worlds. For her, the way Ali’s family decorated their house, how they slept on rugs on the floor instead of beds, all this was incredible to her. Ali, for his part, felt endless yearning towards the desert and the mountains.
The clash between the lovers’ cultures culminates in one of the most exciting passages of the book as Ali’s Armenian friend kidnaps Nino to bring her to Europe with him. In the moonlight, Ali whips a horse from Karabagh – a famed small mountain horse known for its speed and resilience – along the bumpy Azeri road to try and catch his rival’s car. He imagines soft sheets and mahogany bed posts, and how fast a car from Europe might drive away from him with his lover onboard. And suddenly he gets the car in his sights. As he watches its slow progression on the uneven road, he knows that he can reach it and that a Western car is no good on Asian roads. ‘How quickly can a car go on these roads, and how swiftly races a horse from Karabagh`?’
Under the moonlight, the West and the East clash violently. And while Ali has now won Nino back, she can’t help but wonder what their relationship means to her Georgian heritage.
‘– — St. Nino [the saint that brought Christianity to Georgia] came from the West, carrying her vine, and it is to the West we belong. We are no Asiatics. We are the furthest eastern country of Europe. Surely you can feel that yourself?’
She walked on quickly, her childish brow furrowed. ‘Just because we have defied Timur, and Ghengis, Shah Abbas, Shah Tahmasp and Shah Ismail, just because of that it is that I exist, I, your Nino. And now you come along, without a sword, without trampling elephants, without warriors, and yet you are the heir of the blood-covered Shahs. My daughters will wear the veil, and when Iran’s sword is sharpened again my sons and grandsons will destroy Tiflis for the hundredth time. Oh Ali Khan, we should belong to the world of the West.’
Despite their differences, the characters – just like the real people of the Caucasus – manage to live through their differences in relative peace. Well, until the First World War reaches Baku and forces the couple to escape south to Iran.
From far off the dull beats of a tambourine came through the twilight, calling and threatening, like a warning of the Unseen. I went to the window. The dusty road lay glowing in the last rays of the sun. I became aware of drumbeats, coming closer, their rhythm accompanied by staccato shouts, repeated over and over again, thousands of times: ‘Shah-ssé… Wah-ssé- Shah Hussein… Woe Hussein!’ Round the corner erupted the procession. Three immense standards, embroidered in heavy gold, swayed above the crowd, carried by strong hands. On one of them was written “Ali” in gold letters – the name of the Prophet’s friend on Earth. – –
We gather on the balcony of the mosque. Underneath, to the beat of drums, men dressed in black with a green scarf tied around their necks are marching into the square in slow, timed steps. In their hands they hold a small whip with metal chains, and they beat themselves over the shoulder as they walk. In the crowd I spot small boys as young as eight or ten. It’s mid-August and the desert city of Yazd is boiling. A man walks past the chanting crowd holding a hose, and for a moment I can see a rainbow form between the falling droplets, the only splash of colour in the mass dressed in black.
These men – and the women sitting on the side since they cannot participate in the actual procession – are commemorating ashura, the last day of the ten-day mourning ceremony for imam Hussein. He was the third imam of Islam and Mohammed’s grandson, assassinated together with his family and caravan on his way to visit another city. For Shia Muslims, this is a ceremony of grief over their lost prophet.
Yazd is more religious than many other places. Everything has closed during the day, and I have been loaded on big tourist buses together with other backpackers and tourists to witness the ceremony. The trip leaders explain that this is to promote religious tolerance – by showing visitors to Iran what practicing Islam might look like.
However, when Ali Khan heard the drums and joined the procession, Nino didn’t think too kindly of it. She saw it as a savage habit of the East, something so far removed from her world she couldn’t understand it. She hated eating with her hands and sleeping on mats on the floor when she was used to utensils and soft beds; and even more she hated being imprisoned in Ali Khan’s villa during their time in Iran where women in the 1930’s were allowed even less freedom than now.
A procession of camels is lead through the still, chanting crowd. They are decorated with colourful woollen tassels and patterned saddlecloths, and small children cling to their backs, looking both exhilarated and terrified to be sat that high up.
The ceremony is a lot more tame than what it used to be. I’d seen shocking newspaper photos of people covered in blood, hitting themselves in the head with swords, slashing across their backs with bladed whips. The whips that these men are holding are lightweight and not meant to hurt. Since many Islamic leaders have condemned the practice of self-flagellation, only the most devoted dervishes now hit themselves hard enough to bleed. I watch the movement of the whip in the many hands of the men on the square, and the metallic rings seem to just gently brush against their shoulders.
Then comes the moment that we’ve all waited for. The crowd becomes denser, the chanting becomes more intense. A sea of bared arms goes up and down, forming a skin-coloured wave that ripples out of the mass of black clothing. A path is cleared. Men gather around a gigantic, egg-shaped tent on the edge of the square. The item represents the tomb of Hussain Ali. Tens of men dive underneath the structure, and with great effort, they lift it on their shoulders and start running.
They run around the square three times, all the while chanting in rhythm, before finally returning the tent to its original sitting. Without a warning, the ceremony is over. Families gather their things and leave, and as we are ushered back into the tour buses, I remember Ali Khan’s fervour to join the procession and can’t help but feel a little anti-climatic.
Slowly the crowd passed along the street. First came the devout penitents, with naked backs, wearing black mourning robes, carrying heavy iron chains, and the chains hit their bleeding red shoulders. Behind them came a wide half circle of broad-shouldered men, taking two steps forward and one step back. Huskily their cry sounded along the road: ‘Shah-ssé… Wash-ssé…’ and with each cry their fists beat hard and hollow on their naked hairy breasts. – – — – Once more I heard the hollow sound of the drum – then the rhythm of the wild cries was in me.
Well, maybe better so.
Baku, unravelled – and the surprising result of my exploration of the Caucasus
‘And all the time you’d be homesick for the old wall and for your soulful talks with Seyd Mustafa. But never mind. Stay as you are. I love you.’
‘You are right, Nino, I do love our homeland, all our town, every stone, every grain of sand in the desert.’
‘I know. How strange it is – this love for Baku. To the foreigners our town is just a hot, dusty, oil-smothered dull place.’
‘That’s because they’re foreigners.’
My trip took me from Georgia to Azerbaijan and Iran and back to Georgia. In a span of a few months, I had accidentally traced the footsteps of Ali and Nino and lived through some of the same experiences they had. I’d attended ashura, bought dates from Iranian bazaars, bathed in Tbilisi’s sulphur baths, wandered along the streets of Old Baku and rode a fast horse through winding mountain roads.
When I visited Baku, the sky was grey and the wind from the Caspian Sea was chilling. Some of the laces I knew from the book, like the mysterious Maiden Tower and the covered terraces, but Azerbaijan’s oil money had built a whole lot of new around the old core, almost making the city unrecognisable from what I’d pictured. I stood alone in places around the city, trying to reach the fictitious romance I’d immersed myself in the book’s pages but not finding a much as a friend.
I might not have felt the love for Baku that Ali Khan felt. But how could I? After all, I was just a foreigner, ignorant to the charms of the land of oil and fire.
Instead, I felt myself drawn to the homeland of Nino: Georgia, the country often said to teeter the edge of Asia but which to me felt completely European. Even its wilder parts, the small farming villages and reckless driving, took me back to the Balkans. I found myself in awe for everything it held: the wine, the people, the mountain speckled with colourful wildflowers, the terraces of Tbilisi whose wooden terraces looked like woven patterns, the heavy food and light feelings that it evoked in me.
Ali Khan came to Georgia to meet Nino’s family; I went in search of a new love. I never quite found it. Instead, I found Ali and Nino again.
Batumi is a resort town on the shores of the Black Sea. There, a modern sculpture depicting the two lovers has been erected in the harbour. The two characters move in slow figures eight, only meeting in the middle for a moment before passing through each other, never quite touching– maybe like two doomed lovers but maybe more like their two worlds, the East and the West, inhabiting the same space without ever quite mixing, both beautiful and wild in their own ways.