MANY YEARS AGO in a different age and place, in a bookstore that carried English-language books in an upscale neighborhood of Ankara, I found a novel, titled Ali and Nino, by a certain Kurban Said, an author I had never heard of. The name was undeniably one of someone from the Middle East. Thus, I was surprised to find out that the book was translated from the original German. Kurban Said was obviously a pseudonym, but whose? A few years later, this time as a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, I found another copy of Ali and Nino in a used bookstore. By then, I had lost or misplaced the first one. None of my well-read professors nor any of my bookish graduate school friends had ever heard of this book written in German, though resonating with memories of other languages: Persian, Azeri, Russian, and Turkish. Who was this modern Heine, or even Nietzsche, with a piercing insight into religion, morality, and slave and philistine mentality? Wrapped in a cross-cultural and star-crossed love story, the novel chronicled the devastation brought upon the oil rich city of Baku in Azerbaijan by the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. At the time, I thought this short novel would be a stimulating and informative addition to the German major reading list, but the book was out of print, and we were still bound by the “canon of German literature.”
Some time ago I found the English translation of another novel by this mysterious Said, The Girl from the Golden Horn (Das Mädchen vom Goldenen Horn, 1938), whose protagonist Aziyadeh, a young woman from the Ottoman court and student of Oriental languages in Berlin, was forced into exile with her widowed father when the Ottoman dynasty was banished after the First World War. Coincidentally, another Aziyadé (spelled slightly differently in French) is also the protagonist of Pierre Loti's Orientalist novel Aziyadé (1879). But this Said clearly was no Orientalist in the sense established by the other Said, Edward Said, who defined Orientalism as a methodological and disciplinary appropriation of the cultures of the Orient in its broadest geographical parameters. He (or perhaps she?) seemed to be writing from the inside…
“CLOSE YOUR EYES, cover your ears with your hands and open your soul” (82; Rasch die Augen schließen, mit den Händen die Ohren zuhalten und in sich versinken, 82). With this enigmatic observation, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, the main Muslim figure in Kurban Said's novel Ali and Nino, advises his Western readers about the art of viewing Persian opera. He continues, “The spectators tremble and weep. A Mullah passes along the rows collecting tears with cotton wool. There are strong magical powers in these tears. The deeper the beholder's faith, the greater is the effect of the play on him” (82; Die Zuschauer zittern und weinen. Ein Mullah geht durch die Reihen und sammelt mit Watte die Tränen der Zuschauer in eine kleine Flasche. Magische Kräfte aller Art sind in diesen Tränen enthalten. Je tiefer der Glaube der Zuschauer, desto gewaltiger die Wirkung des Spieles, 83). The deep connection between Persian faith and artistic or poetic performance is here emphasized, as is the implicit cultural foreignness of this experience for the European reader. Said tells us, art lives within the Persian soul. In contrast Ali describes in the same passage the Western audience's experience at the opera as sterile and distant: “Now open your eyes, drop your hands and look around” (83; Nun die Augen öffnen, die Hände sinken lassen und sich umschauen, 83). Filled with electric lights, plaster-of-Paris statuary, naked female arms and backs, bald-headed gentlemen, and a dark abyss, the Western opera house separates the viewer from the performers with a faceless orchestra playing in the darkness. Said's novel draws on many such comparative and confrontational cultural moments via poetry and poetic performance in an obvious effort to provoke the reader's introspection and to promote cultural tolerance and acceptance. Why does Said choose to use poetry and poetic performance as a programmatic metaphorical tool throughout his novel? And what is the ultimate aim of placing poetry and performance in such a central role?
Poetry and verse shimmer beneath the surface of Said's narrative, peeking through in brief flashes to enhance it and at other times fully surfacing to become the story itself.
In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.
ONE OF THE characteristic features distinguishing one nation from another are the stereotypes peculiar to that nation. According to American sociologist Walter Lippmann, who introduced the term “stereotype” (from Greek words stereos —hard—and typos —the imprint) into the Western scientific literature, stereotypes are formed under the influence of an individual's cultural environment. Each person is an individual by her or his own nature. And as we have long known, character has social and psychological roots and thereby depends on one's world outlook, one's knowledge and experience, the moral principles one has learned, the social groups in which one lives and functions, as well as one's active interaction with other people. One's perspective on the world may be linked to one's beliefs, moral views, and ideals; control one's behavior; be reflected in one's thoughts; be realized in one's actions; and substantially take part in the formation of one's character. One's outlook and morals inform one's character in the form of habits—an accustomed way of moral behavior.
We may also use the idea of cultural stereotypes to understand the national character of a nation, national character being nothing but the totality of the character traits attributed to the people who inhabit that nation. Since stereotypes are considered to be the core of traditions particular to each nation, they are an integral part of that nation's national character as well. Cultural stereotypes specific to each society begin to be adopted starting from the moment when a person starts to perceive herself or himself as a part of a certain ethnos and culture. While even the most prevailing stereotypes in a society may be gradually replaced by new ones when political and cultural changes happen in connection with that society's development, some cultural stereotypes associated with a national character tend to remain stable. Referring to this durability, Lippmann writes that stereotypes are so persistently passed on from generation to generation that they are often accepted as a given, as an unquestioned reality or a biological fact.
RELIGIOUS, GENDERED, AND CULTURAL CONFLICTS abound in Ali and Nino and can be understood through the lens of honor, a foundational phenomenon in nearly every culture. Honor consistently plays a central role in defining the conflict between Ali, an Azerbaijani Muslim youth, and his Christian Georgian future wife, Nino. Their Romeo-and- Juliet love story explores the tensions inherent in these pairings. Honor is part of the conflict not just between two families, but also between complex, ever-changing pairings: male and female, public and private, Muslim and Christian, East and West. The conflicts about honor and shame in Ali and Nino offer a peek at the fluid boundaries between religion, culture, and politics.
Between the Oriental and European norms concerning female and male honor, the story of the two lovers unfolds across European and Middle-Eastern stages, where Muslim Ali must defend his own honor in his Middle-Eastern culture, as well as Christian Nino's honor in both Middle Eastern and Western settings. The honor structures that Ali and Nino encounter are flexible and—despite the apparent differences between East and West, masculine and feminine—do in fact complement one another or overlap at times. Ali and Nino plays with honor systems that at first sight appear contradictory, mostly by focusing on the Azerbaijani (Muslim, Oriental) honor system, but with instances where Western honor (Christian, Occidental) is thematized as well, demonstrating that honor codes in Azerbaijan mirror the country's political and geographical situation. Parallel to the political situation, the individual female body possesses a certain geography; it can be placed within a larger social constellation and be “mapped” within a certain geography in the novel and can be placed within a larger constellation. We see this in both Nino's relations with other men and the tensions between the country Azerbaijan (easily thought of as feminine) and other, larger forces that claim the country (and its riches) as their own.
Eastern Communitarianism vs. Western Political Liberalism
Ali and Nino offers Western readers a glimpse of Eastern culture. Kurban Said wrote a text positioned between cultures, and we must keep in mind that he is interested in how social and cultural systems interact with each other. Ali's culture and honor codes are perceived within a communitarian system, in which a communitarian identity dominates all others.
In memory of Rafiq Taği who was killed on the 23rd of November, 2011
SINCE ALI AND NINO WAS WRITTEN in German and for a German audience attracted by exotic and oriental settings, Kurban Said's book became well known in Western Europe. It took a much longer time for the book to get its place within the Azerbaijani canon of literature. Due to the international success of Ali and Nino, the book's reputation expanded in the eyes of Azerbaijani readers so that for them the book is now increasingly seen as the country's gift to world literature. Although elements of the story are influenced by classical Azeri and Persian literature such as Nizami's Layla and Majnun, the book and its author differ from other Azerbaijani prose and writers.
By leaving Azerbaijan and his Jewish heritage behind, subsequently converting to Islam and migrating to Germany, Lev Nussimbaum, or Kurban Said, himself becomes a colorful figure with a self-invented fictional dimension. In this sense, Nussimbaum has more in common with other struggling cultural Grenzgänger —like Swiss writer Isabelle Eberhardt, the English authors Richard Francis Burton, T. E. Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, and the Greek-Armenian Georges I. Gurdjieff—than with traditional and contemporary Azerbaijani authors such as Səməd Vurğun, Afaq Məsud, Anar, Kamal Abdulla, Rafiq Taği, and Elçin.
In particular, Nussimbaum's contemporary, Səməd Vurğun, is considered an important twentieth-century Azerbaijani writer. Through his folk poetry, which was tolerated by the Soviets, Vurğun (1906–56) shaped a nationalist Azeri literary language. Several monuments, streets, and public places in Azerbaijan recall Vurğun's importance. In addition to his prose, poetry, and dramas, he was also known for his affiliation with the Academy of Science in Baku (Azərbaycan Milli Elmlər Akademiyası). Just as it is today, it was not unusual in his time for Azerbaijani writers of the establishment to fill vacancies within the state's cultural and scientific institutions. Like Səməd Vurğun, Anar (born 1938) also occupied important positions in the state writers’ organization in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. During the Communist reign, Anar was a typical representative of Socialist Realism. His most important work is Beşmərtəbəli evin altinci mərtəbəsi (The Sixth Floor of a House with Five Floors) from 1982.
KURBAN SAID's NOVEL Ali and Nino, first published in German in 1937, is not the kind of text to which one typically finds references in books on literary history, not even in the most comprehensive volumes. The novel is hard to categorize. It is, for instance, not clear to which national literature or cultural tradition the text should be assigned. Although the novel was originally published in German and with a publishing house specializing in German-language texts, the E. P. Tal Verlag in Vienna, its author's decision to go by the alias “Kurban Said” suggests to readers that his own native language might not be German. The geographical setting of the book—Azerbaijan and Persia during the first two decades of the twentieth century—reinforced this impression that the text's author might not be from a German-speaking country. Rather, the author must be a newcomer on the literary scene. His chosen alias was perhaps meant to provide the text with a certain authenticity: most likely the book was written, one could stipulate, by someone with a personal history in Azerbaijan or Persia in the early twentieth century. Above all, the alias suggested a mystery: Why this novel in German? And why was it published in Vienna? Moreover, in hindsight, the date of publication, 1937, is intriguing: Europe at the time was, as we know now, at the brink of a new and exceptionally violent world war. Ali and Nino indeed takes up the themes of violence and destruction as well, but at the same time suggests an alternative to this world of violence. Above all, Ali and Nino is a love story about two people from divergent cultural and religious backgrounds who in spite of their many differences find each other and, at least for a while, are able to create a happy life together.
For a long time Ali and Nino was what the Germans call a Geheimtipp : only known to and appreciated by a small group of insiders with either a more than superficial interest in the literature of exile or exceptional knowledge of the region (i.e., Azerbaijan, Persia, and the Middle East more generally)—areas about which Kurban Said wrote in both Ali and Nino and his subsequent novel, The Girl from the Golden Horn (first published in German also by the Vienna Tal Verlag in 1938, one year after Ali and Nino).
ON THE COVER OF the most recent German edition of Kurban Said's 1937 novel Ali and Nino is a black-and-white picture of a woman who is identified on the book's copyright page as Elfriede von Ehrenfels von Bodmershof. The same edition contains the following statement about the text's author(s):
Kurban Said is an alias for the publicist Elfriede von Ehrenfels, born in 1894, and presumably for the coffee-house-litterateur Lev Nussimbaum (1905–1942). Both moved in Vienna's bohemian circles; the Jew Nussimbaum converted to Islam. Who wrote which part of the love story will probably remain a mystery forever.
[Kurban Said ist ein Pseudonym, hinter dem sich die 1894 geborene Publizistin Elfriede von Ehrenfels und vermutlich der Kaffeehausliterat Lev Nussimbaum (1905–1942) verbergen. Beide bewegten sich in der Wiener Boheme; der Jude Nussimbaum konvertierte zum Islam. Wer welchen Anteil an der Liebesgeschichte hatte, wird wohl immer ein Geheimnis bleiben. (2)]
The authorship of Elfriede von Ehrenfels—the woman on the cover— is given as certain, while the adverb “presumably” (vermutlich) suggests that Lev (Leo) Nussimbaum's role in the text's genesis only can be assumed. The slightly pejorative term “coffee-house-litterateur” (Kaffeehausliterat) describes Nussimbaum, while “publicist” (Publizistin) in German evokes intellectual seriousness and professionalism. Something similar is going on in the afterword to the Englishlanguage paperback edition of Ali and Nino, published in 2000. The afterword was penned by Dr. Heinz Barazon, a lawyer for Leela Ehrenfels, Elfriede von Ehrenfels's niece and the current copyright holder of Ali and Nino. Barazon claims that Kurban Said is a pseudonym for two people, Elfriede von Ehrenfels and Lev Nussimbaum, that the original idea for the novel may have been Nussimbaum's, and that the book is “almost certainly” the product of cooperation between the two. He concludes, “Which sections of the novel are the work of which author remains an unsolved mystery” (282). The idea that Ali and Nino is the product of the work of two authors is a rather new one. Interestingly, the English-language edition of Ali and Nino published in 1970 mentions only one author: “A man who was, by nationality, a Tartar. He escaped from his own country to Vienna and was forced to flee again when the Nazis came.
LEV NUSSIMBAUM—alias Essad Bey, alias Kurban Said—situated the eponymous hero and heroine of his 1937 novel, Ali and Nino, at linguistic, geographic, national, religious, and cultural crossroads. The love story begins in the city of Baku in the Caucasus, a region with a checkerboard of over fifty ethnicities, among them Armenians, Azeri, Daghestani, Georgians, Persians, Russians, and Turks. The Caucasus region is geographically situated along the historical borders between Europe and Asia, between Christianity and Islam, and between the Shi'ite and Sunni branches of Islam. Most of the action takes place in Azerbaijan with one significant sojourn into Persia, which in the imaginary space of the novel becomes a secluded haven isolated from political strife.
In an attempt to understand themselves, each other, and the intersecting positions they occupy, the Muslim Ali and Christian Nino must respond to and assess their constantly shifting and opposing environments against the backdrop of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. They seek and briefly find a middle ground, a utopian space of understanding and acceptance that historical reality renders impossible. One's understanding of the characters becomes more entangled still upon realization that their story was penned in German by a Jewish Azeri, Lev Nussimbaum, who converted to Islam, published under two pseudonyms, and died in Italy while fleeing the Nazis. Such complexity defies attempts to settle on a definitive interpretation of the text while demanding exchange as a prerequisite to deeper understanding: exchange between the text, its readers, and a wide range of other sources. This insistence makes Ali and Nino an ideal text for teaching textual analysis as a hermeneutic process, and for helping students develop interpretive and research skills.
As authors of this article, we come to our subject from different disciplinary (German studies and Near East studies), national (American and Iranian-Canadian), and religious (Christian and Muslim) backgrounds. Our discussions have led to our use of the novel in three very different classroom settings (a senior capstone course, taught in German, on encounters between East and West, and two junior-level courses, taught in English, on women and Islam and on women in Near East history) at two different universities.
ALI AND NINO IS A CURIOUS and most probably a rather rare example of a literary text both wittily denouncing Orientalist imagery tied to Western cultural hegemony while simultaneously weaving a tight net of Orientalist stereotypes itself when it comes to religion, gender, and race. If Edward Said had known of the novel, he would, without a doubt, have included it in his analysis to show how literary works have contributed to the emergence of the discourse of Orientalism. Also, he could have praised Ali and Nino as a predecessor of his own enterprise to critique European cultural hegemony and its basis in Orientalism. Precisely these two facets of Orientalism in Kurban Said's novel deserve a deeper analysis. I will show that the author's unmasking of Orientalism as a strategy of power is connected to an attempt to demonstrate European and Russian cultural dominance while simultaneously trying to get rid of this hegemony. However, in Ali and Nino 's treatment of masculinity and femininity, religion, and race, Orientalist stereotypes play a crucial role.
The Critique of European and Russian Cultural Hegemony and the Advocacy for Cultural Relativism
Seen through the prism of Orientalism, Ali and Nino consistently lays bare the functioning of Western claims to cultural superiority involving the construction of an inferior East. The hilarious opening scene of the novel depicting a geography lesson at the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku goes in this direction. The professor tells the pupils about the geographically undefined status of Baku, lying in between Europe and Asia, with “a self-satisfied smile on his lips” (4; Der Professor lächelte selbstgefällig, 5), introducing a clear hierarchy between the two geographical areas: “It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia” (3–4; Es hängt also gewissermaßen von Ihrem Verhalten ab, meine Kinder, ob unsere Stadt zum fortschrittlichen Europa oder zum rückständigen Asien gehören soll, 5). The pupils are first overwhelmed and then rebel. First, Ali's friend Mehmed Haidar states that he prefers to belong to Asia, and then Ali joins him (4/6).
THE GEOGRAPHY TEACHER of the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia, poses a challenge that resonates throughout Ali and Nino : “It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia” (3–4; Es hängt also gewissermaßen von Ihrem Verhalten ab, meine Kinder, ob unsere Stadt zum fortschrittlichen Europa oder zum rückständigen Asien gehören soll, 5). While the teacher's European leanings are clear, his Muslim students, Ali Khan Shirvanshir [Schirwanschir] among them, explicitly state that they see themselves as Asians. Throughout the novel, Ali Khan will not waver in his conviction. The space around him, however, is constantly changing. Whether Ali Khan likes it or not, Baku is indeed becoming Europeanized, be it through the construction of European-style villas or the arrival of European troops. Indeed, this change will also invade his private sphere, as he and his wife Nino will redecorate their house in a European manner in order for it to be suitable for diplomatic entertaining. Ultimately, Ali will die fighting the invading Russian soldiers; he cannot prevent his beloved city from being overrun. Ali's death is an inevitable result of the Europeanization of Baku. Ali's Asian space has been taken away from him.
Of course, the entire process is not linear and the space of the city is more complex than a simple Asian/European duality. Over the course of the novel, multiple spaces are opened up, spaces both European and Asian. The various settings outside Baku—Daghestan, Georgia, Persia— are clearly marked as either Asian or European. These spaces function as contrasts to Baku. Only the space of the latter is contested and appears malleable. Ali attempts to preserve this mutable space, but in the end cannot. Crucial to my argument is the modern philosophical contention that space is, indeed, transformable and produced rather than continuously existing from time immemorial. As Henri Lefebvre in his ground-breaking work The Production of Space states, “every society […] produces a space, its own space.” This cultural construction of space makes possible the multivalent spatiality of Baku in Ali and Nino.
THERE IS PLENTY TO SEE in Ali and Nino. Let us therefore have a close look at how this love story of Ali Khan Shirvanshir, a Shi'ite Azerbaijani raised in a traditional Muslim family, and Nino Kipiani, a Christian Georgian raised in a European way, deals with the oppositions between Asia and Europe, Islam and Christianity, and antiquity and modernity. Each of these paired terms depends on its counterpart and thus defines itself at the same time as it gives contour to the other. While pressures from their own cultural backgrounds compel them to embody these opposites, Ali and Nino try to overcome these differences through their love, and seek to create a lasting bond by living together despite all odds. It is their rejection of each of these single spheres that enables them to realize this aim. To be precise, Ali and Nino strive to situate themselves on the “and,” the word that conjoins these binary concepts. Yet, this delicate state of being between clearly defined states and conditions defies definition, making the space hard to grasp, pin down, see, and explain. Already in the first chapter, Ali remarks on “Baku's undecided geographical situation” (6; Die geographische Fragwürdigkeit der Stadt Baku, 8) as located somewhere between Asia and Europe. Throughout the novel, various scenes play with this juxtaposition.
To begin, the scene depicting what leads to Ali's subsequent exile in Daghestan may serve as an example. Ali chases Melik Nachararyan who has abducted Nino and plans to escape with her and several gold ingots to Moscow and later to Sweden. This scene unmistakably presents the division between Asia and Europe that the novel deals with over and over again. On the one hand, there is Nachararyan, who seeks to leave everything Asian behind, driving a European car and claiming to save Nino from being stuck in what he regards as Azerbaijani barbarity. On the other hand, there is Ali, who is tied to the Asian part of Azerbaijan and pursues Nino's abductor, riding a golden horse bred from an ancient stock referred to as the marvel of Karabagh (146/144), a symbol of honor and nobility that further serves as the archaic equivalent of Nachararyan's modern car.
WITH JUST THE TITLE OF HIS NOVEL, Ali and Nino, Kurban Said constructs the first of several binary oppositions that structure the themes and plot of the story. Upon the characters of Ali and Nino, Said stages other cultural dichotomies that characterize turn-of-the-century Baku, including Orient/Occident, Islam/Christianity, tradition/progress, ancient/modern, and male/female. It is this final dichotomy, the gender binary, that Said returns to time and time again in the novel to personify aspects of these other oppositions that are not as readily comprehended on their own. He infuses these binaries with gendered affects, emotions, and desires so that the readers can understand their magnitude. In the tradition of other narratives like Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage in Virgil's Aeneid or Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra that tell the history of the clash of two nations through the conventions of a love story, Said characterizes the themes of cultural ideology, religion, and nationalism in gendered terms. Yet, with the relatively cosmopolitan setting of Baku, Azerbaijan, where Occident and Orient meet and supposedly opposite cultures live in some degree of harmony, Said adjusts the features of this narrative convention. His story is not about the inevitable tragedy of two individuals from two irreconcilable cultures, but it is instead about the ambiguity of maintaining identity when those individuals fall in love and share spaces and traditions.
By placing the narrative perspective with Ali, Said's novel inverts the power and gender dynamics commonly associated with European novels about East/West conflicts by granting the Oriental subject interiority and control over the narrative. The Orient is given the male perspective, complete with the gendered expectations of a budding patriarch whose identity as man, Muslim, and Easterner comes into question as he is seduced by the charms and graces of the exotic, “modern” West personified by the alluring and intelligent Nino. It is my aim in this essay to explore how Kurban Said continually infuses modernity and Western ideology and culture with the seductive language of femininity. I argue that the female body becomes both the symbol of and the space upon which the question of modernization in the Orient is debated.
Isn't it enough that we Jews are viewed through English spectacles and are not allotted our place accordingly? Must we look at our own Arabic environment through their glasses, too?
IN HIS WORK ON THE CONNECTIONS between conceptualizations of India's Muslim minority and Europe's so-called Jewish question, Aamir Mufti argues that “it is in the eruption of such crises around the meaning of Jewishness [in modern Europe] that we get the earliest elaborations of minority cultural practices as a critique of dominant culture and its majoritarian affiliations.” Susannah Heschel and Christian Wiese, among others, have also suggested that modern Jewish thought can be fruitfully read as postcolonial, locating the Jew as Europe's “internal other,” in a position analogous to that of colonized peoples vis-à-vis European hegemony. In her work on Abraham Geiger, Heschel argues that the scholarly movement in which Geiger took part, known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, “is one of the earliest examples of postcolonialist writing.” According to Heschel, the texts produced by the scholars of Wissenschaft des Judentums “ were the first to call into question accepted ‘truths’ about the history of the West.” It is in light of such conceptual links between modern Jewish thought and history and (post)colonial theory and modernities that this essay approaches Ali and Nino as a novel that reflects what Ivan Davidson Kalmar has called “the long history of the joint construction of Jew and Muslim.” Jews are rarely mentioned in the novel and they are certainly not explicitly linked to Muslims in the text. Rather, it is the novel's treatment of Islam and Islamic and “Oriental” responses to the West that bares comparison to Western discourses surrounding Judaism. This essay explores the links between Ali and Nino's literary representation of modernization in the Caucasus and questions related to Jewish identity in modern Europe.
This essay endeavors to read Ali and Nino in relationship to the “Jewish question,” but in a more expansive manner than Tom Reiss's treatment of the same subject in The Orientalist. The fact that the author of Azerbaijan's “national epic” was in fact born a Jew continues to be controversial.
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