I read this just after it was published in the US (late 1990’s), and again in 2003, and again this week. This time, however, I did a bit more research on the authorship of the book—much of which is in question. It seems that the book may have about 5 authors, or at least 5 people who have a hand in its writing. It also appears as though much of it was lifted from a novel called Snake Skin published in 1928 (Ali and Nino was originally published in Vienna in 1937). Though shrouded in mystery—and perhaps plagiarism—the essence of the story remains as compelling as the first two times I read it. This Romeo and Juliet-esque story takes place prior to and during WWI, in Baku, Azerbaijan, an oil-rich city on the shores of the Caspian Sea, an area situated between (and often controlled by) the Russian empire, the Ottoman empire, and Persia. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out precisely who controlled what area and when. But since it changed every few years, I found it overwhelming to try to keep track. And keeping track, took me away from the story.
In the words of every other reviewer, this is an East/West story. Ali is Muslim and loves his Asian world in the old city of Baku. But he is also in love with his childhood schoolmate, Nino, a Christian from Georgia. In this area of the Causases, where Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan meet, and where wealthy kids are educated in Russian schools, it’s not terribly unusual for a Muslim boy and a Christian girl to fall in love. And so we become a part of their story, watching them navigate the murky waters custom, religion, and culture. When war comes to Baku, they escape to Persia where Nino has to live in a harem, but refuses to wear the veil and refuses to obey her eunuch. And later, when they are back in Baku, part of a newly independent Azerbaijan, Nino decorates their house in the European fashion, but when Ali is offered a job in Paris (where she has longed to live), she agrees to pass it up and stay in Baku where she can have her European house and Ali can stay in his Asiatic world. So they compromise, and they manage to blend their two worlds in this fairy tale of a story.
Having read this right after finishing Infidel created an interesting juxtaposition. Many of the same Quran teachings are in both books, but the world of Ali and Nino and less black and white. Likely, education has much to do with this difference. Still, Ali’s father says, “Nino is a Christian. Do not let her bring the foreign faith into our home. A woman is a fragile vessel. That is important to know. Do not beat her when she is pregnant. But never forget: you are the master, and she lives in your shadow.” So we see the same message in both books, but Ali—perhaps because he is in love—chooses not to follow much of his father’s advice Yet, he chooses to stay in Baku to fight for his country and his faith rather than flee to Paris with Nino and their child. While he often leans in Nino’s European direction, ultimately, he is Asiatic and Muslim at heart, and he cannot give that up for her.