Vol. 4, No. 3 (February 01, 2011)

Not just a question of authorship: A literary excavation into Ali and Nino

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Every nation has at least one piece of literature by which its people and others immediately recognize its nature.  Russia has Yevgeny Onegin, the United States has Huckleberry Finn, and France has The Red and the Black.  Azerbaijan has a similarly iconic novel through the pages of which everyone can view that nation, but unlike the others, its literary masterpiece has followed a more complicated path to its readers than have the others, a reflection of the complicated history of Azerbaijan in the twentieth century.  That book is Kurban Said’s Ali and Nino, a love story between an Azerbaijani youth and a Georgian princess set against the violent upheavals of revolutions in the Caucasus in 1920.

Originally published in German in 1937, the book has since appeared in more than 100 editions in more than 30 languages, attracting an audience around the world and causing Azerbaijanis to instantly recognize themselves and others to understand what Azerbaijanis are.  While everyone knew that “Kurban Said” was a pseudonym—most but not all the editions helpfully pointed that out—few readers beyond the small expert literary community gave much thought to the author: the story was too true and whoever wrote it had both extraordinary literary talents and an amazing insight into the nature of Azerbaijanis and the remarkable world of Baku nearly a century ago. 

That all changed six years ago when Tom Reiss, an American writer, published a book entitled The Orientalist, which argued that Lev Nussinbaum (1905-1942), who often used the pen name Essad Bey, was the creator of Ali and Nino.  Reiss’s book attracted a great deal of attention in the West and also in Azerbaijan, where many had long believed that the author of the great novel was in fact Yusuf Vazir Chamanzaminli (1887-1942), a gifted Azerbaijani writer and diplomat who perished in Stalin’s GULAG.  And challenged by Reiss’s claim, these people, who included aging relatives of the author and Azerbaijani literary scholars, spoke out in defense of Chamanzaminli.

That debate has now been chronicled, expanded and, in the minds of many settled, as a result of the work of the indefatigable efforts of Betty Blair, the editor of Azerbaijan International in the current issue of that magazine. [1]

Drawing on the memories and insights of dozens of Azerbaijanis, ranging from surviving relatives of Chamanzaminli to literary experts to ordinary people concerned about the fate of their nation, Blair concludes that behind the pseudonym Kurban Said was a composite person just as complicated as Azerbaijani history has been: that the basic story was written by Chamanzaminli but that Nussinbaum/Essad Bey or someone else had added many parts to the novel before it reached its readers.

Such a both/and rather than either/or approach may not satisfy the extreme partisans on either side, but it is almost certainly the most just.  On the one hand, as the articles and memoir materials in Azerbaijan International make clear, Chamanzaminli had both the literary technique and the personal experience in Baku both generally and with interethnic families to allow him to come up with this story; while on the other hand, Nussinbaum/Essad Bey left Baku as a teenager and wrote a series of books which showed great skill in attracting publicity but often featured passages that do not square with reality.

Many people are likely to read this issue of Azerbaijan International only for the information it casts on this dispute, but that would be a mistake.  This excavation of Azerbaijani literary life in fact provides an insight into the history of Azerbaijan, both at the time the novel is set and in the years since, including the period after the recovery of independence in1991.  This issue is filled with information not only on the authors involved but rather on the entire range of life in Baku nearly a century ago and on the nature of Azerbaijaniness and the Azerbaijani experience.

At one point in the issue (page 20), Betty Blair provides a summary which is far more precise than any this writer could give.  She says of the issue that “the result [of her efforts and those of the others involved in this volume] is insight—not only into the authors under investigation—but into the world in which the novel was set, Azerbaijan and Europe in the early 20th century, characterized by the chaos brought on by the collapse of empires, the rise of authoritarian systems, and the desperation of confused, impoverished refugees and citizens, struggling to survive.”

Consequently, just like Ali and Nino, this issue of Azerbaijan International must be required reading for all those who care not only about Azerbaijan but about the human condition in our time.


[1] “Ali and Nino, The Business of Literature, Who Wrote Azerbaijan’s Most Famous Novel?”, Azerbaijan International 15:2-4, 2011 [364 pages].