Issue 4, 2017. August-September

   

ALI AND NINO: A LITERARY "WHODUNIT"

Anyone who goes to the Caucasus should read the novel Ali and Nino. It is a remarkable story, now a movie, which takes place between Baku, Azerbaijan, and Tbilisi, Georgia, before and during the October Revolution in the Russian Empire. This is a story of the beautiful and romantic love between Nino, a Christian girl from Tbilisi, and Ali, a Muslim Azerbaijani of noble origin. A history of love fighting to be free from prejudice and national or religious barriers-it's a story for our times.

Tatjana Montik

You can read this fascinating novel in one sitting. More intriguing, however, is the literary detective mystery involving the real author of the book. With every new investigation and revelation, a fascinating story reveals new twists as interesting as the novel itself.


The Story of Kurban Said

For many years the author of Ali and Nino was believed to be Kurban Said, a pseudonym said to belong to Essad Bey, alias Lev Nussimbaum, the author of numerous books, novels and biographies popular during his lifetime. He was born in Kiev in 1905 to a wealthy Jewish family, and converted to Islam at 17.

He spent his childhood in Baku as the son of a rich oil baron, then, in 1918, after the Russian Revolution, he and his father managed to escape the violence in Azerbaijan through Turkmenistan and Iran. They continued on to Germany and Austria and, eventually, Nussimbaum moved to Italy, where he lived until his death at age 37 from a rare blood disease.

The entity known as "Kurban Said" helped to register a friend of Nussimbaum's, the Austrian Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels, because during the Third Reich it was impossible for Jews to register or publish books in Germany or Austria. Ali and Nino was first published in German in 1937 in Vienna. After its first translation into English in the early 1970s, the book became internationally popular worldwide and has been translated into 37 foreign languages. In 2005, an American writer, Tom Reiss, wrote The Orientalist, about the unusual life story of Nussimbaum.

Mystery Surrounding the Author

There is a lot of mystery surrounding the identity of the author of Ali and Nino. Understandably perhaps, for Azerbaijan-especially after it had emerged from the Soviet sphere in in 1991-it seemed much more appropriate if the author was of Azeri origin.
In 2011, an American magazine called Azerbaijan International (AI) conducted a study to determine the real author of this novel. Betty Blair, the publisher of AI, claims she was inspired by pure curiosity, because prior to releasing the issue of the magazine dedicated to Ali and Nino, "We wanted to recheck some Azerbaijani scientists' research, according to which the author of the novel Ali and Nino was not Lev Nussimbaum, but an Azerbaijani, Yuzif Vazir Chamanzaminli."

The AI study was conducted in ten languages and included the countries of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Italy, Austria, Germany, Georgia and Iran. About 60 people were interviewed, including Tbilisi-based scholars Zaza Aleksidze and Tamar Injia, as well as descendants of the Austrian Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels. At the Institute of Manuscripts in Baku, Chamanzaminli's diaries and stories were found to contain evidence of his contacts with German publishers and the family documents of Lev Nussimbaum. As a result of the research, which lasted several years, AI unexpectedly came to the conclusion that, most likely, the author of Ali and Nino was not Lev Nussimbaum, but the Azerbaijani writer Chamanzaminli. "At least, according to the magazine, the records of Chamanzaminli, as well as many facts from his biography, testify to this," Blair said.

Chamanzaminli was an Azeri writer, statesman, historian and folklorist from a noble Azeri family. His real name was Yuzif Mirbaba oghlu Vazirov and he was born in 1887 in the town of Shusha.

From 1919 to 1920 Chamanzaminli was the first ambassador of independent Azerbaijan to Turkey, after which he immigrated to France where his brother lived. He returned in 1926 to find his country brutally Sovietized by the Bolsheviks. He began teaching languages and translated some Russian works into Azeri. He wrote several novels under his pen-name of Chamanzaminli and, in 1937, he was repressed during the Stalinists purges and accused of being a counter-revolutionary. Just before his arrest, he burned many of his manuscripts. He died in the Soviet Gulag in 1942.

Shared Destiny

Even though they were of different ages and origins, Chamanzaminli and Nussimbaum had similar destinies. They had wandered around the world after the tragic events following the collapse of the Russian Empire, trying to find themselves again.

Betty Blair explained: "Four empires of the six empires in the world collapsed during the years 1910-1930. We've got the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire collapsing. So you have an incredible influx of refugees into capital cities, especially in Europe. How are they going to survive? How do they take it intellectually? A 50-year-old man from one of these countries has his own language and is able to use it. What do you do if you come to Germany or to London? He has no language skills or networks, and he is hungry."

Chamanzaminli's story Notebook of a Refugee narrates the grave sort of emigrants to France who were forced to sell the fruits of their labor for nothing.

"... I had been fired from my job at the factory, and since then I wasn't able to find a new job. Hunger was exhausting me... I worked in a village for five months. My employer used to wake me at 5 o'clock every morning. I looked after eight horses and fifteen cows. After cleaning them, he would send me into the fields where I would work until 8 o'clock in the evening. In addition to meals, he gave me five francs, which I spent on cigarettes and haircuts," Chamanzaminli wrote.

Blair and her team believe that this was the path by which the Chamanzaminli diaries fell into the hands of Lev Nussimbaum. The publisher probably believed it was Nussimbaum because he already had a decent literary career under the name Essad Bey. According to the authors of the study, Nussimbaum received and read from his German agent, Werner Schendel, manuscripts of unknown and unpublished authors, many of whom, like Chamanzaminli, were emigrants. In one of Nussimbaum's letters, he even warns Schendel against printing so many books at the same time, because "this can lead to suspicion of being too prolific."

Blair notes, however that it cannot be denied that Lev Nussimbaum worked on Ali and Nino: "It is not to say that Nussimbaum does not have his fingers in the book. His fingers are clearly in that book. He is a 'cut and paste' author. You take it here, cut and paste it there, into the next book. This is what Lev Nussimbaum did. And we can see the similarity-Yes, his fingerprints are clearly in this book; he was part of it."

Following the Footsteps of Ali and Nino

To establish the truth, more work is required in the literary archives of Germany and Austria. The copyright on the novel still belongs to the heirs of the Austrian Baroness and this complicates the situation, despite the fact that Elfriede Ehrenfels herself never claimed any monetary benefit during her lifetime. In her private correspondence she stated that she did not write this novel.

An eccentric man and a self-created myth, Lev Nussimbaum was undoubtedly a very talented and successful writer. No wonder he still has a lot of fans around the world. One of them is the German book publisher and collector of Ali and Nino novels, Hans-Juergen Maurer from Frankfurt am Main. Maurer is probably one of the greatest experts on the novel. He has 138 copies of Ali and Nino in his collection, as well as other books written by Essad Bey, including several with the author's handwritten signature. Although he has been obsessed by this novel for ten years, Maurer visited Baku for the first time only last May to follow the footsteps of Ali and Nino. I met him at the bookstore "Ali and Nino" at the Square of Fountains.

"My goal is a complete bibliography of the novel Ali and Nino," he said.

"I want to create a complete overview of when and in which language this book was published. In Baku, I was looking for a 1972 radio manuscript. It is a translation of the novel from Turkish into Azerbaijani written specifically for Radio Liberty in Munich to be broadcast to Azerbaijan. I found this manuscript in the national archives," he said.

Taking into account the publication history of the novel, one conclusion appears obvious: the story of the authorship of Ali and Nino is, among other things, highly politicized. Hans-Juergen tells an interesting story about what happened after this novel was published in English in 1971 by Random House.

After the first English printing of the novel, press reviews were published immediately. Hans-Juergen tells me a story about two Azerbaijani immigrants, Yusif Kahraman und Mustafa T├╝rkekul, who read these reviews and then immediately bought the book and were amazed at how truthfully and precisely places, names of famous families, and many historical details were described in it. They began to try and solve the riddle of who Kurban Said was.

After putting all the facts together that they knew about Azerbaijan during that period, and about Yuzif Vazirov, they concluded that the real author was Yuzif Vazir Chamanzaminli. Via the immigrant information grapevine, this information was soon leaked into Soviet Azerbaijan.

In the USSR, the book was banned, as it carried an ardent-though-underlying anti-Soviet message. In the storyline, a common theme is the idea that the guarantee of happiness for the main characters is the establishment of an independent Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan. Chamanzaminli's family, residing in Baku, immediately encountered serious problems with the KGB and appealed to Baku scholars to prove their father had not written the novel.

The scholars began research, led by Azeri linguist Abas Samanov and helped by his friend and German translator, Achmed Schmiede. "They surmised that Essad Bey and Chamanzaminli could not possibly have met in Europe and that they also could not even have met because the Azerbaijani writer was much older than Nussimbaum. In addition, they studied the stylistic means used in the novel, and came to the conclusion that Chamanzaminli was not the author of the novel," Hans-Jurgen explains.

After this the family was left in peace, according to Maurer, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, "the Iron Curtain fell and everything turned upside down. Chamanzaminli's family began to assert that the author of Ali and Nino was indeed their father," Hans-Juergen Maurer explains.

Ali and Nino, as well as the history of the book's author, will still challenge historical researchers for years to come. Disputes and questions continue to arise about the true author of the novel, and include studies in Georgia by Tbilisi scholars Zaza Aleksidze and Tamar Injia. They point out that in Ali and Nino, Essad Bey borrowed entire passages from a book by the Georgian writer Grigol Robakidze. Unfortunately, the original Ali and Nino manuscript has never been found, so it is difficult to judge how much Essad Bey brought to the novel, how much he borrowed, or whether he can be accused of plagiarism.

The story around the authorship of Ali and Nino contains many mysteries and still causes fierce controversy in literary circles around the world.

In Baku, the owner of the bookstore chain Ali and Nino, Nigar Kocharli, stated: "If a person did not want his authorship to be known, he did everything so no one would reveal who he really was. Exactly 80 years ago this man wrote his manuscript, left it and then disappeared. He did not want us to know who he was, and I think we should treat his decision with respect. Let this remain forever a secret."

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