I am a bit ambivalent towards Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said. I think it is a well-written book and well-crafted story, but I am not sure I liked it. The story is a love story between a Mohammedan young man and a Christian, Georgian young woman in Baku, Azerbaijan, and is about the conflict between East and West (or Asia and Europe) between these two individuals and more generally. It takes place during WWI and the characters are at times very distant from the war and at times in the middle of it. The overall sense of the book is dreamy, timeless, and poignant. This sense comes through in the subject matter but also very much in the writing and choice of words. A sample passage that vividly conveys the contrast between Asia and Europe:
Camels came into town from the desert, with long sad steps, carrying sand in their yellow hair, looking far into the distance, with eyes that had seen eternity. They were carrying guns on their humps, the barrels hanging down their side, crate with ammunition and guns: loot from the big battles.
I felt that the book was very much Ali’s story: he tells it in the first person, and it centers on his thoughts, feelings, and conflicts. The ending in particular is focused entirely on Ali and his ultimate decision to stay with the East rather than go to the West. Nino as a character is much less well-developed; it is almost as if she is there only as the counterpoint to Ali. I think this is where I start to feel ambivalent towards the book. The male-centric focus goes beyond it simply being Ali’s story and not Nino’s: the traditional Islamic views towards women are mentioned several times, and in a way that made me feel that the author took these views seriously, even though Ali did not (always).
I am glad I read Ali and Nino, even if I am not sure I liked it. I enjoyed it for the writing and the tightly crafted story, and it exposed me to a different culture and a part of the world whose geography and history I was unfamiliar with.