Thursday, February 21, 2008

BOOK: "Ali & Nino", The novel by Kurban Said

"We were a very mixed lot, we forty schoolboys
who were having a Geography lesson one hot afternoon
in the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia:
thirty Mohammedans, four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians, and one Russian".
[Blame the translator for the word 'Mohammedans'].

So begins Kurban Said's first of two novels, mostly set in the town of Baku and Persia, and generally on the cusps of Asia and Europe and war and peace, and it is in Baku that a young Muslim named Ali falls in love with a lovely Christian named Nino. Their relationship, if it is to be, must overcome many obstacles. In many ways Baku, with its multi-ethnic population, is a metaphorical marriage of East and West.

First published in Vienna in 1937, this classic story of romance and adventure has been compared to Dr. Zhivago and Romeo and Juliet. Out of print for nearly three decades until the hardcover re-release in 2000, Ali and Nino is Kurban Said's masterpiece. It is a captivating novel as evocative of the exotic desert landscape as it is of the passion between two people pulled apart by culture, religion, and war.


The Orientalist, the biography of Kurban Said, by Tom Reiss. by Tom Reiss

Part history, part cultural biography, and part literary mystery, The Orientalist traces the life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany.

Born in 1905 to a wealthy family in the oil-boom city of Baku, at the edge of the czarist empire, Lev escaped the Russian Revolution in a camel caravan. He found refuge in Germany, where, writing under the names Essad Bey and Kurban Said, his remarkable books about Islam, desert adventures, and global revolution, became celebrated across fascist Europe. His enduring masterpiece, Ali and Nino–a story of love across ethnic and religious boundaries, published on the eve of the Holocaust–is still in print today.

But Lev’s life grew wilder than his wildest stories. He married an international heiress who had no idea of his true identity–until she divorced him in a tabloid scandal. His closest friend in New York, George Sylvester Viereck–also a friend of both Freud’s and Einstein’s–was arrested as the leading Nazi agent in the United States. Lev was invited to be Mussolini’s official biographer–until the Fascists discovered his true origins. Under house arrest in the Amalfi cliff town of Positano, Lev wrote his last book–scrawled in tiny print in half a dozen notebooks never before read by anyone–helped by a mysterious half-German salon hostess, an Algerian weapons-smuggler, and the poet Ezra Pound.

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