Where's the book?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Love means never having to take the veil

It’s an old story: star-crossed lovers from different worlds meet, love, part, perish. When Shakespeare penned it, he pitted the Capulets against the Montagues. When Erich Segal did it (did you get dizzy from that sudden change in cultural altitude?) in Love Story, he teamed fancy-pants-rich boy Oliver Barett IV with other-side-of-the-tracks Jenny Cavilleri (a vowel on the end of her name! heavens!). And, of course, there are those Jets and Sharks pirouetting around Tony and Maria from when Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim did it.

I’m talking about the old story of star-crossed lovers, of course, and book number 19 spotlights two of them: Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said.

I had read a book about the author of Ali and Nino. The Orientalist, by Tom Reiss, claims that Kurban Said was born Lev Nussinbaum, a Jew from oil-rich Baku, capital of Azerbijain. Reiss's research revealed that Nussinbaum converted to Islam and wrote under the name Essad Bey and, later, Kurban Said. But the introduction to my 1999 edition of Ali and Nino begins, “This remarkable book has a strange and cloudy history…” and claims the book was co-authored by two people—Bey and the Austrian Baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels. After all his work, Reiss may take exception to the description of the book's history as “strange and cloudy”; I, on the other hand, take exception to the adjective, “remarkable.”

Set mostly in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, during the years of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the book tells the story of a wealthy Muslim boy, Ali, who falls in love with a Christian Georgian princess, Nino. But it’s really the story of contradiction and attempted reconciliation between old world and new, Islam and Christianity, male and female, and, ultimately East and West.

A mixed marriage in 1900 Baku
Ali is dark, Nino is blonde. Ali’s world is one of blood bonds and eunuchs, devishes and harems; Nino’s one of opera houses and Paris fashions. On the even of their marriage, Ali’s father advises him: “Do not beat her when she is pregnant.” Nino’s father tells him: “Man and wife must never forget that they have equal rights and that their souls are their own.”

The conflict between East and West seems relevant today, nearly a century after its time. At one point, Ali flees to the mountains of Dagestan, a land I had never heard of up until the recent coverage of the lives of the Boston Marathon bombers. At one point in the story, Ali and Nino argue about whether or not she will wear a veil after they are wed. The features of a woman, Ali informs her, should only please her husband: “An open face, a naked back, a bosom half uncovered, transparent stockings on slender legs—all these are promises which a woman must keep. A man who sees as much as that wants to see more. To save the man from such desires, that is why women wear the veil.”

It’s all our fault ladies. We’ve just got to protect those guys from their own beastly urges. I’m unwrapping my burqa as I write.

But despite some interesting moments, the book as a whole left me—well, maybe not cold, but lukewarm. The melodramatic violins-and-handkerchiefs style did not jerk my tears, it tried my patience. In the end, Ali and Nino felt more like different sides of an old argument rather than flesh-and-blood lovers whose passion tries to overcome a great divide. I’ll stick with Healthcliff and Cathy. 

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