It is the eve of World War I in Baku, Azerbaijan, a city on the edge of the Caspian Sea, poised precariously between east and west. Ali Khan Shirvanshir, a teenage Muslim schoolboy from a proud, aristocratic family, has fallen in love with the beautiful and enigmatic Nino Kipiani, a Christian girl with distinctly European sensibilities. To be together they must overcome blood feud and scandal, attempt a daring horseback rescue, and travel from the bustling street of oil-boom Baku, through starkly beautiful deserts and remote mountain villages, to the opulent palace of Ali’s uncle in neighbouring Persia. Ultimately the lovers are drawn back to Baku, but when war threatens their future, Ali is forced to choose between his loyalty to the beliefs of his Asian ancestors and his profound devotion to Nino.
Ali and Nino is set in between 1914-1920, and as they live in Azerbaijan and have familial connections in Georgia and Iran it’s another story where you can see a different side of the First World War and its effects on people. There’s also an Armenian character that faces hatred from some characters who can’t even explain why they hate Armenians so much – that was an interesting historical note after reading Armenian Golgotha.
I have such mixed feelings about Ali and Nino and a lot of the mixed feelings are probably because the book is successfully doing what it set out to do. So much of it is about the culture clash between Ali and Nino. They may love each other, but they both have different ideas about how a home should be run or how marriages work that they often struggle to understand one another. It’s a love story that questions if love really does conquer all when you’ve got people who have religious and cultural ideals that often seem to be in conflict. It’s the first third or so that made me the most uncomfortable but as Ali and Nino both started to mature, I could understand both their view points and their conflicts a lot better.
The religious aspect of how other male characters consider Nino and how women and wives should be treated is something that made me feel uncomfortable when reading. Ali doesn’t necessarily share the same views, but he’s young and was raised with those ideals so there’s often times you can see them there at a subconscious level. One memorable quote is a friend of Ali’s saying that “We have a proverb in our country – A woman has no more sense than an egg has hairs.” It makes my skin crawl even though based on the time period/culture it’s set in there’s a good chance that that was a common thought. When they’re in Persia, Nino chafes against the rules of the society. She can’t leave her home without wearing a veil, she can’t talk to any male guests who visit their home even if they’re her friends too, she can’t go walking around town side by side with her husband – all these customs she’s unused to and it makes her miserable.
Nino is quite a modern young woman thanks to her upbringing – or rather instead of modern, the term should be probably Western. Because that’s where a lot of Ali and Nino’s conflicts lie. Azerbaijan is a country that straddles on the border of Asia and Europe, the East and the West, and Ali and Nino are representations of that divide. As Ali says, “For me it would be just as impossible to live in Europe as it was for you to live in Asia. Let’s stay in Baku, where Asia and Europe meet.” The city of Baku seems like the perfect mix of cultures, religion, and ideals, and the description of the city paints a vivid picture. The novel is solely from Ali’s point of view and his love of his home, the city and the surrounding desert, shines through.
Azerbaijan is one of the many countries I knew nothing about before my Read the World Project – to be honest, Azerbaijan was one of those countries I only really knew of because it competed in Eurovision – and I really enjoyed seeing it through Ali’s eyes. The fact that it is such a blend of cultures due to where its situated makes it so unique and I’d be interested to learn more about what the country is like today as Ali and Nino is set 100 years ago and ends just as Azerbaijan’s independence is threatened by Russia’s expansion.
Ali and Nino is a love story but it’s so much more than that. It can be dark at times with honour killings but there’s also a lot of light to it too. The conflict over cultural ideals and the sense of belonging each character has is thought-provoking and makes their relationship all the more interesting. They both hurt each other, intentionally or not, but there’s something about their relationship that makes you hope for the best and they’ll find a middle ground on the things that threaten to push them a part. 4/5.