Asia and Europe; Man and Woman; Ali and Nino
“The desert doesn’t ask for anything, doesn’t give anything and doesn’t promise anything,” Kurban Said, “Ali and Nino,” Chapter 6
In the early years, when I lived in the steppes of Kazakhstan, I was deeply impressed by a film of Vasily Shukshin. I do not remember the name of the film, but I can still reproduce the scene, where the main character was lying in the forest and looking at the treetops.
What surprised me then? The height of the trees, in the camera perspective it looked like the treetops were crossed with each other. At that time, this picture even made me feel envious of Russian people, because they had a forest, but we didn’t. I even harbored a grievance against God and had a question to him: why did he have to throw us, the Poles, this far? What did he punish us for? I have long lived in the belief that we were really guilty of something, but for what – this remained a mystery to me. In the 40-s of the 20th century, the famous Polish writer Jerzy Kshishton was exiled to Kazakhstan. He also faced similar questions and doubts, and wrote about it in the Southern Cross novel (Krzyż Południa).
There are places on this planet where at times it seems that people can’t survive. Is it possible to live in the tundra, in distant Siberia, or in the desert? However, there is life there! Human being is a wonderful creation that is sometimes able to do impossible things.
Is it possible to love unconditionally? It turns out there is even a love for the desert, like in the case of Ali and his father. Love for the desert is unselfish and unconditional, because it’s love for the desert’s emptiness. In the famous novel “Ali and Nino” by Kurban Said the desert is sometimes the main character.
A desert is not a forest, which implies that there’s no shadow, no darkness, but a blinding light. It is not cool in a desert and it doesn’t feel like a vacation there, but the heat and a painful way. It is much easier to get lost in a desert than in a dark forest; it is possible to die in a desert swallowing sand and choking of it, but Ali likes it the way it is: “Desert is a gateway to a mysterious and incomprehensible world.” He is pleased that he was taking with him a bag “full of gusty desert wind and an abyss of gray sand.” (Chapter 12)
The main character, Nino, also knew that Ali loved the desert, and she was afraid of it, so she reproached him: “You love the hills, rocks and sand” (Chapter 15). The antihero of the novel, Nahararyan, also believed that Ali was a slave of the desert.
In the novel desert embodies the idea of a woman, at least because it is like a body absorbing and requiring moisture. “Let’s irrigate the land. Our land is quenched” (Chapter 16) – said one of the heroes of the novel. And this is a totally infertile woman, as no sown grain can grow in a desert. It is not that only people of Asia love desert. I knew a Pole, who studied Arab studies and dreamed of living in the desert, overlooking the emptiness without trees. However, in the novel by Kurban Said it is believed that only Eastern people can admire it.
The main character, Nino, is not able to love the desert. She is afraid of it, and Persia is hell for her. But the forest and gardens are her natural environment, where she feels like home. Once Nino admitted to Ali that she loved fields and woods. The forest here, oddly enough, represents a male, at least because it delights woman Nino. Unlike Ali, she loves trees not unconditionally, but for something. She loves it, because being in the woods, you can feel safe, you can hide from enemies, find food: berries, nuts, and so on. It is quite possible to find shelter in the forest and feel safe like in the arms of a man.
But Ali does not like the forest at all. And, certainly, it is quite understandable, because he is dealing with his symbolic male opponent, to whom his woman has a feeling of sympathy. He openly said to Nino and Nahararyanu: “I do not like trees.” In the forest, he feels as if he is surrounded. “I get tired of the shadow of forests; rustling of the leaves makes me sad,” he says (Chapter 6). This is why Nino jokes over him: “Ali Khan is afraid of forests as children are afraid of the jinn.”
Also, in the novel Dadian voices the idea that the forest is a place where the creators come from, while the desert creates fanatical people. However, it is difficult to answer the question, whether the indigenous Asians are able to love forests. I’m still not used to the desert, because I do not know it and I have never seen it, but the view of the trees from the window is necessary for my psychological comfort.
Asia and Europe
In the modern European world, the deserts of high-rise buildings, bare walls and windows are expanding, and it’s just recycled sand. Such views destroy the feeling of comfort. And, despite this, the basic landscape of Europe yet still consists of solid forest. Dense and wide forests are stretched between Poland and Germany, and on the eastern border of the country there are forests and wild bison, hence the name of the popular Polish vodka in the world: Żubrówka. Europe, though it is a feminine word in many languages, in this case represents the male principle.
This is because it is all covered with forest. It is like a beard for a man, but this is only appearance. On the inside, it has a male character; it is characterized by a moderate temperament, lack of sense of depending on anyone or anything, including on Asia. It is more contained with feelings; it’s less sophisticated than women, which manifests itself even in art and architecture. It loves to dress ascetically and conveniently, so that its legs do not get entangled in wide clothes.
Europe embodies an image of a smooth transition from the forest to the fields, which is reflected both in public and economic spheres. There is no such great difference between people in Europe as it is in Asia. For example, there is a huge difference between Ali’s uncle, his palace with a garden, roses and fountains, and poor Persians, who live behind the wall of his magnificent estate, suffering from thirst, tormented with views of the desert and continuous sand.
However, Asia embodies an image of a mysterious woman; you never know what to expect from it. A garden or an oasis may appear out of nowhere in the middle of the desert; in the most unexpected places appears a field of amazingly colorful and delicate flowers. This landscape is reflected in the soul of Asia: Asia has completely opposite emotions. She is ready to sacrifice herself, to die for her land. Like a small child, who still does not know what life is, and therefore has no fear of death, not knowing that life is not a movie, and a jump from the tenth floor will likely be fatal. Asia is afraid of changes, just like the fairer sex. “Asia is afraid of Europeanization” (chapter 24), she does not want to take a new path and change the system.
However, she often looks towards Europe. It is worth paying attention to how often the Muslims in this novel talk about Europe. The words “Asia” and “Europe” sound in the novel an infinite number of times. Muslims (ie Azerbaijanis – editor) compare Asia to Europe in order to strengthen their self-esteem. In the example given: Karabakh road, where no European car can pass, and fruits that are much tastier than in Europe. One Persian even boasts that no one has such a fine sense of aesthetics as the Persians: “The difference between a Persian and non-Persians is that only a real Persian can appreciate the true beauty” (Chapter 24).
Why does Asia compare herself to Europe? Comparisons are usually needed for people with complexes, who lack confidence. A European does not think whether he needs Asians and whether they need him: he is a selfish individualist. He decides on the qualities of his character, his Europe, trying to determine its most basic features and he does not spare words of criticism for Europe. Therefore, there are such books as “All Quiet on the Western Front” or “Native Europe” by Czeslaw Milosz. And Europe, like a fully accomplished person, is an adult and takes criticism graciously.
Oddly enough, there are very few women in the novel. The author did it in a very Muslim way. He covered their face and hid them somewhere outside of his book. Only Nino was allowed to stay without a veil. Nino has no girlfriends, and her mother very rarely appears with Nino. “I asked the daughter to not trust a wild Muslim ever in her life,” she says (chapter 13). Then she appeared in the house of Kipiani, that’s all you can know about her in the novel.
However, there are many women that appear around Nino in Persia: they are relatives of Ali. They ask her curious questions about the intimate life of the couple. They wonder how one wife can be enough for a man. They ask her how Nino makes her husband spend his time only with her. This outraged European Nino a lot. There’s nothing more to say about these women. They and Nino are two completely different worlds. Later, at the very end of the novel, in Baku, at the reception in the house of the Shirvanshirs, several Englishwomen appear with high-ranking guests.
Though there are very few women in the novel, a lot can be said about Nino. Her portrait is painted with the traditional canons of beauty: she has big eyes, white skin, slim fragile figure, causing Ali’s sense of care and protection over her. But this is not the most important thing. Ali told his father: “…[I will] marry Nino not because of her hips, and not because she knows many languages – I will marry her because I love her” (Chapter 12).
Nino also has a very classical character. She carries out primarily female tasks that society requires from a woman since the dawn of time. She takes care of her husband, washes feet to his father, and it is very difficult to imagine what she does with his great desire. It seems that European women neither then nor today would take part in such a purely oriental ritual (in the Middle Ages in Europe, there was a custom of feet washing not only to relatives, but also to distinguished guests by the women of the accepting family – Meydan TV), or else tried avoid it. She did not even want to employ the chef, whom her father in law offered to her. She takes care of the house and is fully responsible for it; she orders the furniture and wallpaper. Ali considers it as a manifestation of the complete independence of his wife.
In general, the main character obeys her husband in many ways, but she demonstrates her own will, when she refuses to wear the veil and does not want to listen to the eunuch. When she is in Persia, she visits other Europeans: the diplomats, the Georgian guests; she talks about the paintings of Rembrandt with the Dutch ambassador, and so on. Ali knew about it, but pretended not to notice. Nino also demonstrates her personality, when she enthralls her English guests, both men and women, in her Baku home, when Ali became a diplomat. You may consider her being a half European, since she is able to resist some Islamic rules, but in general she remains obedient to her husband and to customs dictated by his culture. Her eastern side is manifested in her description as a source of water: she has moist lips and she is fresh as the morning dew that can quench your thirst, but she differs from a symbolic woman of the desert, who on the contrary absorbs moisture.
In European literature there are no such images of women. The Muslims also have disagreements on women; Seid Mustafa told Ali: “A man should marry a woman he likes. But it is not necessary that she loves him”(Chapter 10). The father of the main hero has a different opinion: “You can love either your homeland or war. You know all the songs about love by Layla and Majnun, or Hafiz, gazelle’s wizard. All his life Hafiz was singing of love, but there are rumors that Hafiz had never slept with a woman. Majnun – he is actually crazy. Trust me – a man can look for a woman, but it is her who should love him. Such is the will of God” (Chapter 12).
Such differences may arise among the Europeans as well. For example, there is a jealous love of a parent, who wants his child to love only him. But purely European statements sounded in the mouth of Nino’s father, and Ali himself realized that Kipiani advocated a very different philosophy of marriage than his father, a marriage that should be based on mutual respect and trust. “The husband and wife should help each other with both deed and word. And they should always remember that they have equal rights […],” said Nino’s farther (Chapter 13). It is a purely European mindset.
The man’s world in the novel is very rich. The reader is presented with a lot of male characters of different nationalities: besides Azerbaijanis, there are Georgians, Armenians, other nationalities of the Caucasus, Persians, Russians, Englishmen, etc. Every of them are dressed in their own way, they do not express the same opinions, but all of them have something in common, which is the war. “War is a great word, it is very masculine and smells as strongly as a lancet” (Chapter 8). Men discuss military actions. And this feature is typical for all men in the world, both in Europe and Asia.
For example, in the well-known Polish epic by Adam Mickiewicz “Pan Tadeusz”, during a party men talk about hunting and at the same time discuss the struggle for independence along with Napoleon. This happens without women. In another room, women are talking about art, poetry and music. A man must be proficient in wielding a sword and a woman must be good at singing, dancing, and playing on instruments. Muslims deprived women even of this pleasure. However, in the novel men read poems by heart, a respected Persian man quoted Omar Khayyam, Ali’s uncle read some of his Rubaiyats. “We easily distinguish poetry of Dakiki from the verses of Rudaki, but we do not know how to build roads […]” (Chapter 24). And, of course, they do not have female poets (female poets Mehseti and Natavan held pride of place in the Azerbaijani poetry long before the novel was written – Meydan TV), while in Europe, in ancient Greece, there were female poets. However, Ali knew that he lived not “to admire the poetry of Ferdowsi, sighs of Hafiz and quotes of Saadi.” He often goes to the opera together with Nino or listens to it on the gramophone records. He is a very impressionable audience.
Ali is a caring husband, he feels sorry for Nino, when she is bored in Persia and when she feels sad in a foreign land. This is why he is ready to give up the benefits of Persia and the confidence in security that he had there. He gives to Nino gifts to somehow entertain her, but he is not able to give up his homeland and Baku for her. He also has a very oriental attitude to the veil, when he explains to Nino the need of these blankets for the female body [this is my comparison]. “When men see that much, they want more. It is not necessary to lead them into temptation, and that is why women are covered”(Chapter 3). Of course, this is stupid. Then why don’t Muslim males cover themselves? They can also cause a woman’s sexual desire with their handsome faces and bodies. (The author overlooks the fact that Muslims can be both men and women. The hero of the novel, Ali talks about male attraction, which, as is known, is stronger and less controllable. – Meydan TV).
So, Nino is a forest, a part of masculine Europe, but at the same time she is a woman; Ali is a desert, a part of feminine Asia, but also a man.
Our main character shows great independence in everything that is masculine: she is able to live outside of Georgia in a foreign land without parents, but she can’t do without Europe. In turn, Ali is emotionally dependent on the country, which symbolizes his mother. And only together they, Ali and Nino, can achieve perfection, get the balance between masculine and feminine, desert and forest, Asia and Europe.
The couple is the epitome of all the universal, of love, kindness, happiness and freedom. They are fighting not only for the freedom of his country, Azerbaijan, but also for personal freedom, against the will imposed on them by others: parents, Muslim society, the Bolsheviks, etc. They are truly free, “ideal people”, who have a strong will. In the past centuries, the Utopians, who hadn’t yet witnessed all the horrors of the twentieth century, were dreaming about people like Ali and Nino.
Only on this basis alone the novel can safely enter the ranks of the masterpieces of world literature, and certainly just a very romantic love story for this wouldn’t be enough. The global scope of the novel also takes due to the detailed description of the historical and political events of the early twentieth century, and in the comparisons between Asia and Europe, which is still relevant. Of course, the answers to these questions are incomplete, so the reader needs to think about the issues between Europe and Asia himself, he needs to identify their main features and the character of the historical development, decide for himself what is their essence.
Great literature only asks questions and doesn’t fully respond to them leaving it to the reader. The literature shows to the reader the way to the desert or forest, to leave him there alone creating ground for thought and reflection.
Doctoral Student of the Jagiellonian University (Krakow)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Meydan TV’s editorial policy.