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Ali and Nino: A Love Storyby 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.
So far we had not given much thought to the extraordinary geographical position of our town, but now Professor Sanin was telling us in his flat and uninspired way: "The natural borders of Europe consist in the north of the North Polar Sea, in the west of the Atlantic Ocean, and in the south of the Mediterranean. The eastern border of Europe goes through the Russian Empire, along the Ural mountains, through the Caspian Sea, and through Transcaucasia. Some scholars look on the area south of the Caucasian mountains as belonging to Asia, while others, in view of Transcaucasia's cultural evolution, believe that this country should be considered part of Europe. It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia."
The professor had a self-satisfied smile his lips.
We sat silent for a little while, overwhelmed by such mountains of wisdom, and the load of responsibility so suddenly laid upon our shoulders.
Then Mehmed Haidar, who sat on the back bench, raised his hand and said: "Please, sir, we should rather stay in Asia."
A burst of laughter. This was Mehmed Haidar's second year in the third form. And it looked as if he might stay there for another year, if Baku kept belonging to Asia. For a ministerial decree allows the natives of Asiatic Russia to stay in any form as long as they like.
Professor Sanin, who was wearing the gold-embroidered uniform of a Russian High School teacher, frowned: "So, Mehmed Haidar, you want to remain an Asiatic? Can you give any reason for this decision?"
Mehmed Haidar stepped forward, blushed, but said nothing. His mouth was open, his brow furrowed, his eyes vacant. And while four Armenians, two Poles, three Sectarians and one Russian were highly delighted by his stupidity, I raised my hand and said: "Sir, I too would rather stay in Asia."
"Ali Khan Shirvanshir! You too! All right, step forward."
Professor Sanin pushed his lower lip out and silently cursed the fate that had banished him to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Then he cleared his throat and said pompously: "You at least can give us a reason?"
"Yes, I rather like Asia."
"Oh you do, do you? Well, have you ever been in really backward countries, in Teheran, for instance?"
"Oh yes, last summer."
"There you are. And have you found there any of the great acquisitions of European culture, for instance motor-cars?"
"Oh yes, very great ones indeed. Holding thirty and more people. They don't go through the town, only from one place in the country to the other."
"These are called autobuses, and they are in use because there are no railways. This is reactionary. Sit down, Shirvanshir."
I knew the thirty Asiatics were jubilant, they showed it by the way they looked at me. Professor Sanin kept angrily silent. He was supposed to make his pupils into good Europeans. Suddenly he asked: "Well-have any of you been to Berlin for instance?" It was not his day-the Secretarian Maikov raised his hand and said he had been to Berlin when he was a small boy. He remembered vividly a musty spooky Underground, a noisy railway and a ham sandwich his mother had prepared for him. We thirty Mohammedans were deeply indignant. Seyd Mustafa even asked to be allowed to leave the room, as the word "ham" made sick. And that was the end of our discussion about Baku and its geographical situation.
The bell rang. Relieved, Professor Sanin left the room. Forty pupils rushed out. It was the big break and there were three things one could do: run into the courtyard and start a fight with the pupils of the adjoining school, because they wore gold cockades and buttons on their school uniforms, while we had to be content with silver ones, or talk amongst ourselves in a loud voice in Tartar, because the Russians could not understand it and it was therefore strictly forbidden-or cross the street quickly and slip into the Girl's Lyceum of the Holy Queen Tamar. This I decided to do. The girls strolled about in the garden, wearing chaste blue dress-uniforms and white aprons. My cousin Aishe waved to me. She was walking hand in hand with Nino Kipiani, and Nino Kipiani was the most beautiful girl in the world. When I told the girls of my geographical battle the most beautiful girl in the world looked down the most beautiful nose in the world and said: "Ali Khan, you are stupid. Thank God we are in Europe. If we were in Asia they would have made me wear the veil ages ago, and you couldn't see me." I gave in. Baku's undecided geographical situation allowed me to go on looking into the most beautiful eyes in the world. I left the girls and dejectedly played truant for the rest of the day. I looked at the camels, at the sea, thought of Europe and Asia, of Nino's lovely eyes and was sad. A beggar approached me, his face and hands rotten with disease. I gave him money, he made to kiss my hand, but I was frightened and snatched it away. Ten minutes later it occurred to me that this had been an insult, and for two hours I ran around looking for him, so I could put it right. But I could not find him, and went home with a bad conscience. All this had been five years ago.
During these years many things had happened. A new headmaster had arrived, who liked to grab our collars and shake us, because it was strictly forbidden to box the pupils' ears. Our religious instructor explained at great length how merciful Allah had been to let us be born into the Mohammedan faith. Two Armenians and one Russian joined, and two Mohammedans were not with us any more: one because he, in his sixteenth year, had married, the other because during the holidays he had been killed in a blood-feud. I, Ali Khan Shirvanshir, had been three times to Daghestan, twice to Tiflis, once in Kislovodsk, once in Persia to stay with my uncle, and I was nearly kept down for another year because I did not know the difference between the Gerundium and the Gerundivium. My father went for advice to the Mullah at the mosque, who declared that all this Latin was just vain delusion. So my father put on all his Turkish, Persian and Russian decorations, went to see the headmaster, donated some chemical equipment or other, and I passed. A notice had been put up in the school stating that pupils were strictly forbidden to enter school premises with loaded revolvers, telephones were installed in town, and Nino Kipiani was still the most beautiful girl in the world.
Now all this was coming to an end, the final exam was only one week away, and I sat at home and pondered on the futility of Latin tuition on the coast of the Caspian Sea. I loved my room on the second floor of our house. Dark carpets from Buchara, Ispahan and Koshan covered the walls. The patterns represented gardens and lakes, woods and rivers, as the carpet weaver had seen them with his inner eye, unrecognisable to the layman, breathtakingly beautiful to the connoisseur. Nomad women in far-away deserts collected the herbs for these colours from wild thorny bushes. Long slender fingers squeezed out the juice. The secret of blending these delicate colours is hundreds of years old. Often it takes then a decade for the weaver to finish his work of art. Then it hangs on the wall, full of secret symbols, allusions, hunting scenes, knights fighting, with one of Firdausi's verses, or a quotation from the works of Sa'adi in ornamental script running at the sides. Because of these many rugs and carpets the room looks dark. There is a low divan, two small stools inlaid with mother-of pearl, many soft cushions, and among all this, very disturbing and very unnecessary, books of Western knowledge: chemistry, physics, trigonometry-foolish stuff, invented by barbarians, to create the impression that they are civilised. I closed the books and went up to the flat roof of the house. From there I could see my world, the massive wall of the town's fortress and the ruins of the palace, Arab inscriptions at the gate. Through the labyrinth of streets camels were walking, their ankles so delicate that I wanted to caress them. In front of me rose the squat Maiden's Tower, surrounded by legends and tourist guides. And behind the tower the sea began, the utterly faceless, leaden, unfathomable Caspian Sea, and beyond, the desert-jagged rocks and scrub: still, mute, unconquerable, the most beautiful landscape in the world. I sat quietly on the roof. What was it to me that there were other towns, other roofs and other landscapes. I loved the flat sea, the flat desert and the old town between them. The noisy crowd who come looking for oil, find it, get rich and leave again are not the real people of Baku. They don't love the desert.
The servant brought tea. I drank it and thought of the exam. It did not worry me. Surely I would pass. But even if not, it would not really matter. The farmers of our estates would say that I could not tear myself away from the House of Wisdom. And indeed it would be a pity to leave school. The grey uniform with its silver buttons, epaulettes and cockade was very smart. I would feel degraded in civilian clothes. Not that I should wear them for long. Only for one summer and then-then I would go to Moscow to the Lazarev Institute for Oriental Languages. I had decided this myself, for there I would be miles ahead of the Russians. It would be very difficult indeed for them to learn all the things that are second nature to me. And the uniform of the Lazarev Institute is the best of all: red coat, gold collar, a slender gilt sword, and kid gloves even on weekdays. A man has to wear a uniform, or the Russians despise him. And if the Russians despise me Nino will not take me for her husband. But I must marry Nino, even though she is a Christian. Georgian women are the most beautiful in the world. And if she refuses? Well, then I'll get some gallant men, throw her across my saddle, and off we go over the Persian border to Teheran. There she will give in, what else can she do? Life was beautiful and simple, seen from the roof of our house in Baku.
Kerim, the servant, touched my shoulder. "It is time," he said. I rose. On the horizon, beyond the Island of Nargin, a steamboat appeared. If one could trust a printed slip of paper, delivered by the Christian telegraph messenger, then my uncle was on that boat with his three wives and two eunuchs. I was to meet him. I ran down the stairs to the waiting carriage. Quickly we drove to the noisy port.
My uncle was a person of distinction. Shah Nasr-ed-Din had graciously bestowed upon the title Assad-ed-Dawleh-"Lion of the Empire," and now no one was allowed to address him in any other form. He had three wives, many servants, a palace in Teheran and big estates in Mazendaran. He came to Baku because one of his wives, little Zeinab, was ill. She was only eighteen, and my uncle loved her more than his other wives. But she could not have any children, and just from her my uncle wanted an heir. Neither the amulets given to her by the dervishes of Kerbela, nor the magic words of the wise men of Meshed, nor the old women of Teheran, experienced as they might be in the arts of love, had helped her. She had even made the journey to Hamadan. There stands, hewn from the red stone, the giant statue of a lion, staring forever across the vast desert with strange, mysterious eyes. It was erected by old, half-forgotten kings. For many centuries women have made the pilgrimage to this lion, kissed his mighty member and hoped for motherhood and the blessing of children. Poor Zeinab had not been helped by the lion.
Now she was coming to Baku, seeking the skill of Western doctors. Poor Uncle! He had to take along the two other wives, old and unloved as they were. For thus custom decrees: "You may have one, two, three or four wives, if you treat them equally." Treating them equally means giving the same to all, for instance a journey to Baku.
But really all this had nothing to do with me. The women's place is in the anderun, in the inner part of the house. A well-brought-up man does not talk of them, nor does he enquire after them or ask to give them his regards. They are a man's shadow, even if the man only feels happy in the shadow. This is good and wise. We have a proverb in our country: "A woman has no more sense than an egg has hairs." Creatures without sense must be watched, lest they bring disaster on themselves and others. I think this is a wise rule.
The little steamboat came to the landing stage. Hairy-chested broadly-built sailors put up the accommodation ladder. Passengers hurried out: Russians, Armenians, Jews, quickly, hastily, as if it were important not to lose a single minute. My uncle did not show himself. "Haste comes from the devil," he would say. Only after all other travellers had left did the neat figure of the "Lion of the Empire" appear on deck. He wore a coat with silk lapels, a small black fur cap, and slippers. His broad beard and his nails were tinted with henna, in memory of the Martyr Hussein's blood shed a thousand years ago for the true faith. His eyes were small and tired and his movements slow. Behind him, visibly agitated, walked three figures, sheathed in black veils: the wives. Then came the eunuchs: one with a face like a wise dried-up lizard, the other small, bloated and proud because he was the guardian of His Excellency's honour. Slowly my uncle descended. I embraced him, reverently kissing his left shoulder, though strictly speaking this was not necessary in a public place. I did not waste a glance on the wives. We stepped into the carriage. Wives and eunuchs followed in covered equipages. Our entourage was such an impressive sight that I ordered the driver to make a detour along the Esplanade, so the town might admire my uncle's splendour.
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