The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

The Caucasus, exemplified by its mountains and the hardy folk that dwell in them, is intrinsically a schizophrenic condition. Assertions and contradictions abound in it. Famously it is supposed to divide Europe from Asia, but nobody is quite sure where it itself belongs. Its people are riven by religion, language, tribal mores, and yet they subscribe to the same sacred creed of hospitality to all guests. Blood feuds extend across countries and time. Ancient hatreds consume the present. And casting a dark shadow over it all is the humiliation and loss, and the piecemeal degradation of its character caused by the long arm of Russia.

You see some of this schizophrenia reflected in its literature. One of the most famous works to come out of the region is Ali And Nino: A Love Story by Gurban Said. It is a beautiful novel set in a romantic early 20th century Baku, and tells the ultimately tragic tale of the love of Ali Khan Shirvanshir, an Azerbaijani Muslim, and Nino, a beautiful Georgian Christian. Many commentators have called this book a wonderful evocation of the pre-revolutionary cosmopolitan Caucasus, and extolled the accuracy of the writer's observations of the customs and culture of the period. This review, written by an Azerbaijani, calls it a glimpse into the soul of his homeland. And yet, nobody knows who Gurban Said was. There's some evidence that he might have been Lev Nussimbaum, a scion of a prominent Jewish family from Baku. Others claim that Nussimbaum was a fraudster copying stories from better writers, and that the book was really penned by Yousif Chamanzaminli, a famous Azeri writer.

Fascinatingly, this tale asserts a series of stereotypes common in the region. From an Azeri perspective, Ali Khan is a hero of staggering manliness and grace. He wins the heart of the lovely princess Nino and marries her despite opposition from all sides. Nino loves Ali, but she is not blind to the problems facing an inter-faith marriage. She can see the evident hypocrisy that promises death for Ali's sister who wants to marry out of the faith. Still, she marries Ali and is then slowly sapped of vitality by the restrictions placed on her by his family. Perhaps in succumbing to the muscular Ali, Nino represents Georgia in Azeri eyes - beautiful, yes, but ultimately a push-over.

Mediating between the two is Ali's Armenian friend, Nachararyan. Initially he claims that only intermarriage between the Muslims and the Christians could sow peace between them; later, stricken by the slaughter of his compatriots by the Turks, he decides that there is no hope, and acts in a manner most perfidious towards his old friend. The calumny here is obvious - the Armenians are to the Caucasus as the Jews are to Europe: the butt of cruelty, envy and hatred. Furthermore, Armenians and Azeris are ancient enemies, and clearly the latter see the former as treacherous, no matter how many protestations of friendship they might make.

Now this may be pointing out a superficiality in the novel. After all, the warring tribes in the Caucasus had been forced into mutual accommodation by a brutal overlord, which could have led to occasional bursts of friendship and possibly even love. Still, one can't escape the feeling that they basically hate each others guts. Gurban Said may have only meant the stereotypes ironically; possibly, overall, his narrative is accurate and representative of the times. As Wendell Steavenson, a former reporter for Time, who spent two years immersing herself in Georgia, points out in her wonderful Stories I Stole, most of the details are right, but the incidents and characters are all taken from local legend, almost as if it were a guidebook in disguise. Everything is at its most obvious, almost Caucasian cliches.

For instance, Steavenson points out that Ali's name Shirvanshir arises from the Khanate of Shirvan that ruled in Baku at the time. Nino's name is the traditional Georgian one, after St. Nino. The stories recounted by Ali are all available in 19th century travel guides, especially the ones about Imam Shamil. On the other hand, there are startling errors - Nino declares herself a Greek Orthodox Christian, which coming from a Georgian is peculiar, to say the least; Ali is said to speak Tartar, whereas his language would have been Azeri, a dialect of Turkish.

None of this, of course, takes away from the lovely tale. A perfect little gem.

From Georgia and Azerbaijan, it is but a small step to Armenia, that ancient land of poetry, milk and honey. Philip Marsden's lyrical book The Crossing Place: Journey Among the Armenians describes the lives, trials, defeats and triumphs of these people, who are still scarred from their genocide in 1915, and the loss of the centre of their spirituality and faith - Mt Ararat - to the perpetrators of that slaughter, the Turks. The Armenians, like the Jews, are an ancient race. They have been scattered across the world, and like the Jews, have established for themselves an influence entirely disproportionate to their population in almost every region they inhabit. Marsden has followed their fortunes across twenty countries with a becoming empathy and grace. However, he has let his prejudice colour his descriptions of the few Turks he meet: they appear in his eyes shifty, xenophobic, disdainful. This reminds me of the old story about a traveller arriving at a new town and asking a resident what the townfolk were like. The resident wants to know how the traveller found the people in the previous town. "Oh, they were wonderful", gushes the traveller. "Welcoming and friendly, honest and open." The resident tells him he would find this town pretty much the same. A while later, another traveller appears and asks the same resident what the townspeople are like.

"What were the people like in the last town you were in?" asks the resident.

"Oh, they were a bunch of crooks, inhospitable and cruel", says the traveller.

"Well", says the resident. "You'll find the people in this town are more or less the same."

To correct this perspective of the Turks, the mightiest among the Caucasians, read the superb Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, by Hugh Pope. Whereas only the north-eastern part of Turkey is properly in the Caucasus, the Turks and their linguistic cousins extend in a swathe across the region all the way to China. This lends them a vast influence both in geographical as well as historical terms. After all, some of the most glorious names in history are of the Turks.

After centuries of subjugating their neighbours, the Turks fell into a long weakness that lasted well into recent times. These days, however, they are resurgent again and exporting their influence far and wide, from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang. Part of this resurgence means that weaker nations are put down again. Notable among them are those who have no friends other than the mountains - the Kurds.

After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?: My Encounters With Kurdistan by Jonathan C. Randal is a moving study of the Kurdish question. The litany of betrayals and hurts faced by these redoubtable people is heart-breaking. Somehow they have struggled on and survived, and to this day, have a large share of the populations of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Expectedly, they are mistrusted and resented, and any attempt at autonomy is immediately quashed. The one high point in their history seems to have been Saladin, peerless in chivalry, conqueror of Jerusalem. But even he abandoned his Kurdishness as he settled into his sultanate. Since then, they have been assailed and scattered by greater powers, their identity denied and their culture whitewashed from history. Sadly, as with many other subjugated nations, when outsiders are not messing with them, there's internecine violence and factional strife to keep up the body count. (This book, published in 1993, is not current, meaning that the small uplift in fortunes of the Kurds (at least of those in Iraq) after the fall of Saddam Hussein has not been mentioned.)

Finally, Yo'av Karny's Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory concentrates on the Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis, Abkhaz, and other peoples racked by centuries of occupation, discord and pride, and fierce feuds, and also contains a perceptive commentary on the bigger nations, all of whom demonstrate an astounding perseverance, a dogged sense of pride, irrational pursuits of liberty. As in the Balkans, imagined or real slights centuries past continue to polarise the people in the Caucasus today. As economic units, the smaller tribes are unviable, but that doesn't prevent their constant struggle for independence (or, more usually, domination of their neighbours); tragically, during any short period of autonomy, they squander it in factional strife and corruption. Long memories of blood feuds persist, but nobody remembers those wasted opportunities. This remains the tragedy of the Caucasus today.


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