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8 - “Herr Professor, Please: We'd Rather Stay in Asia”: Ali Khan Shirvanshir and the Spaces of Baku

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 August 2017

Kamaal Haque
Affiliation:
PhD in German and Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis
Carl Niekerk
Affiliation:
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Cori Crane
Affiliation:
Duke University, North Carolina
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Summary

THE GEOGRAPHY TEACHER of the Imperial Russian Humanistic High School of Baku, Transcaucasia, poses a challenge that resonates throughout Ali and Nino : “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” (3–4; Es hängt also gewissermaßen von Ihrem Verhalten ab, meine Kinder, ob unsere Stadt zum fortschrittlichen Europa oder zum rückständigen Asien gehören soll, 5). While the teacher's European leanings are clear, his Muslim students, Ali Khan Shirvanshir [Schirwanschir] among them, explicitly state that they see themselves as Asians. Throughout the novel, Ali Khan will not waver in his conviction. The space around him, however, is constantly changing. Whether Ali Khan likes it or not, Baku is indeed becoming Europeanized, be it through the construction of European-style villas or the arrival of European troops. Indeed, this change will also invade his private sphere, as he and his wife Nino will redecorate their house in a European manner in order for it to be suitable for diplomatic entertaining. Ultimately, Ali will die fighting the invading Russian soldiers; he cannot prevent his beloved city from being overrun. Ali's death is an inevitable result of the Europeanization of Baku. Ali's Asian space has been taken away from him.

Of course, the entire process is not linear and the space of the city is more complex than a simple Asian/European duality. Over the course of the novel, multiple spaces are opened up, spaces both European and Asian. The various settings outside Baku—Daghestan, Georgia, Persia— are clearly marked as either Asian or European. These spaces function as contrasts to Baku. Only the space of the latter is contested and appears malleable. Ali attempts to preserve this mutable space, but in the end cannot. Crucial to my argument is the modern philosophical contention that space is, indeed, transformable and produced rather than continuously existing from time immemorial. As Henri Lefebvre in his ground-breaking work The Production of Space states, “every society […] produces a space, its own space.” This cultural construction of space makes possible the multivalent spatiality of Baku in Ali and Nino.

Type
Chapter
Information
Approaches to Kurban Said's Ali and Nino
Love, Identity, and Intercultural Conflict
, pp. 152 - 167
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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