“More than 100 years before militant Islamist gunmen murdered journalists at France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, another magazine very similar in style was playing an important role among the Muslim populations of both the Russian and Persian empires. Azerbaijani weekly magazine Molla Nasreddin was revolutionary for its time, bravely ridiculing clerics and criticising the political elite as well as the Russian Tsar and the Shah of Persia.”
Konul Khalilova, “How Muslim Azerbaijan had satire years before Charlie Hebdo,” BBC, Feb. 27, 2015
With the memory of the Charlie Hebdo shooting still raw, the BBC ran a story about a daring satirical magazine that ran from 1906 until 1931 in Azerbaijan. The next day, Soyuz Symposium attendees, UW students, faculty and community members, gathered in Kane Hall to hear New York University’s Anthropology Professor Bruce Grant talk about the 100-year-old publication, Molla Nasreddin, and its founder, Jalil Mammadguluzadeh.
Grant, who finds the journal Molla Nasreddin to be among the most remarkable satirical works of the 20th century, took issue with the BBC article. The BBC piece, full of cartoons from the magazine, painted a picture of the publication as poking fun at conservative Muslim and Christian traditions and a society where women’s rights were nonexistent. Grant told the audience in the Walker-Ames room that the BBC’s portrayal of the journal experience is typical of modern day coverage of it, but in fact Molla Nasreddin was about much more than just laughter.
Instead, it was about sense-making through imperial rule, centralized authority and other upheaval in the Caucasus. The satirical journal continually tackled difficult topics through “indirect speech, ambiguities, and of course laughter,” Grant said.
A specialist in cultural history and politics in the former Soviet Union, Siberia and the Caucasus, Grant focused his scholarly work on Azerbaijan in the 1990s when people in the region had to come to grips with a phenomenon he calls “rupture of signification” especially in scenes of violence. To illustrate the term, Grant gave a vivid example of an anecdote from his own memory: A human rights activist was stabbed in front of witnesses, but was told by authorities he was the one who did the stabbing and was jailed for the assault.
This disconnect between experienced reality and authoritative speech is not specific to Azerbaijan, Grant noted, referring to the killing of a Russian opposition politician just hours before the lecture he gave.
The goals of the Molla Nasreddin research
Grant’s current research looks at the role of satire in authoritarian settings. He outlined for the audience the two themes of this work:
Focus on the journal – published in a little-studied part of the world; and its founder, Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, who has been “more celebrated than analyzed.”
Not all satire is the same – Grant wanted to examine Molla Nasreddin because of its context, the magazine was published in “times of rapid social upheaval” in Azerbaijan.
The magazine’s name comes from the humorous stories of the adventures of Nasreddin, a mullah famous throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and to this day “the world of Molla Nasreddin remains largely oral,” Grant said.
Grant’s work reveals a more complex illustration of the magazine and its founding editor than the BBC article paints. According to Grant, “any reader trying to make too much sense of the journal may be too hasty.” Despite its often cited offenses of the Ottoman Sultan or Iranian Imams that got its editor in serious trouble with authorities, “the vast majority of the images were milder,” Grant said. On the one hand the magazine ran cartoons of donkeys poking fun at people in power, portraying their high social standing obtained with minimal effort. Yet, Grant pointed out, Molla Nasreddin remained a “steady ally to the government” when it came to promoting education. Indeed, when the Soviet Union took over in the 1920s, the magazine grew tamer, Grant explained.
Jalil Mammadguluzadeh – founder, editor and columnist
The complex identity of the magazine is reflective of its founder’s own enigmatic personality. Grant told the audience how one woman in Azerbaijan described the satirist to him: “Jalil Mammadguluzadeh is a special kind of animal. Everyone admires him but a bit cautiously. If you look too closely you could get bitten.”
Mammadguluzadeh’s political views ranged widely. He resisted labels of his journal or himself as a secularist. Yet, he joined the Soviet Party and even ran for local office.
Even how the Molla Nasreddin editor died remains a subject of popular speculation, Grant found out during his field work in Azerbaijan. According to local historians and newspaper archives, Mammadguluzadeh died in January 1932, but today people still resist this storyline. Just last summer, Grant said, he spoke with an Azerbaijani undergraduate student who insisted that Mammadguluzadeh was taken by authorities in April 1932 and shot dead, a popular version of the writer’s demise.
Molla Nasreddin’s modern-day legacy
Molla Nasreddin’s story is not just a case of the pen being mightier than the sword, Grant told the audience in Kane Hall, nor is it about satire alone. Instead, it is the story of embracing contradiction from the start. Both the founder and his satirical magazine were much more complex and nuanced than they are portrayed as today. Yet, their legacy remains very much alive long after the magazine closed its doors. Molla Nasreddin is on Facebook, stories of him persist in the oral traditions of the region, and versions of the donkeys-in-power satire circulate online.
In 2009, Western-educated online activists uploaded a satirical video to YouTube in which a person in a donkey consume gave a press conference. The video creators were arrested on hooliganism charges in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku. Such modern manifestations of the satirical legacy of the Molla Nasreddin magazine have caught the attention of the West. (Also, see UW Assistant Professor Katy Pearce’s work on social media, humor, and authoritarianism in Azerbaijan.)
Grant concluded the lecture with a nod to Mammadguluzadeh and his colleagues whose challenge to authorities echoes into modern day. The artists and editors of the journal, Grant said, took the South Caucasus region that has historically been considered as the periphery of other, more important places, “and endowed it with a bold centrality.”