ELEMENTS OF HUMOR IN CENTRAL ASIA: THE EXAMPLE OF THE JOURNAL MOLLA NASREDDIN IN
H. B. Paksoy
(First published in: Prof. Dr. Erling von Mende, Editor, Turkestan als
historischer Faktor und politische Idee. Baymirza Hayit Festschrift.
(Köln: Studienverlag, 1988). Pp. 164-180)
Humor can be considered a branch of the literary traditions of a society. Like
literature, humor cannot always be understood without knowledge of the society
which produces it. This is a critical point. Some observers claim that in a given
culture, country or nation, humor does not exist. This is a rather rash
"judgement." Rather, the question ought to be" "Are we properly equipped to
understand the humor of the people we are studying?"
Translation of humor, in its many facets, is a thankless task. Even when the
words of an anecdote are translated from one language to another, it cannot be
guaranteed that the speakers of the target language can grasp its significance.
The textbook or even speaking knowledge of another language may be insufficient
to comprehend the humor in that language.
The highest level of language competency, native fluency, is attained when the
humor is understood.
Understanding humor, on the other hand, requires knowledge of common reference
points, among which are history, current events, tradition and custom. Therefore,
a comprehensive understanding of the original culture is the minimum
Central Asia has produced humor throughout its history. We can at least begin to
understand the nature of this humor through a simultaneous study of history and
current events. The specific example at hand illustrates this point. The
journal Molla Nasreddin was published in Tbilisi, Tabriz and Baku,
in that order, 1906-1920. It was a satirical publication, taking as inspiration
the widely-known Molla Nasreddin, or Nasreddin Hoja.
The Historical Nasreddin Hoja
The historical Nasreddin Hoja can be considered a populist philosopher, wit and
wise man. The contents of the many anecdotes about him suggest that Nasreddin
Hoja lived in Asia Minor sometime between the 11th and the 14th centuries.
The stories attributed to him display a biting sense of humor and the anecdotes
themselves have satirical qualities that go immediately to the heart of the
matter. Subtleties of his pronouncements many not be apparent at first, but
cannot be dismissed off-hand even by the most cynical.
Nasreddin Hoja stories are well known from the shores of Aegean to the Eastern
reaches of Sinkiang, where he is known as "Effendi." One of his statues adorns a
city square in Bukhara, depicting the esteemed Hoja riding his donkey backwards,
as told in one of his anecdotes. Many a punchline from his anecdotes have long
since reached the status of proverbs. Mark Twain's Library of Humor
of the late 19th century includes a story attributed to Hoja and indicates
that Nasreddin Hoja stories also circulated in Baghdad.  There are several
stories placing Nasreddin Hoja with Timur (in Western literature, mistakenly
called Tamburlane, Tamarlane or other distortions) in Akshehir.
According to one story, Timur had ordered his battle elephants to be quartered in
the vicinity of his field quarters. Accordingly, one elephant was assigned to
each nearby village. Since the elephants consume large amounts of food and are
fond of tree barks, they began to inflict considerable damage to the crops,
orchards and vineyards. The elders of a village, deciding that they could no
longer withstand the ruination, seek out Nasreddin Hoja and ask him to be their
spokesman, to relay their wish to Timur that their elephant be withdrawn. Hoja
agrees on one condition. The entire delegation is to accompany him to Timur's
Members of the delegation agree. Hoja takes the lead, with the elders in tow, and
they begin their trek to the encampment. As the delegation approaches the
multitudes of guards, some of which are mounted, others on foot, in full
battle gear and colorful attires, the members of the delegation begin to have
second thoughts. One by one they begin deserting the procession. As Hoja
approaches Timur's resplendent throne, he realizes that he is alone. Feeling
betrayed and becoming furious, he proceeds nonetheless.
The Chamberlain announces Hoja. Timur queries majestically:
-- State your business.
After due and proper salutation, Hoja begins:
-- Your Highness, the residents of this village asked me to relay their highest
respects to you. They are quartering one of your battle elephants, but they have
a small worry.
-- May they be blessed. What is their worry?
-- Your Highness, they have noticed that the elephant in their charge appears to
be unhappy with his lot. He may be suffering from loneliness. They desire a
companion for him.
-- Let it be.
Timur seems pleased and orders a pouch of gold coins be given to Hoja. along with
a new suit of clothes. Hoja leaves the Presence of Timur and on the way back, the
delegation reassembles the way it dispersed. They are very curious of the outcome
and wish to share in the good fortune of their Chief-Emissary. Hoja observes
-- You harvest what you sow.
As Nasreddin Hoja becomes more known to Timur, he is invited to the Presence more
often. At one point, Timur wishes to examine the tax records of the nearest town.
The official in charge of the collection is brought before the throne and is
asked to reconcile the revenues with the written record. The official is unable
to please the sovereign. Timur orders:
-- Let him eat the tax books.
The Chamberlains tear the books and present it to the (now ex-official) for his
culinary consumption. Timur gives another order:
-- Hoja, I hereby appoint you the new Tax Collector. Timur's word is law, permits
Time passes. Timur is desirous of investigating the performance of the newly
appointed tax-officer. Nasreddin Hoja is sent for and enters the Presence with a
stack of pide (flat bread) in his arms, with slender lines of accounts
scribbled on them. Timur, recognizing the local staple food, thunders:
-- What insolence! You were ordered to appear with the tax books!
-- Your Highness, these are the tax books. Might I not have to eat them?
Many other stories relate events closer to home. On one occasion, Hoja borrows a
kazan (large cauldron) from his neighbor. When Hoja returns the kazan, the
neighbor sees that there is a small cooking pot in the bottom. He asks
-- What is this?
-- Apparently the kazan had been pregnant and it has given birth to this small
The neighbor unquestioningly accepts the kazan and the pot.
Some weeks later, Hoja wishes to borrow the same kazan. The neighbor is only too
happy to oblige. This time, a month passes. The neighbor calls on Hoja to inquire
about his kazan. Hoja, with a concerned look, announces:
-- I am sorry, but your kazan died.
The neighbor is puled. Then becoming angry, he demands:
-- How could it die?
-- You believed that it gave birth, why do you not believe that it died?
The wit and wisdom of Nasreddin Hoja never leaves him tongue-tied. One day an
illiterate man comes to Hoja with a letter he had received.
-- Hoja, please read this letter to me.
Hoja looks at the letter, but cannot make out a single word. So he tells the
-- I am sorry, but I cannot read this.
The man cries:
-- For shame, Hoja! You must be ashamed before the turban you wear (i.e. the sign
Hoja removes the turban from his own head and places it on the head of the
illiterate man, saying:
-- There, now you wear the turban. Read the letter yourself.
A final resting place was constructed for the "Hoja" in the vicinity of Akshehir,
near present day Konya province in the Turkish Republic. This "tomb" is a most
unusual and elegant structure. It is protected against the elements by a large
diameter ribbed dome, supported by many slender columns. An imposing gate,
leading to the area covered by this dome, is most visible. Two rectangular stone
posts provide the anchor for the tastefully designed wrought-iron door. The two
wings of the ornate gate are tightly shut and secured with an enormous padlock.
However, there is no surrounding fence and the gate stands alone on its site.
The tradition demands telling seven anecdotes from Nasreddin Hoja, once his name
is invoked. Due to space considerations, we will ask forgiveness from his soul
and strive to mention his name in multiples of seven instead. I am certain he
would have understood our exigencies.
The Journal Molla Nasreddin
The weekly journal carrying the name Molla Nasreddin appears to have
exerted an enormous influence on its readership. Several other periodicals, in
other languages of the area, strove to emulate its style, philosophy and satire.
Molla Nasreddin immediately attracted the attention of Western
observers as well. Echoes of its contents can be gleaned from dozens of
contemporary periodicals, in various languages.
Moreover, the journal Molla Nasreddin, much like its name-sake,
continues to maintain its relevance to the life of Azerbaijan and Central Asia in
general. In the recent years, at least one attempt was made to re-publish the
entire journal. Even when these efforts to duplicate the entire
collection in facsimiles have been truncated after the first few issues, the
momentum has not been lost. The contents of the remaining issues have found their
way into various books.
The history of the journal Molla Nasreddin, as well as the biography
of its founder-editor have also appeared in various editions. Even if the
cartoons, which constituted an integral part of the journal, could not be
reproduced in full as yet.
The founder of Molla Nasreddin was Jelil Memmedkuluzade
(1866-1932). He often signed his editorials with the pseudonym "Molla
Nasreddin." Before discussing the message of the journal Molla
Nasreddin, let us read the very first issue. It begins with an
I am addressing you, my brothers. I am especially referring to those who do not
like what I have to say, who make excuses in order not to hear my words; like
going to have their horoscopes read; on their way to watch fighting
dogs; to listen to the tales of the dervishes; to lay in the bath house and the
I persist, because sages pronounce: direct your words to those who do not listen
You my brethren! There are times you heard humorous words from me, opened your
mouths to the sky, closed your eyes and noisily laughed so hard that your
intestines were almost torn, you used your skirts instead of towels to dry
your eyes, faces, saying "damn the devil." But do not think that you are laughing
at Molla Nasreddin.
You, ny brethren! If you wish to know whom you are laughing at, then place a
mirror in front of you and take a careful look to see your own faces.
I have completed what I wanted to say. On the other hand, I have an apology:
forgive me, Turkish brethren, I am addressing you with the clear tongue of the
Turks. I know that is shameful to be speaking in Turkish and it testifies
to the lack of one's personal knowledge. However, it is necessary to recall the
days past: remember those days when your mother rocked you in your crib, she sang
to you lullabies in the Turkish language but you were not quieted. Then your poor
mother said to you: "Son, do not cry, the bogeyman will come and take you away,"
and you stopped for fear of your life.
Every now and then in order to recall the beautiful days gone by, what shame is
there in speaking the Mother tongue?
-- (Signed) Molla Nasreddin.
Admonitions To Those Wishing To Subscribe To Our Journal:
First of all--it is necessary for you to ask God to grant his permission, to be
revealed to you through a dream or omen.
Second--you must write to our office with a reed pen and in Tabriz ink. By no
means use an iron pen and Russian ink.
Third--do not permit the hands of the postal clerks to touch the (subscription)
money you will be sending. Because if their hands have sweated, the money may be
wet. If this rule is observed, it will not be necessary to wash the money with
water at the office.
Fourth--Write your letters in such a fashion that they do not contain a single
Turkish word: it si a shame to write in Turkish and implies that your education
Fifth and lastly--During the days listed below, we do not deem it proper for you
to become customers. Any business undertaken during such days will bring no good:
1. The 3rd, 5th, 13th, 16th, 21st, 24th, 25th days of each month are
inauspicious. We deem it right to record subscriptions during these days.
2. We do not regard Tuesdays and Wednesdays as appropriate
days for customers.
3. Each month, 28th and 29th days are the Days of Light --it is not permitted to
begin a new endeavor.
4. Two days each month the moon is in Scorpio --do not become customer and do not
begin a good deed.
5. Twelve days each month are regarded as the period of Eight Stars. Do not begin
a new task on those days.
Telegrams Of Molla Nasreddin:
Petersburg--March 30. All Russia is quiet and peaceful. The wolf and the sheep
are grazing together.
Tehran--March 29. His Excellency the Shah is preparing for an European trip.
Tabriz--March 30. Freedom is promised to the people: for example, the government
will not stop the militia (serbaz) engaging in "livering" (jigerjilik --to buy,
stroke, sell liver, or --colloquial-- more likely in this context: extortion of
the highest order), butchery and begging.
Petersburg--March 30. It is said that Senator Cherivanskii will be appointed as
the Orenburg Mufti (head of the Moslem Spiritual Board there). The Orenburg Mufti
His Majesty Sultanov will become a servant of the Orenburg Police.
Shemakhi--30 March. Moslems are progressing. A Russian pharmacist has been
granted permission to open a reading room (where tea and coffee are also served)
so that nothing in Turkish could be read there.
Nakchevan--30 March. Cossacks are hoping that the Governor-General would become
their patron and allocate them plenty of jobs.
Tabriz--30 March. Haji Gurban's sugar car was destroyed by fire. The loss is
estimated to be two millions.
News That Ought To Be Known:
Molla Nasreddin vows to send the journal until the new year to those
individuals who can write answers to us on the following questions:
1. Why is that, in whose main school, only one out of twelve illiterate Moslem
teachers can write his name despite purposeful groan and gruntings?
2. In order for a Shi'i to drink water from a cup, which has been used by a Sunni
for the same purpose, why is it necessary to wash the cup first?
3. Which is more plentiful: Stars in the sky or the gambling places in a Moslem
4. How can the bereaved wives of (recently) dead men prevent the mollas from
forcibly entering the house to partake in the ceremonial meal given in honor of
5. How could necessary books be procured so that Moslem boys can be taught in
6. Which country's enterprises are producing laziness and lack of ambition?
7. How is it that the snakes arriving in boxes from Iran do not bite others
besides the people of Iran?
8. What kind of secret is it that the government soldiers wounded during the
Armenian fights are reprimanded so severely that the doctors are not permitting
them to return to their duties?
9. Where did the 400 rubles, collected in the theatrical society in Yerevan and
earmarked for the people of Ushi, depart?
Words Of The Forefathers:
There is no better keepsake in the world than sayings. Because earthly
possessions can be squandered but the words remain. Words of the past rulers and
poets are still enduring. Accordingly, experiences and proverbs, proven by
trial and experiences from the Turkish rulers are written in our journal under
"Words Of The Forefathers" so that our readers may make use of them at necessary
times and places.
-- If you tie one of your horses next to another, the Khan will observe this and
say: "Why do you not give me one?"
-- At a place where there are possessions from your ancestors, it is forbidden
for you to personally to earn.
-- The death of a man causes the idle to rejoice.
-- Do not trust the horse or the woman --tie them up and lock the door.
-- The hungry chicken dreams of Pilaf (rice dish).
-- Nobody dies of hunger --do not commit a mistake by giving away bread.
-- An open mouth does not remain hungry --may God grant abundance to the dust of
-- Leave the chores of the evening to morning and those of morning to evening.
-- Man becomes a scholar by remaining idle.
-- Things are said to a man a thousand times. If he is not persuaded, he is
-- There is no remedy to what is going to happen. Let it happen.
Molla Nasreddin's Mailbox:
In Baku--to his majesty Molla G. zade:
We can answer your question only in the following manner: Senator Cherivanskii's
memorandum concerning the Spiritual Board has not been approved. However,
according to information reaching us, the Head of the Moslem Spiritual Board will
be subjected to an examination by the Tbilisi Exarch (Leader of the Gregorian
Church) to prove his credentials of Religious Jurisprudence and then will have to
be approved by the police authorities.
In Yerevan--to his majesty Ismail Bey Sefibeyov:
We are very pleased to receive your hearty congratulations regarding the
publication of the first issue of our journal. We are not able to publish the
poems you sent us in our previous number. However, we promise to include them in
The first number adhered to a specific "content plan" which the editor was
required to submit, before publication, for approval by the authorities. It
was as follows:
1. Friendly conversations
2. Satire (atmaca--one meaning is hunting bird, the haws; it is also means to
nudge by words, in verse or prose, "thrown" at individuals or groups to get their
attention with a view to engaging them in dialogue)
4. Humorous poems
5. Humorous telegrams
6. Satirical stories
8. Post Box
9. Humorous adverts
10. Personal ads
11. Cartoons and illustrations
Several items on this list were not translated above; most important are
cartoons, satirical verses and serialized satirical works. A few words about them
is in order.
The cartoons appearing in the first issue, which unfortunately cannot be
reproduced here, were no less satirical than other comments. They carried short
subtitles and initially were largely the work of Smerdling (1877-1938),
an experienced German artist working in Tbilisi. Another cartoonist was Rotter.
Later on, native cartoonists joined the staff.
Satire in verse was just as important. Mirza Elekber Sabir (1862-1911) was an
early contributor to Molla Nasreddin in this genre. Sabir also wrote
for numerous other serials and desired the publication of his collected works to
be issued in a volume. In one of his last letters to a friend, A. Sehhat in
Tbilisi, Sabir wrote: "If I die, I will not go in vain; because I know that you
will publish my works." His friends honored Sabir's wish. His collected writings
were issued under the title Hop-Hopname (i.e. to jump up and down).
Another important contributor to Molla Nasreddin was Ali Nazmi
(1878-1946). Like sabir, Nazmi also specialized in verse-satire and published his
works in various humorous- satirical journals of the time. Very much in line with
Memmedkuluzade's philosophy and approach, Nazmi also made light of superstition.
The target was the local population. He strove to get and hold attention of the
Turkish community for the purpose of introducing the readership to the
contemporary worldly events.
In addition, Memmedkuluzade did not hesitate to include serialized stories or
novels in Molla Nasreddin. One such prominent work was Ibrahim Beyin
Seyahatnamesi: veya, Taassubkeshligin Belasi (Travelogue of Ibrahim Bey: or, the
Curse of Bigotry), an enormously popular novel of the time. It was written by
Zeynelabidin Maraghai (1837-1910), a merchant of Azerbaijan origin (born in
Maragha, died in Istanbul), for a time living and successfully trading in
This satirical multi-volume novel and its author has attracted wide attention
with the anonymous publication of its first volume sometime between 1888 and
1897; apparently in Cairo. The second volume was printed in Calcutta during
1907 and the third volume in Istanbul in 1909. The first volume was at least
translated once, into German, in 1903 and issued in Leipzig. As the premier
editions of each were quickly sold-out, reprintings rapidly appeared in various
locations, including Calcutta, Cairo and Istanbul.
All three volumes were merged into one and issued in Baku during 1911. Extracts
from this novel were included in the pages of at least a dozen journals and
newspapers in almost as many cities --on two continents-- throughout the
first decade of the 20th century. Its contents must be read with the Iranian
Constitutional Movement of 1905-1911 in mind. Reflecting the ever growing
interest in those events, Molla Nasreddin included sections of the
Seyahatname in five different issues of 1906.
Direction and Objectives of the Journal Molla Nasreddin
Memmedkuluzade had in mind several goals in publishing Molla
Nasreddin. Some are clearly stated or readily recognizable even after
eight decades after their publication. Those are discussed below. Some remarks
are not so readily deciphered. This is solely due to our lack of complete
knowledge of the daily news. Mirahmadov writes:
We learn, from Memmedkuluzade's memoirs, that one of the matters which occupied
him was the problem of the readers. Through Molla Nasreddin's
persona he wrote: "with various excuses, the brethren were running away from him,
not prepared to attach any value to his words and paid no attention to
newspaper or journal reading." Therefore one of the objectives of Molla
Nasreddin was to introduce the native population to pay attention to the
press and its contents so as to sensitize them to world developments. In order to
be as effective as possible, Memmedkuluzade even "read the contents of the issue
to may individuals prior to committing them to print." so as to try them on a
Memmedkuluzade's language policy was an important part of his message to his
readers and is announced in the opening editorial. The policy was very much like
that of Ismail Gaspirali, as utilized in his newspaper Tercuman
(published in Bakhchesaray). Memmedkuluzade, like Gaspirali, was going to write
in the clear Turkish mother tongue. He ridiculed those who looked down upon the
use of Turkish. His jibes may have been aimed at the mollas using Persian or
Arabic, but was more likely directed at those who cavalierly used Russian.
The section "Admonitions To Those Wishing To Subscribe To Our Journal" represents
a typical use of humor to make fun of behavior which the journal seeks to change.
In the list of admonitions, the journal ridicules waiting for "signs" before
taking action; the belief in "inauspicious" days as dictated by superstition or
astrology; the use of Turkish; and even (Admonition 2) the attachment to Iran or
to the past simply because it is the past ("the ink and pen do not matter as much
as the use to which they are put" is perhaps the message). Lastly, all possible
or imaginary reasons to avoid subscribing are hereby quashed by sharp sarcasm.
"News That Ought To Be Known" hints at several controversial issues of the day
--the decline of the mekteb education and the low educational level of the mollas
who taught in them (Item 1); the need for education in the native language (Item
5) by qualified instructors (Item 1); the rapacity of the mollas (Item 4) and
general malaise in society; sectarian divisions and their most minute
implications (Item 2); the authorities' complicity in communal clashes (Item 8);
the dishonesty of "charitable" work (Item 9).
Throughout the journal, the use of double, triple reversed or opposite meanings
delivers a clear message with heightened emphasis. In the "Telegrams," the first
is a clear example making use of such an exaggerated claim (referring to the
Empire's quiescence) that only its opposite can be understood. This "innocent"
statement belies official insistence that peace prevails. Word Choice may be used
in the same way. The Third Telegram illustrates the point. The word "jigerjilik"
has an innocuous connotation (as sheep liver, prepared in a particular way, is a
delicacy), in addition to the bloody context which is actually intended. Both
that "Telegram" and the other from Tabriz must be read within the context of the
Iranian Constitutional Movement between 1905-1911, in which Tabriz was a major
center of opposition to the Shah. The "serbaz" refer, apparently, to the Shah's
forces' behavior in Tabriz. "Haji Gurban's sugar car having been destroyed by
fire" also seems to contain more than one message. First of all, "gurban" is the
sacrificial sheep. This person may or may not have been a real individual.
Secondly, the Shah's bastinadoing of the Tehran sugar merchants in December 1906
is considered the event that set off the movement, sometimes called a
resolution. The seemingly mysterious "loss of two millions" without providing
a unit of measure reinforces the message.
In the category of "Word Of The Forefathers" Molla Nasreddin takes a
predictable turn. Almost all of the proverbs retain the traditional, easily
recognized format, but the messages are twisted "backwards." What seems
incongruous at first sight, is indeed incredulous. By means of this simple
device, Molla Nasreddin accomplishes the task of nailing down the
real message all the while forcing the readers to think again. It is also
noteworthy that the reference to the "Turkish Rulers of the Past" is very
reminiscent of Kultigin tablets and Kutadgu Bilig.
Finally, the "Mailbox" catches the unwary reader off guard. In this, the first
issue, the writer states, "Molla Nasreddin was unable to publish a letter in its
previous issue!" Also, Memmedkuluzade furnishes some background to the Telegram
concerning the Orenburg Mufti. Like so many other allusions in the journal, this
referred to a long- standing debate concerning the appointment of the Mufti of
Orenburg and the degree of his subordination to civil authorities. This issue
received detailed coverage in the Caucasus because of the implications of its
outcome for appointments in the Sunni and Shi'i Spiritual Boards in Tbilisi.
Memmedkuluzade apparently chose satire as the educational and political vehicle,
both for its power and to circumvent the restrictions of tsarist censorship.
Imperial Russia's strict censorship laws, even when relaxed for Russians and
other Christian populations, were maintained for Turkish populations. These laws
were aimed at control generally and sometimes at Russification and
Christianization. Later, the modified laws were used for political control.
Zeynelabidin Maraghai may have published his highly acclaimed multi-volume novel
outside the Russian Empire due to such considerations
The use of satire as a political tool has a long history in the Turkish domains
of Central Asia. Throughout the ages, satirical poetry has been used by many
historical Central Asian authors as a platform. Alishir Navai, Shibani, Yesevi
are only some of the more prominent practitioners of this genre.
Molla Nasreddin was widely quoted and "talked about" in other
contemporary journals, magazines and newspapers of the time. According to Gulam
Memmedli, at least 150 such publications carried quotations or extracts from
The wide popularity and republication of Molla Nasreddin in the
early 20th century (alluded to above) testifies not only to the power and
relevance of its message, but to the shared common culture and language across
Central Asia. An overwhelming majority of the following publications which
quoted from Molla Nasreddin were in various Turkish dialects:
Turk Yurdu; Gaspirali's Tercuman in Bakchesaray; Jahan in Tashkent; Ulfet in
St. Petersburg; Adalet in Tehran; Turkmenistan In Ashkabat; Hablulmetin in
Calcutta; Tenbih in Tabriz; Hurriyet in Samarkand; Uklar in Uralks, and scores of
others in the cities named as well as in Baku, Istanbul, Tbilisi, Moscow, Ufa,
Yerevan and the Revue du Monde Musulman in Paris.
Present-Day Reflections in Central Asia
The present-day Central Asians are also following in the same path, adapting the
traditions to the conditions of the day. They employ the cartoon genre as a
vehicle of local political expression.
A case in point are the two cartoons which were published in the journal
Muhbir. This publication is aimed at Ozbek journalists, the masthead
of which indicates it is the organ of the Central Committee of the Ozbek Writers
A haggard looking man, (purposely) reminiscent of a dock-side "tough" in a
southern French port, with his beard in stubble, is standing in front of a
bookstore. He is wearing a French beret, smoking the butt of a cigarette
holding open the left side of his jacket. Inside his jacket, large pockets
holding some unspecified books are visible. The caption reads: "Branch of the
bookstore." This cartoon was re-published in the West.
In another cartoon in the same journal, a librarian, with the appropriately
serious look on his face, is depositing books into a large strong-box, placed in
the middle of the library, through a slot on top. The strong-box is secured tight
with an enormous padlock. The caption reads: "The booklover."
Like the materials in Molla Nasreddin, these cartoons may not reveal
their full glory at first sight. Only after an examination of contemporary
literature in the environs they were published we may begin to appreciate their
meanings and ironies. As these cartoons are of 1980s vintage, this is
not very difficult.
Hence, Molla Nasreddin is not only a bearer of political and social
messages of the early 20th century, it is but a one example taken from a long
line of political and social satire in Central Asia. The tradition is centuries
old and still in use today. There is continuity of form and, often, of spirit.
Both are still relevant and more importantly, are taken seriously.
1. See Samuel Langhorne Clemens, William Dean Howells, Charles Hopkins Clark,
Mark Twain's Library of Humor (New York, 1887).
2. If the encounter of these historical figures is a historical fact, the time
must have been after Timur had defeated the Ottoman Sultan Yildirim Bayazit
("Bayazit the Thunderbolt") in the last decade of the 14th century.
3. "Ne ekersen, o'nu bicersin."
4. The journal Molla Nasreddin also attracted the attention of a
number of authors and scholars publishing in the West. Among the most prominent,
see J. Hajibeyli, "The Origins of the National Press in Azerbaijan" Asiatic
Review (1930); A. Bennigsen Molla "Nasreddin et la presses satirique
musulmane de Russie avant 1917" Cahiers du Monde russe et
sovietique, 3, 1962/3; A. Bennigsen and C. Lemercier-Quelquejay, La
Presse et les mouvement national chez le Musulmans Russie avant 1920.
5. Gulam Memmedli, Molla Nasreddin (Baku, 1984). Apparently, this is
the second edition of the 1966 printing. Memmedli provides such day-by-day
comments, appearing in at least 150 publications, published in the Russian
empire, which quoted Molla Nasreddin throughout its publication
6. Our sample owes its existence to those efforts.
7. Transliterated from the original Azerbaijan Turkish. For details of his life,
8. The journal Molla Nasreddin, 7 April 1906, Number 1. First
editorial is also signed "Molla Nasreddin." (Written by Jelil
9. This is very reminiscent of the admonitions contained in Orkhon tablets (c.
732 AD) and Kutadgu Bilig (c. 1069 AD). By the time Molla
Nasreddin began publication, both the Orkhon tablets and Kutadgu
Bilig were widely translated and available in various languages in Europe
and Asia. For example, the following is from the Kultigin funerary
monuments (early 8th c, which constitute a portion of the Orkhon tablets) which
goes on to enumerate further events of the time:
They (the Turkish Kagans --rulers) settled the Turkish people Eastward up to the
Khinghan mountains and Westward as fat as the Iron Gate. They ruled (organizing)
the Kok (Blue) Turks between the two (boundaries). Wise Kagans were they, brave
Kagans were they. Their buyruqs (that is, high officials), too were wise and
See Talat Tekin, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic (Bloomington, 1968). Pp.
Furthermore, Balasagunlu Yusuf's Kutadgu Bilig (c. 1069 AD)
echoes and indeed paraphrases the Orkhon tablets:
If you observe well you will notice that the Turkish princes are the finest in
the world. And among these Turkish princes the one of the outstanding fame and
glory was Tonga Alp Er. He was the choicest of men, distinguished by great wisdom
and virtues manifold.
Kutadgu Bilig was also translated into English. See R. Dankoff,
Wisdom of Royal Glory: Kutadgu Bilig (Chicago, 1983). P. 48.
10. Aziz Mirahmadov, Azerbaijan Molla Nasreddin'i (Baku
1980). Pp. 241-242. For the implications of the phrase "approved by the
authorities, see H. B. Paksoy, "Chora Batir: A Tatar Admonition to Future
Generations." Studies in Comparative Communism (Los Angeles\London)
Vol. XIX, Nos. 3 and 4, Autumn/Winter 1986. Ibid., pp. 253-265; for an outline of
the Russian empire censorship laws and sources.
11. Smerdling's and other Molla Nasreddin cartoonists' biographies
are also found in Mirahmadov (1980).
12. Memed Memmedov, Editor, Hop-Hopname (Baku, 1980). Apparently,
this is at least the third publication of Hop-Hopname. As we learn from the
introduction by Memmedov, Hop-Hopname was first issued in 1912. The second
printing appears to have been made between 1962 and 1965, issued under
the auspices of the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences.
13. Firidun Huseyinov, Editor, Ali Nazmij, Secilmis Eserleri
14. Zeynelabidin Maraghai, Ibrahim Beyin Seyahatnamesi veya Taasubkesliyin
Belasi. (Baku, 1982), pp. 9-10. Molla Nasreddin included
selected sections of this novel in its nos. 9, 15, 17, 23 and 36 of 1906.
15. Mirahmadov (1980), Pp 243-244.
16. This issue was much debated in the press of the Caucasus. See, for example, a
commentary signed "Daghestani" in Kaspii (Baku) 20 April 1913, cited
in Audrey L. Altstadt, "Azerbaijani Turks' Response to Conquest" Studies in
Comparative Communism (Los Angeles\London) Vol. XIX, Nos. 3 and 4,
17. Item 7 perhaps refers to spies sent to report on the tens of thousands of
Iranian Azerbaijanis working North of the border.
18. For a discussion of the Iranian Constitutional Movement in Tabriz, see
Nariman Allamoglu Hasanov, Revolutsionnoe dvizhenie v Tebrize v 1905-1911
gg. (Baku, 1975).
19. See note 10 above. The problem of the spread of the use of Russian among
Azerbaijani Turks and of the so-called "russification" of that dialect was
discussed in the first Muslim Teachers Conference in Baku in the summer of 1906.
See Altstadt, "The Azerbaijani Bourgeoisie and the Cultural- Enlightenment
Movement in Baku: First Steps Towards Nationalism" Ronald G. Suny, Editor,
Transcaucasia; Nationalism and Social Change (Ann Arbor, 1983).
20. Other prominent political and literary figures of the period published
"controversial" works outside the Russian empire. Gaspirali and Yusuf Akchura,
for example, published in the Cairo newspaper Turk items that would have been
unlikely to clear the censors in the tsarist domains.
21. See Note 5 above. This volume is devoted solely to a chronological
documentation of these "quotations" of the journal Molla
22. See H. B. Paksoy, "Nationality and Religion: Three Observations from Omer
Seyfettin." Central Asian Survey (Oxford) Vol. 3, N. 3, 1985. Pp.
109-115, to place Turk Yurdu in perspective.
23. As the word cartoon was derived from the Italian "caricare," originally
meaning "to load a weapon," a term devised during the revolutionary fervor of
1830s Europe, the implications are bound to be more colorful. See James
Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men (London, 1980), Pp. 314-
24. There are sister publications in every "republic" in Central Asia.
25. See H. B. Paksoy, "Deceivers" Central Asian Survey (Oxford) Vol.
3, N. 1, 1984. The referenced cartoon originally appeared in Muhbir dated
February 1983 and is duplicated at the end of the cited paper.
26. This second cartoon appears to be in the same mold as the preceding one, was
published in the same journal, the same year, addressing the same or similar
27. See the "Deceivers," referenced above, for possible origins of the political