Slavs and Tatars Presents Molla Nasreddin: the magazine that would’ve, could’ve, should’ve
Modern Azerbaijan may not be known for its social liberalism or political progressiveness, but turning the clock back a century reveals a country that was enjoying a creative ferment that promised to bring “modernity” to the Caucasus.
After all, Azerbaijan, from 1918-20, became the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, even boasting universal suffrage.
The satirical periodical Molla Nasreddin, edited by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, one of Azerbaijan’s first men of letters, was a publication that reflected the zeitgeist of that time, provoking discussion in Azerbaijan and beyond. Rich with two-color cartoons, anecdotes and commentary, it was first published in 1906 in Tbilisi, before moving to Iran, and, finally, in 1922, to Baku, where it existed until 1931.
Familiar only to a few until recently, editions of Molla Nasreddin were rediscovered in a Baku second-hand bookshop by members of Slavs and Tatars, an international artists’ collective who define their field of interest as the area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China. Struck by the publication’s artistic vibrancy and political messages, the collective determined to bring it to the attention of a wider audience, and published Slavs and Tatars Presents Molla Nasreddin earlier this year.
The periodical took its name from Nasreddin, the legendary 13th-century Sufi wise-man-cum-fool, who often appeared in its pages, portrayed in a turban and curled slippers, casting a knowing glance at the reader. Anecdotes commonly portray Nasreddin as a simpleton, but he is regarded as possessing wisdom that is only revealed on a deeper reading of his exploits and utterances.
It is perhaps the artwork of the periodical that was most notable, and it is artwork that makes up the bulk of this Slavs and Tatars compilation. In flamboyant, sometimes grotesque, two-color images, venal government officials (portrayed as kalpak-wearing wolves) skewer peasants and grill them shashlik-style; colonial powers hover, intent on partitioning the Balkans, the Caucasus or North Africa; Azerbaijani patriarchs punish their wives while kow-towing to Russian mistresses and a red-horned devil admonishes Muslim clerics to fight against European educational models. The same devil later reappears to inflame an argument between an Azerbaijani and an Armenian (similarly attired, and virtually indistinguishable); then dances gleefully as they come to blows.
In its outlook, Molla Nasreddin was unabashedly pro-European, subscribing to the Islamic modernist and Jadidist models that espoused societal reform, but that paid heed to local norms and sensitivities. The magazine’s images reflect the issues inherent in that campaign -- the tussle between tradition and modernity, the imperative of a “modern” education, the lot of women and the underclasses, the internal and external geopolitical problems that beset the Caucasus.
To this end, the publication’s eye-catching artwork played a critical role: It could be understood as easily by illiterate peasants, who were seen as necessary participants in this recalibration of society, as by the intelligentsia. The decision to publish primarily in Azeri, rather than in the Russian spoken by Azerbaijani elites or the standard Istanbullu Turkish of literary publications, meant the magazine captured a readership across the Turkic-speaking world. Still, the newspaper was truly polyglot, at times featuring captions in up to three scripts on any one page: Latin (Azeri), Cyrillic (Russian) and Arabic (Persian); quite a feat considering the print technologies of the time.
Some Baku pundits, speaking on condition of anonymity, remark that the great irony of Molla Nasreddin is that many of the issues raised in the periodical a century ago are still topical today. If the magazine could be revived, they say, it would likely find an appreciative audience. However, in Azerbaijan’s current political climate, it would not survive long, they add.
Much of the appeal of Eurasia for outside observers lies in its status as a realm where political, cultural and societal currents arrive from diverse directions; sometimes clashing, sometimes mingling, but always creating distinctive end products. Molla Nasreddin was just such a product. As Slavs and Tatars relate, it was “polyphonic, joyfully self-contradictory and staunchly in favor of the creolization that results from multiple languages and identities.” They have done us a great service by bringing this epoch-defining periodical into the spotlight again.
William Gourlay was formerly Lonely Planet’s commissioning editor for Turkey and the Caucasus. He is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, at Monash University, Australia.