The Use of Classical Iranian Literature in Azerbaijani Satire: The Case of Molla Näsr od-Din

Molla Näsr od-Din, edited by Mirza Jälil Mohämmädquluzadä, was a satirical journal which began publication in 1906. It was, indeed, the flagship and the vanguard of the efflorescence of Azerbaijani culture which was set off by the 1905 revolution which rocked the Tsarist Empire.

Soviet Azeri scholarship of what might be called the Stalinist-nationalist school stressed the connection between the poets who had the dubious honor of becoming the literary icons of its scholarship, i.e. medieval poets who were either “Azerbaijani” by place of birth or by their language of choice on the one hand and what might be called the Molla Näsr od-Din school on the other. This is particularly pronounced in the study of the relation between Sabir, Molla Näsr od-Din’s most celebrated poet, and the sixteenth-century poet Füzuli, in which Soviet Azeri scholars vie with each other in raising Sabir’s relationship with Azeri Turkish classical literature to metaphysical heights, while the Molla Näsr od-Din school’s debt to classical Persian poetry is virtually ignored.

This reaches its apotheosis in a monograph on Sabir’s predecessorsLink text Hajıyev 1980. which amounts to a dialectical drama in which Sabir is formed under the spell of Füzuli, struggles with it, and, liberated by the 1905 revolution, transforms Füzuli in a revolutionary direction. Link text Only to require a similar treatment in the development of socialist realism (op. cit., 172). Sabir subsumes Füzuli by transforming him from the abstract to the concreteLink text Op. cit., 34. and thus revives him, and the author concludes that “In this sense, Sabir was the twentieth century’s Füzuli! (To be sure, if Füzuli, with his cleverness, had been born after the twentieth century revolutions, he would have been none other than Sabir!)” Link text Op. cit., 48. A useful summary of the discussion of this issue, complete with its own exaggerations, is contained in Quluzadä 1962.

The fact is that Sabir did draw heavily on Füzuli early in his career, Link text Six of the poems published in his collected works Hophopnamä (Jalil/Mirahmadov/ Talıbzada 1965), were directly inspired by Füzuli. but he also used material from Persian poetry, particularly Sa`di. Link text Sabir’s divan, the Hophopnamä includes four verses derived from Sa`di, two from the Shahname, two from Hafez, and one from Omar Khayyam. That he translated Sa`di in his youth is well-known; Link text See, for example, Khändan 1940, 37-38, and the recollections by Sabir’s contemporaries in Zamanov 1982, 16. a contemporary recallsLink text Qänizadä 1982, 31-32 (reprinted from Ädäbiyyat Gäzeti, July 16 and 18, and October 31, 1936, nos. 18, 25 and 26). that when he was praised for a translation of a verse of Sa`di’s, he modestly replied by quoting Hafez, who said that “Sa`di is the master of eloquence” and added that besides him we are just tinkers.

The influence of Persian literature is even more apparent on other members of the circle around Molla Näsr od-Din, particularly its editor Mirza Jälil Mohämmädquluzadä. Despite his antipathy for things Iranian, Mirza Jälil was quite deft at weaving quotes from the Persian classics into his satires.

Thus, although the relationship between the Molla Näsr od-Din school and Persian poetry is mentioned in the memoir literature and the annotations produced by Soviet Azeri scholarship, which are generally commendably honest, a systematic discussion of this school’s ties to Persian culture seems to have been considered off limits.

The paradox is that Molla Näsr od-Din was an ardent promoter of Westernization as the solution to the ills of the Muslims of the Caucasus. It stood for the development of an Azerbaijani culture which would be democratic and shorn of Persianizing and Ottomanizing affectations. In fact, the journal tended to depict Iran as a source of much of what was wrong with Caucasian Muslim society, and this included its literary impact on Azerbaijan. But despite its scorn of things Iranian, the parody of classical Persian poetry was as often used to satirize the Caucasian Muslims’ ignorance and crudeness as to satirize the values perpetuated by this literature. In sum, Persian literature was used in Molla Näsr od-Din as 1) a sign of learning and refinement and the bearer of lofty values, 2) a more or less neutral source of material for parodies, and - more predictably - 3) an object of satire of “Iranian” values.

Persian Classics: A Sign of Refinement and a Bearer of Lofty Values

As an example of the first use, the cravenness of a vulgar Muslim is satirized through how he misunderstands Sa`di. Link text Härdämkhial, “Feuilleton”, Molla Näsr od-Din, I:16 (July 21/August 3, 1906). The author has him counsel his son to be a toady to the wealthy: “Even if they act contrary to their word. Whenever they have anything that needs to be done, be the first to take your life in your hands to perform it. No matter how they insult you, be grateful, they are your masters [väkil]… As Sa`di said, Link text Story 10, Chapter 1 of the Golestan (Sa`di 1827). “Beni Adam a`zaye yek diger and.” That is, if you gather a thousand [misreading bani, “sons of” for bin, “thousand”] poor people, let them fill the coffers of one rich man [Sa`di’s yek, or one, plus his diger, another, being misconstrued as related to the Turkish deghmäk, to be worthy.] These are the pride of the people.” In fact, Sa`di’s maxim means “The Sons of Adam are each other’s limbs,” and continues,

Having been created of one essence.
When the calamity of time afflicts one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others
Thou art unworthy to be called by a man.

Sa`di was counseling generosity of spirit while the Caucasian Muslim was defending selfishness. The irony here is that in invoking these verses, the latter is recalling for the educated reader their concluding line, which pronounces such a severe judgment on him.

Another example of this usage is a piece in which the author recalls his youthful studies of Sa`di’s Golestan. Link text Anon., “Gulistan Därsi”, Molla Näsr od-Din, II:7 (March 3/16, 1907). It was taught by the chief qazi of Yerevan, Akhund Mullah Mohämmäd Baqer Aqa, on whom the author lavishes the ironic title of “Professor of Divinity and Oriental Languages.” The akhund shows his generally crude and selfish character by rudely commanding his students to bring him socks or food or other items. After 45 minutes of this, the class gets under way with a prayer for the Tsar: Link text It is a standard theme in Molla Näsr od-Din that the Muslim clergy - who believe, according to the Koran, that one must be loyal to the ruling government - were lackies of the Tsarist regime. “In no age have qazis received wages the way I am receiving them. May God multiply such governments for us Muslims.” He then begins to read from Sa`di’s Golestan and expound upon it: Link text The verses are from the opening encomium of the Golestan.

minat khoda ra

be grateful to the emperor [taking khoda to mean the earthly and not the heavenly lord.]

`azz o ajall

he is dear and tall [taking `azz o jall to be `aziz oja in Turkish]

ke eta`atesh mojeb-e qorbat ast

whoever obeys him in exile [misunderstanding qerbat as ghorbat, indicating, incidentally, that the learned akhund was Iranian] will get big salary [movajeb]

be shokr andaresh mazid-e ne`mat

whoever thanks him, his wealth will be greater than Haji Ne`mat’s

pas dar har nafasi do ne`mat mojud ast

for each person [misreading nafasi, which is supposed to mean “breath,” to be nafs, or “person”], two gifts are necessary [misreading mojud as movajjab?]

va bar har ne`mati, shokr vajeb

these two gifts are, one, a sugar cone [reading shokr as shekar], the other, a salary [misconstruing vajeb as meaning a salary]

The actual translation of the above is:

Plaudits to the Lord
Of majesty and glory
Obedience to whom causes one to become closer [to Him]
And gratitude [to Him] an increase of benefits.
[Every inhalation of the breath prolongs life
And every expiration of it gladdens our nature;] Link text The bracketed lines were not included in the satire.
Wherefore every breath confers two benefits
And for every benefit gratitude is due.

The quote from Sa`di closes with the do beiti, Link text Also from the opening dast o zaban-e ki bar ayad/kaz `ohdeye shokresh be dar ayad?” The akhund interprets this to mean, “Hey, boys, from which of your hands or tongues does it come to promise [reading `ahd for `ohde] me a sugar cone [again reading shokr as shekar]?” Its real meaning is “Whose hand and tongue is capable/Of fulfilling the obligations of thanking Him?” As in the previous example, the lofty character of Sa`di’s thoughts is contrasted to the baseness and vulgarity of his common expositor.

There follows a qet`e which mixes Persian with homely Turkish, this being frequent way of lampooning the ignorance of the common Caucasian Muslims:

bande haman beh ke ze tahmiq-e khish
qand ila ham chaiye khata avarad
var ne sezavar-e tam`-e qaziyesh
kas natavanad ke be ja avarad.


which translated means

Rather than the Servant making a fool of himself,
He should bring the sin-offering of sugar and tea.
Otherwise, that which is enough to bribe his qazi
Nobody can fulfil.

In connection with this discussion, the second line is bowdlerized Persian, written with a thick Turkish accent in which a Turkism (ila) is interpolated. It is interesting that this would decades later become a stock feature of the Persian “Turkish joke.”

The original poem reads: Link text From the opening encomium to the Golestan.

bande haman beh ze taqsir-e khish
`ozr-e khata ra be ja avarad,
var na, sezavar-e Khodavandiyesh
kas natavanad ke be ja avarad.

which may be translated as

It is best for [God’s] Servant when he sins
To beg pardon for his waywardness before [His] presence.
Otherwise, what is fitting for his God
Nobody can fulfil.

Again, the contrast between Sa`di’s lofty words and the crudity of the object of satire is stark. Sa`di teaches the pious believer that he can do nothing for God and should meekly beg His pardon for his transgressions. In place of God, we have the greedy akhund. In place of a lesson in humility and meekness, we have a lesson in crassness.

Another example of this contrast of the gold of classical Persian verse being used to throw into relief the dross of contemporary Caucasian Muslim morals as the author sees them is the use of Hafez’s famous verse

Agar an Turk-e Shirazi arad dast-e ma ra [actually “be dast arad del-e ma ra”]
Bekhal-e Hinduyash bakhsham Samarqand o Bokharara,

i.e., “If that Shirazi Turk would take me by the hand [actually, would take my heart in her hand]/I would give Samarqand and Bokhara for the Hindu mole on her cheek.” This is prefixed with the versesLink text Molla Näsr od-Din, “Mäktub”, Molla Näsr od-Din, I:6 (May 12/25, 1906).

Chera dard-e vatan khordan, nakhordan nun o halvara?
Chera dar qeid-e mellat mordan o hushtan mosammar ra?
Hapandam gar daham az dast-e khod sabzeqorma ra,

i.e., “Why should I suffer for the homeland and not eat bread and halva/ Why should I die for my country and neglect profit/ It would be a shame to give up my qorme sabzi!” The Persian in the last two lines is mingled with common Azeri Turkish and is used to accentuate the vulgarity of the object of satire. The generosity of the poet, who would give up two cities of legendary wealth for a mole of the cheek of his beloved, is contrasted with the lack of public spirit among the satirist’s compatriots. Link text This device - contrasting the legendary loves of the heroes of classical literature with the mundane baseness of the satirist’s contemporaries - is used with devastating results by Sabir in his parodies of Füzuli’s verses which appeared in Molla Näsr od-Din. See Jälil/Mirähmädov/Talibzadä 1965, I:49, 53, and 61, with the accompanying scholarly commentary. (This contrasts to the straight imitation of Füzuli he wrote before writing for Molla Näsr od-Din.) See also Quluzadä 1962, 21-76 (not all of it uniformly convincing), and Zämänov 1981.

Elsewhere, this verse is used to satirize an all too great a willingness to sacrifice for an inappropriate love whenLink text Molla Näsr od-Din, “Qarnıyoghunlar”, Molla Näsr od-Din, II:36 (December 8/21, 1906). a satirist has the Ottoman Sultan declaring to the Greek king, “Bekhal-e hinduyet, baskhsham Krit o Sham o Bosna ra,” “For a mole on your cheek I would give Crete and Syria and Bosnia.”

A poet writing in Molla Näsr od-Din tweaked Sa`di’s Arabic verses in praise of the Prophet of IslamLink text From the opening encomium of the Golestan.

Balagh al-`uwla bi kamalihi

He scales the heights with his perfection.

Kashaf ad-doja bi jamalihi

He dispels the darkness with his beauty.

Hasana jami` khusalihi

Beautiful are all his qualities.

Salla `alaihi wa alihi.

Praises upon him and his household.

to be made to refer to an obese Muslim in the public bath. The first two lines are altered to read: Link text Molla Näsr od-Din, “Bash”, Molla Näsr od-Din, no. 18 (June 26/July 9, 1913).

Balagh al-`uwla bi hamamihi

He scales the heights in his hamam.

Kashaf ad-doja bi hajamihi

He dispells the darkness with his bulk.

Persian Literature: Neutral Parody

Persian verse is also used not so much to satirize the common Caucasian Muslims’ ignorance of their classical heritage or to contrast the lofty values expressed therein with the squalid reality the satirist saw around himself, but as a neutral means of poking fun at other aspects of Muslim existence.

For example, a rather homely verse of Sa`di is quoted without irony but mischievously none the less to “convince” a mullah to stay home and not teach rather than go into the city and mingle with the unclean infidels on his way to his lessons: Link text Molla Näsr od-Din, “Kheirkhahlik”, Molla Näsr od-Din, IV:36 (September 6/19, 1909).

Ay baradar, migoriz az yar-e bad.

Oh, brother, flee from evil companionship.

Yar-e bad badtar az mar-e bad.

An evil companion is worse than an evil snake.

Mar-e bad tanha tora bar jan zanad.

An evil snake will only strike your life.

Yar-e bad bar jan o bar iman zanad.

An evil companion will strike your life and faith.

Another example of this playing with Sa`di is his famous maxim, Link text Mohämmäd Hosäin Bäy Ähmädkhanibäyov, “Iravandan”, Molla Näsr od-Din, II:37 (December 15/28, 1906). The quote is from the end of the opening encomium to the Golestan.

Gorbe shir ast dar gereftan-e mush

A cat is a lion in catching mice

Ama mush ast dar mosaf-e palang.

But a mouse in a tiger’s clutches.

The last line is changed to khan goranda o dam olur khamush, “when he sees a khan, he’s suddenly quiet.”

One form of parody is to put a peculiar spin on what Sa`di said, which the old poet could never have intended. Thus, Molla Näsr od-Din’s writer Mozalan quotes Sa`di’s famousLink text The quote is from the opening encomium to the Golestan.

lajaram mard-e `aqel o kamel

Surely a wise and learned man

ne nahad bar hayat-e donya del

Sets not his heart upon this world's life.

He continues,

Sa`di never uttered a meaningless word.

Five hundred years ago, Sa`di looked at the world and saw that there was no hope, i.e., he saw that there was no hope among the Muslims. It is obvious that Sa`di spoke these words about the Muslims, since he knew of no other world but the Muslim world…

500 years ago, Sa`di looked at the Muslims’ red beards [dyed with henna] and was certain that five hundred years later, the men and women of foreign nations would fill the universities to learn knowledge and acquire skills, but the hamshahris [Iranian émigrés who had settled in the Caucasus and took the most menial positions, forming a part of the sub-proletariat there] would come from Iran because they were starving and fill Petersburg, that the men would sit at home and send the girls and women to go to the Russians’ homes to beg for money and food, and that the Iranian consuls’ Second Secretary, Abol-Hasan Khan, would extort bribes from the poor to ignore them and not deport them to their ruined homeland.

The author continued in this vein for several paragraphs. The verse originally stressed the transitory quality of life (it is preceded by a reflection on how if the bowels won’t open, we perish, and if they won’t close we perish, that “Four contending rebellious humors/Harmonize but five days with each other./If one of these four becomes prevalent,/Sweet life must abandon the body”). As we see, it is turned into a very this-worldly criticism of Muslim existence. Indeed, its force is turned back on the Iranians themselves.

After the absolutist Shah of Iran was deposed (hard on the heals of Sultan `Abdul-Hamid losing the throne), Sabir parodied Sa`di’sLink text Story 10, Chapter 2 of Golestan.

Yeki porsid az an gom-gashte farzand

Someone asked of a man who’d lost his son.

Ke, “Ey rawshan-gohar, pir-e kheradmand,

“Oh clear-souled and wise old man,

Ze Mesresh buye pirahan shenidi,

You smelled his shirt from Egypt,

Chera dar jah-e Kan`an nadidi?

“Why didn’t you see the well of Canaan?”

and came up withLink text Molla Näsr od-Din, IV:32 (August 9/22, 1909). See Jälil/Mirähmädov/Talibzadä 1965, I:226 and 291-92.

Yeki porsid az an shah gashte farzand

Someone asked of one whose son became Shah.

Ke, “Ey `Abdul-Hamid az to kheradmand,

“Oh less wise than`Abdul-Hamid,

Sefaratkhane ra manzel gozidi,

You have made your home in the embassy,

Cheradar tan nadade bar mellat nazidi?”…

Why didn’t you give in and reconcile with the people?”

Again, attacking those who left Iran orphaned, he parodies Hafez’s “romuz-e `eshq fash makon pish ahl-e `oqul” to read

Dard o gham an kasi ke mard-e `oqul

Pain and sorrow to he who, being wise,

Na be rah na shive’i na `adul.

Follows neither policy nor justice.

Bamdadan ke mah-e hafte hisar

On the mornings when the month is in the seventh house

Na zali, tisbagha chalar sani, mar!

Not a leech, but a turtle should bite you, snake!

We note again how the last line is in folksy Turkish and how this is used to comic effect.

An Assault on the Iranian Literary Heritage

Background: Early Modernist Criticism of Iranian Classical Literature

Since the late nineteenth century, Iran’s classical literary heritage was being subject to critical re-evaluation by the young intelligentsia. The pioneer in this was the great Muslim thinker Akhundov, who flourished from the 1850s and 1870s. Link text For a remarkably original study of Akhundov’s writings from within the Soviet framework, see Mämmädzadä 1971, particularly Chapter I, “Akhundov vä Shärq Klassiklari”. The lengthy introduction provides a critical bibliography of the literature on the subject. He taught that good poetry must create a sense of delight or sorrow, in short, must provide an aesthetic experience. All poetry is verse, but not all verse is poetry. Link text “Näzm vä Näsr Haqqinda”, Arasli 1961, II:202. However, he complained that Iranian poets were satisfied with stringing together words, sacrificing meaning for meter and not stirring up real emotions about real events. He declared that Ferdawsi, Nizami, Jami, Hafez, Rumi, and Sa`di were true poets. Link text Ibid., 202. Elsewhere he said that only Ferdawsi as having the qualities of poetry. See “Kamal od-Dawle’s First Letter”, Arasli 1961, II:23, where he compares him with Homer and Shakespeare. On the criterion that true poetry must be both eloquent and meaningful, he elsewhere foundLink text “Qritika”, Arasli 1961, II:338 and 348. that Rumi’s Masnavi comes up short on the first count but succeeds on the second and that Qa’ani comes up short on the second and fulfills the first, while Ferdawsi’s Shahname, Nezami’s Khamse, and Hafez’s Divan fulfill both.

Akhundov makes use of Ferdawsi’s Shahname as an inspirer of Iranian national zeal. Link text E.g., in “Kamal od-Dawle’s First Letter“, Arasli 1961, II:15-21. The poetry of Rumi and Hafez are interpreted to illustrate his naturalist mysticism. Link text E.g., in “Kamal od-Dawle’s Second Letter”, Arasli 1961, II:70-74. He appreciated Sa`di’s eloquenceLink text E.g., in “Kamal od-Dawle’s Second Letter”, Arasli 1961, II:61-73. and put it to good use. Thus, to express his intellectual independence, he usedLink text “Letter to Sartip Mirza Yusof Khan Nayeb ol-Vozara”, Arasli 1961, II:316. Sa`di’s dervish song, Link text Story 17, Chapter 2 of the Golestan. “I am neither riding a camel nor under a burden like an ass. I am neither a lord of subjects nor subject to a lord.”

Another prominent early critic of classical Persian poetry was Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, the Babi/Atheist/pan-Islamist thinker and publicist. Although he at first styled himself after Sa`di, Link text Adamiat 1357/1978, 220-23. he ultimately took an almost nihilistic position on Persian poetry, making invidious comparisons between it and Western poetry. “No one knows what true poetry is in Iran,” he declared. Link text Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, in: Kermani 1363/1984, I:222-23. While Western poetry “illuminates the mind and eliminates superstition,” Persian poetry has resulted in “the concentration of mendacity in the people’s simple nature, all their praise and flattery has resulted in encouraging the ministers and monarchs in all sorts of vice and bloodshed, all their mysticism and Sufism has born no fruit other than bestial laziness and idleness and the proliferation of mendicants and vagabonds, all their ghazals about roses and nightingales have only corrupted the morality of the youth encouraging them in indulging in drinking and pederasty and all their witticisms have only produced debauchery, prostitution, and other forbidden activities.”

Another early Caucasian Muslim reformer had this to say about classical Iranian literature’s impact on Muslim morals. In the first Caucasian Muslim magazine Äkinji thus, after decrying the lack of public spirit among the Muslim wealthy, the editorLink text Ähsän ol-QävaÝid. We take him to be the editor because so many of the journal’s editorials appear over this name. continued: Link text Letter from Ähsän ol-QävaÝid, Äkinji, II:4, Safar 15, 1293 H. (February 29/March 13, 1876), 5; Häsänzadä/Mirähmädov 1979, 131.

The reason for this is that our teachers were not raised with the study of literature or proper behavior or being gentlemen or the requisites for sound counsel and the wisdom of customs, they read the books of Hafez, Sa`di, Leili-Majnun, Yusof-Zoleikha, and even Qa’ani and instead of studying to be educated, they learn sex, drinking, and facetiousness.

For the youth to progress, they should then read useful things and the likes of this literature must be sternly excluded from their curriculum.

This author returned to this theme the following year. Link text Editorial essay by Ähsän ol-QävaÝid, Äkinji, III:18, Ramadan 4, 1294 H. (September 1/14, 1877), 2, from op. cit., 432. He complains that every other people has poems about its national life which circulate by word of mouth. “We”, however, have the vulgar poetry of the rabble and “our brothers who are considered educated read poems like this by Hafez and Sa`di: ‘Two-year-old wine and fourteen-year-old lover/Aside from that, the world’s wealth is useless,’ which is worst that the verses shouted by the rabble.” He concludes that “it would be best if instead of writing slanders and panegyrics, our poets would devote themselves to thought-provoking works which, if passed from around by word of mouth, would get the people to stir from their ignorance.”

Another writer spoke out against the brutality routinely visited on children at home and in the religious schools, declaring that beating and torturing youth does not make men of them. Link text Letter from Näjäf, Äkinji, II:21, Zil-Qa`da 1, 1293 H. (November 6/19, 1876), 3, from op. cit., 265-266. Moreover, he argues, “A child is like a monkey. Whatever he sees, that is how he behaves. Even if a child does something bad, it is still not his fault, but that of he who exposed him to this behavior, i.e., it is our fault.” He continues:

Now I must say a few things about books and teachers. In our libraries, there are no books for the children to read but Leili-Majnun, Hafez, and so forth. What a catastrophe, adults who are inspired by it bring on children’s heads. They learn not to indulge in sex or drink on the one hand, while on the other, as soon as they teach us to read and write, and they do not even make an effort to teach us anything useful. For example, instead of foolishly teaching us about Majnun, let us read geography books so that we can both learn how to write and become acquainted with the world’s far-flung regions.

This view did not go unchallenged. The famous poet Seyyed A`zam-e Shirvani referred to poets with religious titles (such as Sheikh Baha’i, referred to as “the Grand Mojtahed,” Abu-`Ali Sina, referred to as “Chief of the Clergy,” Sheikh Sa`di, referred to as “the Wisest of the Wise,” etc.) and showed how they, too, celebrated physical love and wine. Link text Letters section, Äkinji, II:8, 1 Rabi` II 1293 H. (April 26/May 2, 1876), 3, from op. cit., 160-163.

Finally, it should be said that the writers for Äkinji were as capable as anyone of quoting Sa`di in particular to make a point. Link text Op. cit., 51, 182, 272, 347, 354, and 432 corresponding to Äkinji, I:5, II:11, II:22, III:7, III:8, and III:18. Most of these quotes from Sa`di are from the editorials.

Molla Näsr od-Din and the Critique of Iranian Classical Literature

As one Soviet Azeri commented, it might seem that Sabir was ridiculing the classics (as embodied by Füzuli’s opus) when he parodied them. He pleaded that he was rather taking it from its airy abstractions to the level of the concrete and making it relevant to contemporary revolutionary reality (both, in any case, implicit criticisms). Link text Hajiyev 1980, 40 ff.

Another remarked that Sabir was in any case departing from his contemporaries’ blind imitation of these works. Link text Quluzadä 1962, 170. In fact, it will have occurred to the reader that there is an ambiguity in using the classics as a means of satire. In contrasting his object of satire with the legendary heroes, is the satirist not also taking these heroes off their pedestals too? Is there not a sense that the satirist is taking the exaggerated features of the lovers and warriors of Iranian epic literature with their stylized passions and valor and poking fun at them as well?

In fact, Molla Näsr od-Din’s poets also launched frontal assaults on classical Persian literature. In satirizing an article in the rival Häyat which preached circumspection and caution in exercising criticism, Molla Näsr od-Din editor Mirza Jälil quotes Sa`di as saying, Link text Attributed to Mirza Jälil, “Lisan Bälasi”, Molla Näsr od-Din, I:1 (April 7/20, 1906).

zaban dar dahan, ey kheradmand, chist?
Kelid-e dar ganj-e saheb honar.
Cho dar baste bashad be nahad [or: nadanad] kasi
ki javaher forush ast ya pilevar?
O wise man, what is the tongue in the mouth?
It is the key to the treasure-door of a cultured man.
When the door is closed how can one know [actually: no one knows]
Whether he is a seller of jewels or of worms?

The author gives ironic “support” to this sentiment with a lengthy poem, one stanza of which I’ll translate here:

Let your neighbors gather weapons
And drive you into combat willy-nilly.
Say nothing, don’t object, don’t fall into sin.
Damn you if a sigh escapes your heart.
Who are we? Let God judge us!
Hang your head and be silent and don’t look up.
Be dumb and do not speak.
Oh heart, say nothing and be silent.
Be still and do not speak.

He elsewhereLink text Molla Näsr od-Din, “SäÝdi Okhshar”, Molla Näsr od-Din, no. 5 (January 31, 1910), in: Mirähmädov 1989, IV:89. directly attacks these verses. Rejecting the poem’s idea that “The tongue must be a key so that when the time comes to show the people its faults, it locks up my eloquence so that I not say anything and the people would not be angry with me. But we think that the tongue must be a bell to expose the treasuries of the pretentious titles and the Ottoman holdovers…”.

Again, before attacking the Baku Muslim clergy for their strident appeals to the people to turn out en masse for the `Eid-e Qorban observances, he quotesLink text Molla Näsr od-Din, “Ijazeye Ijtihad”, Molla Näsr od-Din, IV:51 (December 20, 1909/January 2, 1910), in: Mirähmädov 1989, IV:82. Sa`di’s poemLink text Story 20, Book 5 of the Golestan.

Na dar har sokhan bahs kardan ravast
Khata bar bozorgan gereftan khatast

The irony in this is obvious, as is the attack on the poem’s message, that one must never question one’s elders and betters.

Not all the satire is so pointed. Much of it is simply aimed at deflating its pomposity, and has more of an anarchist than a tendentious character. Thus, in answer to Sa`di’s “Sharaf-e mard be jawd ast o karamat be sujud/Har ki in har do nadarad, `adm-esh behtar ze vujud,” i.e., “One’s honor is in his generosity and his excellence in his prostrations/Whoever lacks both, it is best he not exist,” the satirist quipped, Link text Untitled, Molla Näsr od-Din, II:20, (May 19/June 1, 1907). Attributed to Sabir in Jälil/Mirähmädov/Talibzadä 1965, I:95 and 259, which tends, however to take a maximalist view of Sabir’s output.

Oh you who says that the honor of a man is in his justice and generosity,
Oh you who seeks the jewel of the crown of excellence in prostrations,
I’m most disgusted and upset of such talk.
Listen to Laghlagh’sLink text Roughly, a chatterbox. A common penname used by Molla Näsr od-Din’s satirists. sage counsel.
One’s honor is in his greed and ignorance.
Whoever lacks both, it is best he not exist…

The same could be said of a reply to another journalLink text Häqayeq, no. 8 (May 8/21, 1907). which quoted Sa`di’s

A man’s body is enobled by the soul of humanity
Rather than elegant garb being a sign of humanity.
Food and sleep, rage and lust is a diversion, and
Beasts have no knowledge of the world of humanity…

The poet reposted, Link text Untitled, Molla Näsr od-Din, II:22 (June 2/15, 1907). Attributed to Sabir in Jälil/Mirähmädov/Talibzadä 1965, I:99 and 259-60. See above comment.

A man’s body is enobled by the bread of humanity
Rather than learning and excellence being a sign of humanity…
Stew and rice, fesenjan, kebab and tea with sugar,
Beasts have no knowledge of the feast of humanity…

Fast-forward to the Soviet Period

After 1911 Molla Näsr od-Din appeared only sporadically until just before the 1917 revolutions. Later on, after it was re-established in the Caucasus by 1922, either Mirza Jälil had undergone a dramatic evolution or was under pressure from the new Bolshevik authorities. It should be noted that his relationship with the various Soviet regimes was never a comfortable one, as can be seen from the memoir literature produced after “de-Stalinization,” and in stark contrast to the fairy tales produced by Stalinist-nationalist academia and uncritically parroted and even embellished by Iranian scholars. In this period, his writings are filled with feverish attacks on, for example, Islam and religion in general and classical Oriental literature.

Thus, he has this the following to say in a 1923 article: Link text Yeni Yol, no. 36 (November 26, 1923), in: Mirähmädov 1989, V:65. on the Shahname, no born Turk could pick it up and understand what he was reading and why he was reading it; on Sa`di, he made our children suffer with his lovely advice and all that flattery he wrote about the kings. Hafez’s verse had a thousand meanings but really meant nothing. He also attacked Azerbaijani literature, referring to Nabati as the bugger, Raji as the believer, Delsuz as the sinezan. Link text One who beats his breasts, specifically over the martyrdom of the Household of Imam ÝAli. He concludes this piece with an interesting comment: “If I heard that the lot of them had been thrown into an oven and burned - except for the Koran - I would not regret it a bit.” He then excepted the Sayahatnameye Ebrahim Bek, the writings of Mirza Malkom Khan, Akhundov, Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, Sabir, and Vaqif.

The next year, he wrote a polemicLink text Molla Näsr od-Din, “SheÝr Näshäsi”, Molla Näsr od-Din, no. 5 (April 6, 1924), in: Mirähmädov 1989, V:72-73. against Oriental poetry objecting to how it “has nothing in it but talk about love and sex.” Again, he objects that while in the West, poetry is straightforward and clear, Azerbaijani poetry sacrifices meaning to versification, and what content it has shows an obsession with the erotic lacking in the West. Poetry’s sacred duty is first of all the people’s salvation. He concludes, “If I had my way, I’d forbid people from getting high on poetry just as it is forbidden for people to get high on opium.”

Again, he expressesLink text Dali, “Bibliografia”, Molla Näsr od-Din, no. 15 (April 10, 1926), in: Mirähmädov 1989, V:121-123. his agreement with Soviet writers who objected to the publication of the works of a classical Russian poet who had praised a tsar. But he bristles at the suggestion by a former professor of Oriental studies in Baku that an exception must be made for Oriental literature, since the Oriental peoples adore poets who write such flattery about the ruling monarch. He rather quoted with approval another Soviet writer who said that classical poetry belonged in a museum of antiquities and should not be published for the education of modern readers. Link text Persian classical poetry appears twice more in Mirza Jälil’s writings towards the end of his life, once in derision -“the Persians’ qibla Sa`di” said it is a sin to disobey the monarch - and another time in a cliché-ridden Soviet-style piece on the theme of the rising of the Peoples of the East, where he uses Sa`di’s verse (Story 3, Chapter 1 of the Golestan), “Think not that every desert is empty, /It just might contain a sleeping tiger.” (Molla Näsr od-Din, “Khalifälär”, Molla Näsr od-Din, no. 20 (May 15, 1926), in: Mirähmädov 1989, V:134-135; and Molla Näsr od-Din, “Dayirman”, Molla Näsr od-Din, no. 14 (April 2, 1927), in: Mirähmädov (1989) V:172, respectively.)

Postscript: Kasravi and Book-Burning

Ahmad Kasravi, the illustrious Iranian historian, linguist, and social critic, was impressed with Molla Näsr od-Din. He relates in an autobiographical essay that he went to the Caucasus in July 1916 to seek his fortune. Link text “Chera az ÝAdliye birun Amadam?”, Parcham, no. 210 (Mehr 20, 1321/October 12, 1942). On his return, the only items he recalls bring as gifts were ten copies of Sabir’s Hophopnamä. Link text “Chera az ÝAdliye birun Amadam?”, Parcham, no. 211 (Mehr 22, 1321/October 14, 1942). In a later version of these memoirs, he recallsLink text Kasravi 1945, 73. meeting a nephew of Fa’eq No`manzadä, Mirza Jälil’s closest collaborator on Molla Näsr od-Din, and found himself in complete agreement with him on the crisis facing the Muslim world. With the exception of a brief spell of anti-Westernization in early 1934, when he demagogically attacked this magazine for its Wester¬nizing agenda, Link text In notes for the 1934 edition of his Tarikh-e Mashruteye Iran written at a time when Kasravi was courting the clergy in his campaign against Reza Shah’s forced Westernization, Kasravi refers to the journal as “extremist” and urges those who take exception to his own then comparatively mild and more circumspect criticism of the clergy to target such magazines and leave him alone; Peiman, II:7, 466. he always mentioned it with great respect. Link text See in particular Kasravi 1975, 271-273. Peiman, which he published in the mid-1930s, carried a cartoon first published in Molla Näsr od-Din illustrating a poem by Sabir lampooning Oriental poetry’s idealized woman, and he republished it in Parcham, which he issued in the early 1940s. Link text The graphic is by ÝÄzim ÝÄzimzadä and appeared in Kasravi’s Peiman, II:2 (Bahman 1313/February 1935), 113 and Parcham, no. 184 (Tir 4, 1321/June 25, 1942).

Starting in mid-April 1942, Kasravi published articles in Parcham renewing the campaign he had commenced in Peiman in 1313/1934 against the evils of poetry. His criticism targets poetry per se, and not Oriental or Islamic or Iranian poetry, calling useless, or even a sign of insanity, poetry that doesn’t serve a purpose (other than aesthetic). Link text “Dar Piramun She’r”, Parcham, no. 72 (Farvardin 20, 1321/April 19, 1942). Later articles fell back on the earlier critics of Iranian poetry - that it spread degenerate moral values and was nothing but a vehicle for slander or flattery. Link text “Yek Rashteye Zeshtiha’i niz ba She’r-sara’i Tava’am Ast”, Parcham, no. 74 (Ordebehesht 1, 1321/April 21, 1942). Although there was something to be said in favor of Ferdawsi, Link text Interestingly, this is said while agreeing with a femal reader that a particular verse of Ferdawsi’s was misogynous. “Havadari az Ferdawsi”, Parcham, no. 200 (Mehr 5, 1321/September 27, 1942). his extreme monarchism, for example, made him unacceptable for modern readers. Link text “Yek Namune az Andishehaye Parakande”, Parcham, no. 81 (Ordebehesht 9, 1321/April 29, 1942). Another characteristic feature of Kasravi’s attack on Iranian literature is his view that it resulted in the weakening of Iran’s martial prowess, thus bearing a large responsibility for the destruction of Iranian civilization at the hands of the invading Mongols. Link text “Hafez Che Miguyand?”, Parcham, no. 223 (Aban 11, 1321/November 2, 1942).

Finally, on the approach of the anniversary of the founding of his society, the Bahamad-e Azadegan, on the first of Azar, he declared that this was to be a holiday on which destructive books were to be incinerated. Link text “Yekom Azar Mah, Ya Nokhostin ÝEid-e Azadegan”, Parcham, no. 230 (Aban 19, 1321/November 10, 1942). The phrasing of this announcement makes it appear that this was a long-standing tradition in this party, although the first mention of burning a book we could find in Kasravi is his comment that the works of Iraj Mirza “should be thrown on the fire.” “Yek Rashteye Zeshtiha’i niz ba She`r-sara’i Tava’am Ast”, Parcham, no. 75 (Ordebehesht 2, 1321/April 22, 1942). See also Jung 1976, 135, who also holds that the first book-burning was held in Dey 1321/January 1943. Some hold that Kasravi’s attitude towards literature derives from that of Mirza Aqa Khan KermaniLink text Adamiat 1978, 27. and his inspiration for how to deal with it was the Nazi book burnings, since these would have been freshest in the minds of that generation. But it seems to me at least as likely that the obsessions of one great man as he was entering his decline were echoed by those of another at a similar point in his life.


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Molla Näsr od-Din. Tbilisi, Tabriz, Baku.

Parcham. Tehran.

Peiman. Tehran.

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