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10 February 2023

Molla Nasreddin - the Man and the Magazine

Molla Nasreddin magazine highlighted the hypocrisy of the Muslim clergy, the inequality of women, the imposed backwardness of the poor due to inadequate education and the unreasonable disdain of the Russified intelligentsia towards all things Azerbaijani.

Molla Nasreddin - the Man and the Magazine

Image: Wikimedia Commons 

Very often, the statues you find in the Caspian region are of regally adorned poets, ardent politicians or valiant warriors – the latter often seated upon a galloping steed. However, from Uzbekistan to Turkiye, you’ll occasionally stumble across an altogether more comical figure - a clownish old fellow riding an undersized donkey that he seems in danger of crushing with his portly bulk.   

In Bukhara, Samarkand, the man is waving distractedly while coming perilously close to losing his loose, pointed slipper. In several Turkish cities, you’ll find the same figure riding the donkey backwards.   

A picture containing mammal, donkey

Description automatically generated Image: Social Media 

That’s because this character is no typical warrior hero. He’s a philosopher-jester famed for an almost unwitting wisdom and speaking truth to power. He’s known as Nasrettin Hoca in Turkiye or Molla Nasreddin further east, both Hoca (Hodja) and Molla meaning ‘teacher’ or ‘spiritual guide.’ In parts of Central Asia, the name is Kozhanasyr. But the different names all refer to the same amiably straight-talking figure.   

There are many claims that the character is based on an actual individual supposed to have been born in 1208, around 100km southwest of today’s Turkish capital, Ankara. Others say that such a man lived in Central Asia.   

Man of a Myriad Stories 

However, Molla Nasreddin has long since become an archetype – a humorously figurative character who might be the butt of a joke yet still manages to come up with wise nuggets. These are seen as having a range of meanings in cultural and political contexts and, at times, appear to have a satirical edge. Indeed, Molla Nasreddin has become so well known as a veritable genre of storytelling that his name has become associated with an anecdote-telling art form inscribed by UNESCO on the list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity since 2022.   

The typical structure of a ‘wise’ Nasreddin aphorism goes something like this:   

Molla Nasreddin was serving as qadi [Islamic judge]. A case was brought between two of his neighbours who had a dispute.    

Molla Nasreddin listened attentively to the charges of the first and concluded carefully, "Yes, dear neighbour, you are quite right."   

Then the other came to him. Nasreddin listened to his defence with similar concern and pronounced: "Yes, dear neighbour, you are quite right."   

The Molla's wife, having overheard both conversations, scolded him: "Husband, both men can’t be right!"   

Molla Nasreddin answered diplomatically - "Yes, dear wife, you’re quite right."   

Meanwhile, a comically halfwitted Nasreddin is more in evidence with a tale like this:   

One afternoon the Mollah realized that he’d dropped his ring in the living room. After searching for a while, he went outside and started looking in the yard instead. His wife found him there and quizzed him: "Husband! You lost the ring inside – so why are you searching for it in the yard?” Stroking his beard, the Molla answered: "The room is too dark, and my vision is poor. So I thought I’d look in the courtyard where there’s much more light."   

Molla Nasreddin – the Magazine 

Tales of this type are the foundation behind a long-running Molla Nasreddin periodical, a satirical Azerbaijani 8-page mini-magazine with cartoon-like illustrations in a style that has been described as “reminiscent of a Caucasian Toulouse-Lautrec” by talented artists, including Azim Azimzadeh and Khalil Bey Musayev.