Menu Close

Mullahs to Donkeys: Cartooning in Azerbaijan

1 By Alison Mandaville
Figure 1: “The Fainting of Layla and Majnun.” From Leyla and Mejnun by Nizami Ganjava. Shiraz (now in Iran), Late 16th century folio. Wikipedia Commons.

Figure 2: “The Haji Travels to Mecca.” Molla Nasreddin. (circa 1906-1917). Zerkala Database. All Molla Nasreddin Images that follow are available through the Zerkala Database. Trns. of writing on cloud by Jon Mandaville.2

In Azerbaijan there is a saying about the material power of words: “The tip of a pen [is as] the power of the sword” (Garibova). A small country of about 8.4 million people bordering Russia and Georgia to the north, Iran to the south, Armenia and Turkey to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east, Azerbaijan has long been steeped in narratives that bring together word and image. From the colorful illuminated manuscripts of the poet Nizami’s (1141-1209) that lie in a glass case in the Treasures room at the British Library, to the brash caricature-filled satirical journal of Molla Nasreddin (1906-1931), residents of this part of the world have long been connected to literature and politics through both word and image, often brought together in what one might call proto-comics or cartoons.3 Remarkably well-preserved walls in the Khan’s Palace in the northern city of Sheki tell stories of historical and legendary battles in sequentially painted images bordering rooms at eye level. Manuscripts in the small museum of the high-altitude village Khinaluq are reminiscent of Arabic calligraphic arts, words echoing the shapes of flowers, with twisting stems and tulip-like heads. In downtown Baku, construction screens feature murals of Fizuli’s illustrated poetry.4

Figure 3: Wall Ribbon Murals, Khans’s Palace. Sheki, Azerbaijan. Photo by Marlys Mandaville, 2008.
Figure 4: Calligraphy. Xinaluq Museum. Photo by Marlys Mandaville, 2008.
Figure 5: Calligraphy Close-up. Xinaluq Museum, Azerbaijan. Photo by Marlys Mandaville, 2008.
Figure 6: Fizuli Construction Screen. Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo by Marlys Mandaville

In this article I explore this region’s long connection to illustrated literature through its complex roots in both the visual materiality of words and the narrative power of images, particularly satirical. I discuss the decimation of the country’s literary environment following the dissolution of the USSR and, finally, the potential for re-emergence of a vibrant indigenous literature that draws on this complex tradition of narrative imagery. Despite a wealth of history in the illustrated and comic arts, with the exception of some scholarship on the satirical journal Molla Nasreddin, on which I rely below, little formal research on the workings of word and image in these local artistic forms is available, particularly in English. I should add that although I speak of the “comic arts,” because examples of the cartoon arts in Azerbaijan that I was able to find were limited to single-panel or animated pieces, this article primarily concerns cartoon and caricature. Like Alaniz – who, despite saying he adheres to Scott McCloud’s definition of comics for his study, finally notes that he is less concerned with precise definition of the form than with a “comics sensibility” – I write here about Azerbaijani cartoon and caricature that entertains a certain “comics sensibility” (7). I hope my preliminary thinking on these topics will soon lead to further research and richer conversations about the comic arts in this region.5

Arts, as long as they were perceived to serve “the people” and observe the party-line, were supported to a limited extent throughout the USSR and its allied nations. Official writers’ and cartoonists’ unions were sanctioned under Soviet influence from Cuba to Azerbaijan (Cooper). Nevertheless, despite the existence of such official “cartoonists’ unions,” José Alaniz’s recently published study of Russian “komiks” makes the case that in the former Soviet state of Russia, the comics form has long struggled for recognition:

From their origins in the religious icon-making and book illustration tradition, to the immensely popular lubok or woodblock print of the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, to their vilification and marginalization under the communists, to their economic struggles and Internet “migration” in the post-Soviet era, komiks have often borne the brunt of ideological change – burning in the summers of relative freedom, freezing in the hard winters of official disdain. (4)

However, while comic arts have been marginalized in Russia, it is harder to say the same for Azerbaijan. Part of the reason for the difference may lie in the roots of the form in each region.

Azerbaijan shares with Russia a history of religious illustration and iconography (though it would not be so labeled in Azerbaijan)6, particularly in the greater region under Persian influence until the early nineteenth century, when the Russian Czarist Empire firmly established governance of Northern Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan also shares with Russia a tradition of illustrated satire. Alaniz notes the existence of “wicked” satire in some Russian lubok, but observes that these satirical “proto-comics” were primarily produced and consumed by “the masses” (24). By contrast, by the early twentieth century, in the greater region of Azerbaijan and the Caucasus, including what is now northern Iran as well as Georgia, satirical cartoon and caricature was a form of literary critique enjoyed by the working classes and intelligentsia alike (Afray 3).

Another reason for the differing reception of “cartoon” in the two countries may lie in the relatively stronger prose literary environment of Russia when compared to that of Azerbaijan. In Russia, a centuries-old community of internationally recognized prose “literati” has dominated the literary arts, with the result that many Russian writers see the visual comics form as a lesser art when compared to the “great” prose literature with which they still feel very much connected. Alaniz writes that “komiks had to carve out a niche in a profoundly word-based culture that placed a strong emphasis on literaturnost (‘literariness’)” (8). The work of Azerbaijan’s small aging “literati” (from Soviet days) is, at least ostensibly, less contiguous with the region’s pre-Soviet literary traditions than with Russia’s Soviet-era literary traditions. In the country today, with a virtual collapse of the publishing industry, there is a dearth of creative prose literature being published, and most of that only in very small runs of about 500 copies (Kocharli 5). Nor are many of these newer works seen as connected to either Soviet-era modernist or pre-Soviet traditional literature. As I will discuss more specifically later, poetry and prose by younger authors are often criticized by older writers as not being “literary” and as simply seeking fame and “mass” appeal – interestingly, a critique not unlike that which has been commonly brought against “popular” comics elsewhere in the world, whether in the capitalist or communist spheres. Russian Soviet attitudes towards comics ran remarkably parallel to those of Americans in the decades running up to the formation of the Comics Code Authority in the United States in 1954. As Alaniz notes, the Soviet party line towards comics “[f]or the most part…labeled them pseudo-literature for eroded capitalist minds that needed pictures to follow the story. The stories themselves only polluted those minds with lies, immorality, and bourgeois propaganda” (69). He notes that in 1958 critic Isaac Lapitsky described comics as “primitively colored” texts that “inculcate a hatred of people and implant a cult of violence and sadism” (69). This commentary finds unexpected precedent in the words of American author Sterling North, who wrote of comics in a much-reprinted 1940 Chicago Daily News piece:

Badly drawn, badly written and badly printed – a strain on young eyes and young nervous systems – the effect of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoil the child’s natural sense of color; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder makes the child impatient with better, though quieter stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazines (qtd. in Beaty 114).

Where comics in the rest of the world have been often seen as violent and crude, so has much of the “new” prose literature in Azerbaijan. Moreover, although the 19th century oil boom brought with it wealth and progressive philanthropic investments in education, from the tone of journal articles discussed below, it is not at all clear that the population of Azerbaijan – even in the cities – read much prose at all before the Bolshevik takeover of Baku and the Soviet drive for universal literacy.7 Even more surprisingly, although 2007 United Nations surveys indicate that the country now enjoys a 99% literacy rate (“Social Indicators”)8, the culture remains fundamentally orally based (which may account for the early and dramatically high level of adoption of mobile phones in the country in the past twenty years).9 Azerbaijan’s decided lack of a “word-based culture” like Russia’s seems to have been a central issue for local publishing more than a century ago. Garibova mentions and quotes from the aforementioned early twentieth century magazine Molla Nasreddin, which, as she says,

satirizes a scene Molla passed every day as he walked through the city: “Every evening when I take a stroll and see my fellow countrymen, my heart swells up with pride. I see how much they enjoy themselves in the ‘Governor’s Park’ [where the Philharmonic stands today], each having his arm around one of the coiffured Russian ladies. I really feel proud because, thank God, they are so advanced. No nation in the world enjoys themselves more than we Azerbaijanis do. Sometimes you see these stupid Russians, Armenians, Polish and others sitting on a bench, squinting their eyes to read a ‘Baku’ or ‘Caspian’ newspaper, or talking about politics. What a headache!” (1996)

This passage expresses satirical frustration with a majority ethnic Azerbaijani population that, unlike its fellows who speak primarily other languages, seems determined to avoid reading – at least reading newspapers – and so partaking in informed discussions of global news.

Whether this means that the population was not reading other kinds of materials, it may be impossible to say, however, readership of any kind seems to have been of concern. According to Tadeusz Swietochowski, at the turn of the century, despite significant efforts to reform the maktabs (primary schools), “[t]he overall literacy rate remained at the appallingly low level of 4 to 5 percent” (Russian Azerbaijan). Perhaps because much of the region’s most famous literature until the 19th century had been written and published in Persian (Fizuli’s work being an exception), the first issue of the Tbilisi-published Azerbaijani language newspaper Sharq-i Rus (1903-04) went so far as to say “We lack a literary language” (qtd. in Swietochowski, Russian Azerbaijan 61). Of the magazine’s founder Jelil Memmedkuluzade’s motivations for publishing this journal, the scholar Aziz 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 many individuals prior to committing them to print” so as to try them on a sample readership. (qtd. in Paksoy 8)

Here, that the editor “read” the contents of his journal aloud to a variety of invididuals prior to publication suggests an audience more willing to “listen” than to read.10 Both passages demonstrate a strong belief in the significance of literature and “words” to life in a globalized world and make connections between a “reading” culture and a globally oriented and politically active society. Such an effort to bring the population together into political awareness and dialogue through language and the printed word was, as Benedict Anderson points out in his study of print-capitalism and nationalism in Imagined Communities, fundamental to “imagining” a national community. He writes, “Above all, the very idea of ‘nation’ is now nestled firmly in virtually all print-languages; and nation-ness is virtually inseparable from political consciousness” (135). Developing a common investment in one local language was particularly important to ‘nation’ in a place like the Caucasus where the population spoke dozens, if not hundreds, of different languages. And yet, perhaps, “print” does not necessarily mean the printed “word.” Both passages above, regarding the journal Molla Nasreddin, also clearly demonstrate a frustration with a local lack of interest and cultural investment in the world of written “words.” That this journal was most famous for its visual cartoon and caricature speaks to a recognition by its editors that in the cultural context of Azerbaijan, another form of printed narrative besides words might have been needed to bring the population into the world of print narrative. Of other communicative or narrative media Anderson writes that “as with increasing speed capitalism transformed the means of physical and intellectual communication, the intelligentsias found ways to bypass print in propagating the imagined community, not merely to illiterate masses, but even to literate masses reading different languages” (140, emphasis in original). Though he is speaking of the electronic media of late-term capitalism (“especially radio and television”), in the case of Azerbaijan it is interesting to consider Anderson’s words as they might apply here to printed “images,” in a sense the precursors of the mass electronic imagery of television and film (135).

Finally, where Alaniz laments the presence of everything “mass culture” except comics in post-Soviet Russia, in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, also a very post-modern space in the sense of a flattening of culture, comics did not suffer particular exclusion. Contemporary “taste” in Azerbaijan across fashion and literature appears, from the Western eye, to reflect a collapse of high and low culture, thoroughly jumbled (in a somewhat wonderful way), and literature is part and parcel of the jumble. When asked about great new American authors, Azerbaijanis at the Azerbaijan Language University (also known locally as the “Foreign Language University”) wanted to speak to me about Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame. The state university curriculum in English Literature teaches a unit on the “Detective Genre,” and the section on “new” American Literature includes Science Fiction authors such as Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke right alongside F. Scott Fizgerald and William Faulkner (Program of the Azerbaijan Republic: Great Britain, USA, and Australian National Literature, 2001). What appears to be a jumble, however, is probably not any more so than in Western cultural spaces. The foreign language curriculum collapse of what native English speakers in the United States might see as “literary” and “popular” or “genre” fiction, continues, even during independence, to reflect past priorities of Soviet planners (and powers) in education: all of the “new” American writers taught were perceived to be sympathetic to socialist or communist views. And while it may be the case that resources have prevented significant revision of these curricular priorities over the past twenty years, it is also true that those now teaching the curriculum were also educated under it and have internalized it as a true “canon” of American literature, with particular categories and examplars of those categories. That this alternate system of cultural categorization applies not only to foreign literature but also to local literature was revealed to me when Azerbaijani students and colleagues, asked about contemporary Azerbaijani literature, most often mentioned Chingiz Akif Abdullayev, a past Soviet intelligence officer most famous for his detective novels. Tastes in contemporary cultural production are also now certainly influenced by what the population has access to via globalized media – which, in turn, continues to be largely filtered through imports from Russia and Turkey, both of which offer texts in languages understood by much of the Azerbaijani population. But, while it is true that access has certainly played a strong role in shaping what is considered “literary” in the country, the Azerbaijani sense of “the literary” is nonetheless described locally as a coherent aesthetic, albeit one that often contrasts with Western ideas of “taste.”

As is the case in Russia, in Azerbaijan comics and cartooning do not appear to be well supported economically. For example, the web cartoon series I discuss towards the end of this article is currently on hold for lack of funds. However, it is hard to single out the cartoon arts as any less well supported than other forms of art and literature in the country. In fact, it could be argued that, through the Internet, the visual and comic arts of Azerbaijan have more successfully come into the twenty-first century, and have better maintained contemporary currency in the brief period of independence, than have the prose arts. While internationally recognized Russian prose authors today have maintained some productive continuity with a rich twentieth-century modern prose tradition, Azerbaijan’s own modern prose traditions – at least those that have reached a significant portion of the population – are largely rooted in a period of perceived “importation” of Soviet influence, against which national identity, particularly for young people, is now being structured.11 Though the relationship with Russia is complex and not unfriendly, as do many groups newly independent of colonial influence, Azerbaijanis – a genealogical and cultural mix of various Asian and European peoples – have reached back to a time before Soviet influence to frame their “common” cultural roots. Anderson writes of the nationalist narratives of other colonized groups, “Spanish-speaking mestizo Mexicans trace their ancestries, not to Castilian conquistadors, but to half-obliterated Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs and Zapotecs. Uruguayan revolutionary patriots, creoles themselves, took up the name of Tupac Amaru, the last great indigenous rebel against creole oppression, who died under unspeakable tortures in 1781” (154). And in Azerbaijan, the most widely popular indigenous modern literary tradition may, in fact, be that of caricature and cartoon.

The first efforts at establishment of an “Azerbaijani” national identity through language and literature were rooted in print media that combined text and image. This combination of word and image in national heritage continued to be celebrated with the centennial of the establishment of the satirical journal Molla Nasreddin (1906-1931). In 2006, Bayram Hacizadeh, himself a nationally respected cartoonist and current president of the cartoonists’ union, wrote of the significance of a medium combining image and text to Azerbaijani cultural production, saying “Life itself has created this magazine, [which played a] great role in the development of social and cultural conscious[ness] of Azeri people. Life, being full of social contradictions, put duties both in front of literature and descriptive art” (par. 2, emphasis mine). In the past few years, a heritage organization of the USSR, the “Azerbaijan Cartoonists’ Union,” has managed to pick up this thread and renew itself. Three years ago, it launched a new international cartoon contest, named after that most revered of satirical comic figures, and the oil boom era magazine that bears his name, “Molla Nasreddin.” According to the Azerbaijani Cartoonists’ Union website, 331 cartoonists from 56 countries submitted entries to this year’s contest (2010), of whom twenty-three were Azerbaijani cartoonists. Though their website continues to be an on-again, off-again work-in-progress, they publicize events and exhibitions with some regularity, drawing interest and submissions to their annual contest from the CIS member countries as well as from Europe and the Middle East.12 As I alluded to earlier, the focus of this revival appears to mainly be on single panel cartoons, a move that makes sense given the strong background of cartoon caricature in this region. Beyond a few multipage comics in a new children’s magazine, Elli, available at newsstands, I have not yet discovered a significant printed “comics” presence in Azerbaijan, where comics is defined à la Scott McCloud as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” (9).13

That the comic arts hold particular promise for invigorating Azerbaijani cultural (and political) development was recently “officially” recognized when the U.S. Embassy brought Economist political cartoonist Kal (Kevin Kallaugher) to Azerbaijan in 2008 to meet with local cartoonists and journalists. His visit was part of a broader effort by the U.S. to support openness in journalism. Despite the obvious politics behind this visit, Kal was given a big welcome; Azerbaijanis were eager to discuss with him the differing standards regarding critical portrayal of political leaders in the U.S. as compared to Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan it is rare to encounter direct critique of leaders in either word or image; in the U.S. it seems to be the norm. Despite this relatively open discussion, Kal reflected after his visit that Azerbaijan was one of what he called the “new” nations that “[a]fter decades of Communist single party rule… have no tradition of robust, healthy and open political debate. These nations’ powerbrokers are skeptical and distrustful of criticism. These new countries struggle to embrace political dissent in the media and cartoons” (Kallaugher).

Well…yes and no.

Cartooning often relies on “making fun” of “truths” a society holds inviolable – or “self-evident.”

Figure 7: Former president Heydar Aliev near Sheki, Azerbaijan. Figures 7 and 8, photos by author.
Figure 8: Former President Heydar Aliev and son and current president Ilham Aliev near Sheki, Azerbaijan.

In Azerbaijan, where billboards featuring larger-than-life images of the current and previous presidents, Ilham Aliev and his father Heydar Aliev, not only appear every few city blocks, but adorn every countryside village; and where public critique of the country’s leaders is subject to censorship and prosecution through the national “grave crimes” law, it is hard to imagine being willing to risk working in a form that “makes fun” of these figures.14 Nevertheless, visual media continue to be among the more popular forms for narrative political critique – in no small part because, at some level, images offer an aesthetic experience not often found locally today in prose. A dozen clips from (non-political) animated cartoons produced in Azerbaijan during the Soviet period and the 1990s have made the technological jump to the Internet and have been posted to YouTube. And the popular and intellectual tradition of critique through satirical image found in the aforementioned magazine Molla Nasreddin finds its Azerbaijani progeny on the internet. As reported in the New York Times, in 2009 a YouTube live-action video by Azerbaijani activist bloggers depicting a mock press conference with a cartoonish character in a donkey suit offered a satirical critique of government expenditures and lack of support for human rights (Barry). In Azerbaijan, “donkey” is a pejorative term for someone who is something of an idiot, a usage similar to the English word “ass.” In the video (which now sports roughly translated English subtitles), the donkey receives utmost respect and is, in fact, treated better than Azerbaijan’s own human citizens. Both the film itself and the subsequent arrest and imprisonment, just weeks after its posting, of its creator Adnan Hacizade and fellow activist Emin Milli (on what appear to be trumped up charges of “hooliganism”) reflect the enduring and locally specific power of image and caricature in this country. While local views on this situation vary widely, and include some interesting analysis of the role of the foreign media in publicizing this event and concern about the role of the activists in possibly instigating their own imprisonment, by June 2010, everyone I spoke to in Baku seemed to know about the video and uproar.15 The two activists were convicted in September 2009 to two and two and a half years in prison, respectively. They remain in prison today, despite efforts by the international journalism community and Amnesty International on behalf of their release.

Text as Image – And Its Discontents

Figure 9: Cover Image Molla Nasreddin. This image marks the shift from an Arabic to a Latin alphabet between 1926-1929 (Garibova).

In addition to Azerbaijan’s lengthy relationship with Russia, and so with Russian and Soviet literature, the practice of making words visible as concrete images in Azerbaijan should also be considered in the context of the complex relationship Islam has had with representative imagery. Although in recent centuries most Muslims have agreed that depiction of people and animals through imagery is acceptable, for many it remains problematic to depict God or the prophet Mohammed – and particularly to do so in caricature, deemed an irreverent form. The conservative Muslim prohibition against depicting the prophet Mohammed in image form came to the attention of the West in September of 2005, when a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, published a number of satirical cartoons featuring the prophet. Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, discussed this incident in an article, “Drawing Blood,” in Harper’s, exploring the remarkable power of cartoon imagery, even more than photography, to exacerbate political and cultural division between East and West (42-53). W.J.T. Mitchell defines “pictures” more broadly than images or comics, as “the entire situation in which an image has made its appeareance” (xiv). However, his discussion of racism and what he calls “pictures” seems particularly relevant to this controversy, and by extension to the potential power of images – and their accompanying “pictures” – in Azerbaijan. He writes,

For it is the pictures – the stereotypes, the caricatures, the peremptory, prejudicial images that mediate between persons and social groups – that seem to take on a life of their own – and a deadly, dangerous life at that – in the rituals of the racist (or sexist) encounter. And it is precisely because the status of these pictures is so slippery and mobile, ranging from phenomenological universals, cognitive templates for categories of otherness, to virulently prejudicial distortions, that their life is so difficult to contain. (297)

Just this year (2010), the animated television program South Park was censored by its own network, Comedy Central, for its episode satirizing the prohibition against depicting the prophet Mohammed. (Mohammed was never actually depicted in the episodes, but was presumed to be inside a bear costume and under the label “CENSORED” [Itzkof].) A Facebook group formed following this incident to urge “everybody” to draw a picture of the prophet on May 20, 2010, has drawn criticism around the world and prompted the government of Pakistan to ask Internet providers to restrict access to Facebook and, on May 20, to expand the ban to YouTube (Tavernise).

While its government is secular, Azerbaijan is a predominately Islamic country, with a majority of the population identifying themselves as Shiite, the dominant form of Islam in neighboring Iran. In part due to decades of USSR opposition to religious expression, the number of publicly devout, much less conservative, adherents to Islam in Azerbaijan is still small. Nevertheless, Islam forms a strong cultural context today in Azerbaijan; and literary and artistic forms of the region have reflected aspects of the complex relation to image and narrative that developed throughout the Islamic world. By the 8th century CE, some interpretations of passages in the Koran and the Hadiths concerning human-made images of the prophet, and even of everyday people and animals, were interpreted to mean that artworks mimicking God’s own creativity were forbidden. (The Judeo-Christian tradition also includes a prohibition against representation and worship of God in image form – the prohibition against “graven images.”) The calligraphic “flower” writing I mentioned above, found in a museum in one of the Northern Azerbaijani mountain communities that identify themselves as devout Sunni, is representative of artistic responses to this prohibition in the Muslim world.16 By contrast, individuals identifying as Shiite have had a different interpretation of these passages, resulting, for example, in the familiar and richly representative Persian imagery best known in the West through exported carpets and painted “miniatures.” Some critics have already connected these miniatures with contemporary comics, particularly with the carefully framed and stylized artwork of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir, Persepolis, about the author’s childhood during the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Hilary Chute writes, “Satrapi’s technique also specifically references ancient Persian miniatures, murals, and friezes, especially in the frequent scenes in which public skirmishes appear as stylized and even symmetrical formations of bodies” (98).

Muslim, and proud of a regional written literature that goes back well into the 13th and 14th centuries and is intertwined with illustration and illumination, Azerbaijan’s people are also closely attuned to the political power of word as image – both figuratively and materially. In periods of independence, both for the twenty-odd months during which the country first established itself as an independent nation in 1918-1920 and then in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, as I have discussed, language and literature have served as markers of national identity and unity. In his study “The Politics of a Literary Language and the Rise of National Identity in Russian Azerbaijan before 1920,” Tadeusz Swietochowski discusses how distinguishing local language and literature from those of neighboring countries was a core element in the push for new nationalism by the region’s intellectual and progressive elite. Indeed, orthography itself – the very alphabet by which Azerbaijani was and would be written and read, or, after Mitchell, “pictured” – became a significant marker of cultural and political identity and modernity. Those pushing for national independence and modernization promoted a shift from Arabic to Latin script, a graphic and symbolic shift that would be picked up and brought to completion in the 1920s in the early days of Bolshevik rule (Fierman).

In the Soviet and post-Soviet period, national identity has also been closely tied to the region’s art and literature. Streets, squares and metro stations are named after authors who wrote about the Caucasus (Tolstoy, Pushkin) as well as for local artists, writers and composers (Hajibeyov, Nizami, Fizuli, Xatai). Statues of poets adorn squares – for example, the downtown statues of Natavan, a woman famous for both her poetry and her municipal works and activism in the 19th century, and of Sabir, a poet-contributor to the magazine Molla Nasreddin. The Nizami Museum of Literature, which, next to the ancient “Maiden Tower,” is probably the most photographed building in Azerbaijan, was under renovation during 2007-8, so I was unable to go inside, but the new exterior of white plaster and mosaic was stunning. The building holds pride of place at the very center of downtown Baku. National literary tradition is clearly a powerful ideology today. Yet orthography, or how literature gets written, appears to matter more and have more effect than literary content or its authors.

In this region language itself, and how it is “pictured,” has long been understood to be politically powerful and culturally significant. However, at the same time that the language management policies of the USSR and subsequent independent government underscored the material significance of written language, such aggressive management of letters also stripped printed language of some aesthetic resonance.17 Print narratives have come to be seen by many as merely political or economic tools. In the period during which the population became universally literate under the educational programs of the USSR, the alphabet by which Azerbaijani was written changed significantly three times, from Arabic to Latin (1926-29) to Cyrillic (1939) back to a modified Latin (codified 1992, enforced 2004). These were overtly political changes that created a readership largely affectively dissociated from their own impermanent alphabet. Although historical regional literature by such illustrious names as Nizami, Nasimi, and Fizuli is still clearly (and vociferously) valued, and 99-100% of the population is literate, the number of people reading and writing for pleasure, particularly in Azerbaijani, appears to have dropped dramatically since the dissolution of the USSR (UN Data). Literacy is valued as a necessary tool, but not enjoyed. Books printed before 1991 in Azerbaijani use Cyrillic script, which most young people are no longer being taught. Members of the population who read Cyrillic fluently do not comfortably read the new alphabet, limiting their choices to older or Russian texts. Daily life offers a demonstration of the continuing political utility of orthography. Current laws strictly regulate the script that must be used for public signage and publications, and even dictate the sizing and placement of the official national language relative to other languages when printed together: Latinized Azerbaijani must be larger than any other languages (or scripts) used on public signs or publications.18 As a result of all this management of written language, together with the collapse of print publishing in Azerbaijan, the country is just now emerging from a kind of “literary fatigue,” an after-effect of “Alphabet Disease,” a term that, as Toby Lester discovered, journalists in Azerbaijan were using broadly to describe their country’s linguistic and orthographic health – or lack thereof – in the 1990s (Lester).

Print publishing is in trouble all over the world – yet even among writers, Azerbaijan’s literary environment lacks energy and cohesion. The few younger writers I spoke with expressed frustration with what they called the “Soviet attitude” of the older generation of writers (Aliakper), while the older generation of writers expressed disgust with what they saw as younger writers’ deployment of sex and profanity in their writing “just to get attention” (Masud). One writer, a web cartoonist and newspaper editor I will discuss in more detail below, put it more starkly, saying that literature in Azerbaijan is “in a coma” (Talishinsky qtd. in Mandaville). Thanks to globalization and increasing access to Internet sources outside their own country, young Azerbaijanis are turning to non-Azerbaijani contemporary culture, including and especially on the Internet, to fill a perceived vacuum in the currency of their own country’s narrative culture. Though the place of Azerbaijani as a spoken and official written language seems assured, Azerbaijan’s future literary culture is in danger of soon being found only in other languages.

Image as Text – The Respectable Cartoon

Figure 10: Cover Molla Nasreddin No.47 (1909).

Enter visual narrative. Visual narrative media continue to hold broad appeal for this country’s population. While certainly not free of politics and subject to a rapidly shifting technological ground, visual media have not had to “change alphabets” repeatedly, nor are visuals as easy to prosecute as “saying” any particular thing. It is therefore easier to use images to approach the powerful and controversial contemporary themes upon which relevant narrative is based. Moreover, in Azerbaijan, the use of a visual aesthetic medium as both narrative and mass political critique is a homegrown phenomenon, with contiguous roots in literary traditions spanning the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. This is fundamentally different from the contemporary attitude towards a comics tradition in Russia, which as Alaniz argues, “as far as both the public and many comics artists themselves are concerned, … has no one-hundred-year, or fifty-year, or even twenty-year store of traditions, nor – thanks to the Soviets – no [sic] institutional memory of comics practice beyond occasional children’s short stories” (5).

Unlike in Russia, in Azerbaijan, the “institutional memory” of “comics practice” is strong, thanks in large part to the serendipitous connection of cartoon imagery to a centuries-old, well-established and beloved regional satirical folk figure named “Molla Nasreddin.” Just one of hundreds of satirical magazines published in the greater Azerbaijan region during the first two decades of the twentieth century, the journal Molla Nasreddin, mentioned above, and founded in 1906 by Jelil Memmedkuluzade (1866-1932), would be among the best remembered, connecting print media with a beloved figure of oral folk literature. Written primarily in the Azerbaijani language, the magazine was published from 1906 to 1931, in 748 issues, moving between the three major regional cities of Tblisi (1906-1917, in what is now Georgia), Tabriz (1921, in what is now Northern Iran) and Baku (1922-1931, the capital of modern Azerbaijan) (Javadi). The journal included a variety of satirical prose, cultural commentary and even novels (in installments). But the magazine was best known for its satirical images, which offered veiled social and political critique. Paksoy explores how “the use of satire as a political tool has a long history in the Turkish domains of Central Asia” (9). Satire can offer an end-run around official censorship, and, even more than satirical prose, images can avoid some of the restrictions set on political expression. Janet Afary writes: “This illustrated satirical paper, which circulated among Iranian intellectuals and ordinary people alike, was enormously popular in the region because of its graphic cartoons. The paper was also known for its advocacy of companionate marriage and opposition to both pedophilia and pederasty” (3). It seems the magazine’s cartoons were pivotal to its popularity. In its first years of publication, Molla Nasreddin had the highest circulation of any Azerbaijani language newspaper at 5,000 copies a week (Swietochowski, Russian Azerbaijan 61). Subscribers hailed from as far away as India and Afghanistan, and Swietochowski states, citing N. Akhundov’s research, that “[t]he aficionados of the magazine included illiterates who enjoyed its famous cartoons” (57).

While Azerbaijanis wrote the journal’s prose and poetry from the first, several European artists residing in Tbilisi, particularly German artists Oskar Schmerling and Joseph Rotter, initially contributed images. Later, ethnic Azerbaijanis, primarily Azim Azimzadeh (1880-1943), began to contribute cartoon and caricature to the magazine (Paksoy 7). Nevertheless, the images, like the prose and poetry, are remembered as indigenous. Tellingly, in contemporary Azerbaijani sources including the journal Azerbaijan International and the Azerbaijan Catoonists’ Union website, the German artists who were so critical to the early visual art of the magazine are not even mentioned. Azimzadeh is celebrated as Azerbaijan’s first cartoonist, and the country marks “World Cartoon and Cartoonists Day” by the magazine’s first publication date, April 7, 1906.

The journal’s cartoons, humorous and cutting, included captions as well as text as part of the images – that is, words are often drawn on objects and characters’ bodies, and emanating from characters as speech (similar to today’s “word balloons” in comics). Together, these visual pieces critiqued political and religious hypocrisy and corruption and promoted liberal values, such as women’s rights, often juxtaposing the “old” with the “new” in split frames or even sequential images, as in Figures 11 and 12.

Figure 11: Cartoon image from Molla Nasreddin contrasting modern and traditional culture. Artist, Joseph Rotter. Circa 1906-1917.

In what, in hindsight, would be a brilliant move by its founders, Molla Nasreddin drew its title from a folkloric figure, a foolishly wise Molla (religious leader) to whom more than a thousand humorous and satirical anecdotes have been attributed, some traced back at least to the 13th century (and perhaps even further back to an 11th century Arab character who became conflated with Nasreddin) (Marzolph 171). Predating modern nations and geographic divisions, the comedic tales are attributed by some researchers to areas from Central Asia, through the Middle East, and even into Europe. As Marzolph points out, one of the definitive collections of these tales, Albert Wesselski’s Der Hodscha Nasreddin, was subtitled “Turkish, Arabic, Berber, Maltese, Sicilian, Calabrian, Croatian, Serbian, and Greek Tales and Anecdotes” (157). Nevertheless, within Azerbaijan, Nasreddin is a respected figure claimed by and perceived to be closely aligned with Azerbaijani (and Persian) national and ethnic identity, a figure now firmly bound to the cartoon images promulgated by the magazine. Marzolph’s commentary on the remarkable temporal flexibility of anecdotes featuring Nasreddin, which are as beloved today as they were hundreds of years ago, might be applied as well to his cartoon image, now over 100 years old. He writes,

“The narrators of Nasr al-Din [i.e. Nasreddin] anecdotes have been wise not to allow him too deep an involvement in the questions of the day, rather portraying him as an amiable fool with an inclination towards absurd philosophy. This fascinating ability of adaptation has enabled the character to gain the almost unchallenged position in Near Eastern humor he has occupied for several centuries” (174).

Evan Siegel calls the magazine “the flagship and the vanguard of the efflorescence of Azerbaijani culture which was set off by the 1905 revolution which rocked the Czarist empire” (231). And because of the magazine’s popular images, this is an “unchallenged position” inextricable from cartoon. For Azerbaijanis today, the figure of Molla Nasreddin is best known through his cartoon image – but respected for his long historical presence. The reputation of cartoon art has benefitted by association, gaining credibility through the character by which much of the population was first introduced to the art form of satirical images.

Figure 12: From Molla Nasreddin.

Though the anti-establishment magazine continued to be published until 1931, after the Bolshevik revolution it appears to have folded under the political pressures of the new government. While many of the goals of modernization that the journal had always espoused, such as women’s rights and education, modern healthcare, and the exposure of corruption and religious hypocrisy, were, at least ostensibly, shared by the new regime, it is worthwhile to note that, as Evan Siegel observes, some of the content changed significantly under the Bolsheviks – at least regarding the slant of the poetry presented in the magazine (245). Of the new and particularly heated attacks on Islam and “Oriental” poetry, Siegel writes, “[E]ither Mirza Jalil [Memmedkuluzade] had undergone a dramatic evolution or was under pressure from the new Bolshevik authorities” (247). Today’s Azerbaijan, while independent from past USSR pressures to disavow “old-fashioned” traditional culture, continues to be a somewhat repressive environment in which to write. Although free speech is legally guaranteed, criticism of the government can have dire consequences. In addition to the “Donkey Bloggers,” a number of other journalists are currently in prison.19

Perhaps because of what Azerbaijanis call the “sensitivity” of political criticism by means of the printed (or otherwise broadcast) word, contemporary continuity with the satire of Molla Nasreddin is found more commonly in visual cartoons. The donkey bloggers’ mistake may have been to use live action and words as part of their film; whether they would have been censored for a pure cartoon visual image is a good question. Less easy to mark and prosecute as overtly political are some pieces now appearing that use no words. But these images do speak. As I have said, this is a population as finely attuned and affectively connected to the language of images as it is distant from printed words. And while some images may carry a shared “universal” meaning (like the symbolism of donkeys: as idiots in the Azerbaijani YouTube production or as Shakespeare’s character Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), most also hold meanings as locally specific as words. As W.J.T Mitchell has proposed of the study of any media, “Let us try out…the notion that all media are mixed media…The postulate of mixed, hybrid media leads us to the specificity of codes, materials, technologies, sign-functions, and institutional conditions of production and consumption that go to make up a medium” (350). As “representative” as they may at first appear, images are (to use a term from Shohat and Stam’s work on visual culture) “languaged” and thus also culturally-based and locally specific (45). Mitchell’s terminology of “picture” applies as well to the more specific “image” that one reads and so “pictures.” He writes, “A picture is a very paradoxical creature, both concrete and abstract, both a specific individual thing and a symbolic form that embraces totality” (xvii). I would argue further – and I think Mitchell would agree given his claim for the “slipperiness” of the “picture” – that the concrete and abstract, or specific and general, meanings or qualities of an image occur not in opposition, but on a continuum or in a matrix of time and space. When, for example, I show my comics literature students illustrated European medieval manuscripts, while they can describe the literal pictures they see, they can no more “read” the iconography of the saints and creatures adorning the borders than a medieval peasant could read the visual narratives of today’s comics. Though more accessible than medieval images because it is part of a contemporary, globalized context, Japanese manga contains culturally specific iconography and cultural allusions that American readers have to “learn” to read. Add humor to the language of images, and cross-cultural understanding becomes even more challenging. While I may not agree with Paksoy when he calls the translation of humor “a thankless task,” he has a point in arguing that one is truly fluent in a language when one can understand its humor. A region’s visual humor can be just as culturally specific as its worded humor, and therein lies the power of images not only to operate globally, but also to operate locally, both aesthetically and critically.

Figure 13, an award-winning cartoon by contemporary Azerbaijani cartoonist Seyran Cafarli, depicts a man with a cane crossing the street in a freshly painted crosswalk. In the background high-rise buildings create an urban setting. All should be copacetic, but, in a clever play on the materiality of image itself, the man is literally tripping on the bright new white stripes of the crosswalk that are supposed to make his crossing safe:

Figure 13: Cartoon by Seyran Cafarli, Gold Medalist in Molla Nasreddin International Cartoon Contest, 2008. Originally accessed from February 2009.

At first glance, this wordless cartoon is just a clever play on materiality and image. Perhaps at a deeper or more universal level the image makes fun of our efforts to stay safe, or even comments on the ways in which a crosswalk may do little for someone with a disability. But why a crosswalk? Why this image at this point in time from an Azerbaijani artist? Having lived in Azerbaijan for a year, I can bring much more to this image than I would have otherwise. When I arrived in Baku, the capital city of two million, the noise of the car horns alone was frightening. Citywide, there were fewer than a handful of actual crosswalks, much less pedestrian-dedicated lights. Pedestrians never had the right of way: I saw an old woman hit by a car simply steady herself and keep walking. Drivers rarely obeyed traffic rules unless police were visible nearby, eager to collect bribes for slight infractions. Construction was everywhere, spilling across sidewalks and creating uncovered and unmarked pits for walkers to fall into. I was told that real estate was a place to put the oil money that was supposedly pouring into the pockets of a lucky few and had few other outlets. Also during my stay, the central government (perhaps with high hopes for what would be a failed bid to host the Olympics) embarked on a general urban cleanup and traffic safety campaign that included installation of crosswalks and traffic lights. By the time I left in July of 2008, the year Cafarli’s cartoon won the gold medal in the Molla Nasreddin International Cartoon Contest, there were at least a dozen or more downtown corners at which one could, in theory, watch for the brand new walk lights to illuminate and cross a busy street over freshly painted crosswalks, while cars waited impatiently at equally new red lights. And this did indeed work fairly smoothly as long as there were police cars parked visibly nearby.

But in truth, walking in the city center (note the highrises in the cartoon) was a risky and tortuous business. And throughout Azerbaijan, accessibility for the disabled is still, sadly, a joke. This cartoon has universal appeal, but it also speaks a very local, temporally specific and richly visual language, about very local and specific issues. Few new works as aesthetically pleasing and locally specific as Cafarli’s cartoons are available in Azerbaijani (printed) prose or poetry – and it is questionable whether the readership would have the same affective attachment even to beautiful prose that it has to images. My added layer of interpretation based on my stay in the country may or may not have been part of Cafarli’s own vision – he might have been picturing New York City. However, that ambiguity – made specific by the concrete context the reader brings – is exactly what images can offer narrative critique in an environment in which printed words may have a more difficult time.

Cafarli is not alone in sticking to images when embarking on cartooning and creating locally specific critical narrative in Azerbaijan. During my stay in 2007-8, I was directed to a fascinating series of a dozen web-based cartoons developed and written by Rauf Talishinsky, the Azeri editor of one of Azerbaijan’s two remaining Russian-language newspapers, Echo. In these cartoons, published between 2007 and 2009, Talishinsky sidesteps Azerbaijan’s often paralyzing current linguistic and literary confusion and apathy as well as the generalized suppression of free speech in broadcast and print media. At the website, nearly textless short animated “webtoons” use images alone to convey relevant and engaging topical content.20 Satirical image-driven narratives poke fun at a wide range of social and political topics, among them the follies of love, the corruption of road police, and local environmental degradation. Using commonly recognized, or “read,” iconic images, these cartoons cut through many ethnic and linguistic differences and, perhaps more significantly, break through the textual fatigue, dissociation and distrust common in this region.

Some symbolic imagery at is locally derived, as is, for example, the flying image of the “Maiden Tower,” an ancient architectural structure in downtown Baku, in the cartoon “Soul of Baku.” This 2007 cartoon is a textless meditation on the environmental and aesthetic degradation of the capital city in the wake of the contemporary oil boom. Other images at are more global, at least on a superficial level, as is the cow that appears to have eaten a corrupt highway police officer who has been entrapping passing motorists by camouflaging himself all too well in some tasty bushes (2007). As Talishinsky said in answer to a question about why his cartoons use no words, “language would limit the geographic scope of dissemination of our product whereas cows, for example, look and sound about the same be it the USA or Guinea Bissau” (Mandaville 2009). True, but it would be difficult for Americans to fully grasp the “joke” behind this scene – that police corruption in Azerbaijan is no joke at all, but a daily reality. The fact that the police officer gets “eaten” as a result of his own greed is a strong comment on that reality: There can be no security for anyone in a context of corruption.

Figure 14: “Hazards of the Job.” Script, Rauf Talishinsky. Animation, Aliya Urudjeva. At 2008.
Figure 15: “Hazards of the Job.” Script, Rauf Talishinsky. Animation, Aliya Urudjeva. At 2008.

While much of the basic “meaning” of these image-based pieces is accessible to non-Azerbaijanis, some of the specific social and political significance is clearly lost beyond this particular post-Soviet space. In another cartoon, “Getting it Right,” a character repeatedly travels the same road, falling off a cliff and injuring himself over and over. Time and again he chooses to travel this road. Each time he comes to signage warning of the danger ahead, rather than taking a different path, he just changes or moves the warning sign he encounters so that it no longer points to the way he is going. Like a twisted version of Wile E. Coyote’s attempts to mislead the Road Runner, the character in this cartoon is misleading only himself.21 Viewing this cartoon, I saw a humorous commentary on universal human stubbornness and stupidity, but my Azerbaijani friend said “Doesn’t this remind you of Baku?” For her, the cartoon represented the ways in which the local municipal authorities – and the citizens who continue to support them – operate ineffectively, learning neither from information right in front of their eyes nor from their own mistakes. That is, the “sign” is never really “read,” and even when it is read, it seems to be disconnected from the world to which it refers. What is literacy if no significance is attached to words – or they are ignored?

In a related Mult.azpiece, Talishinsky’s beautifully illustrated “Nature’s Ideocycle” comments on how political history repeats itself, depicting the decline, fall and decomposition of a giant Hammer and Sickle symbol that simply seeds and fertilizes the earth to grow another dozen “baby” hammer and sickles. This is a narrative understandable to people around the world, yet has very local specificity; it is about a particular place and time. At one point, just before the big Hammer and Sickle falls, a discarded newspaper drifts across a desolate scene inhabited only by crows. As a piece written by a newspaper editor, the forsaken print newspaper (being read by no one and upon which nothing is readable), blowing behind the crows pecking at the carrion of destruction, may allude to specific challenges faced by writers and editors of informative reporting before, during and after the dissolution of the USSR. Further, these images hint that the subsequent “sprouting” of new governments not so different from the old may stem from the ignorance that results when such challenges are not addressed. For, as in the previously discussed cartoon “Getting It Right,” it doesn’t help to change the sign, or even make a new one, if you never attend to what’s behind it.

Figure 16: 1 of 5 still images from animated film “Nature’s Ideocycle” Script by Rauf Talishinsky, Animation by Alia Urudjeva at 2007.
Figure 17: 2 of 5 still images from animated film “Nature’s Ideocycle” Script by Rauf Talishinsky, Animation by Alia Urudjeva at 2007.
Figure 18: 3 of 5 still images from animated film “Nature’s Ideocycle” Script by Rauf Talishinsky, Animation by Alia Urudjeva at 2007.
Figure 19: 4 of 5 still images from animated film “Nature’s Ideocycle” Script by Rauf Talishinsky, Animation by Alia Urudjeva at 2007.
Figure 20: 5 of 5 still images from animated film “Nature’s Ideocycle” Script by Rauf Talishinsky, Animation by Alia Urudjeva at 2007.

In many regions of the world, cartooning carries the baggage of a “low” cultural art form. Even from its outset, from bawdy and pornographic 18th century European caricature, to early newspaper comic strips to Russian lubok, cartoon images have been identified with the ignorant “masses” and marginalized by the intelligentsia. In Azerbaijan, however, rooted in a long-respected tradition of prose satire and illustrated literary forms that became linked to cartoon and caricature, the form holds a far more honorable and powerful place in national identity. As Paksoy writes, “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…There is continuity of form and, often, of spirit. Both are still relevant and more importantly, are taken seriously” (10). Building on this cultural and literary history of visual narrative and cartoon, works like those by Cafarli and Talishinky may offer temporary relief from “prose fatigue” and a possible bridge to a globally integrated trans-linguistic critical literary medium – but one still rooted in and therefore responsive to local “content.” Print text, blown like the newsprint at the base of the fallen hammer and sickle, has yet to find its footing in newly independent Azerbaijan, yet a strong tradition of critical visual narrative combined with the new media of the Internet may offer an avenue for a literary revitalization worth watching.


[1] This essay is based on a presentation I gave at the 2009 University of Florida Conference on Comic and Graphic Novels: “Convergences: Comics, Culture, and Globalization.” Many thanks to both Aaron Kashtan and Tania Darlington for their patient help with editing and revision as I was on my way out of the country, headed once again for Azerbaijan.

[2] I am in the process of documenting and translating a number of images from this journal that are available on the internet. Much of this work must be done in person in Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, I was not able to obtain and confirm complete information for all of them prior to press time on this article.

[3] “Molla Nasreddin” is the most common transliteration of this figure and journal name in Azerbaijan. There are a variety of other transliterations and pronunciations used. The name for this figure also differs from region to region.

[4] Fizuli is the pen name of Mohammed bin Suleyman (1483-1556), considered the first major regional poet to write in Azerbaijani Turkic, in addition to what were the traditional regional literary languages, Arabic and Persian. Another common transliteration of his name is “Fuzuli.”

[5] My exploration is based, in part, on observations, conversations, and interviews conducted during an eleven-month period in 2007-8 with the support of a Fulbright Lectureship.

[6] Although in Azerbaijan most Muslims are Shiite, and so much freer in their representative religious imagery than Sunni Muslims, representations of religious figures and narratives tend to serve a function of narration more than one of worship. A proper Muslim would never pray directly to a representative image, as an Orthodox Christian (or Catholic) might. Thus religious “icons” in Persian- influenced art and literature would serve more as “text” than as sacred objects of worship.

[7] For a recent history of the region, including a chapter on the role of world literature in forming stereotypes of the Caucasus and its people, see King.

[8] Although both the Persian and Russian Czarist empires likely kept some records regarding the characteristics of populations under their control, I was only able to access recent literacy data on the regions of Azerbaijan. Official population statistics for what is now the region of Azerbaijan were not systematically collected until the Bolshevik period. These statistics are likely only available through the national archives of Azerbaijan, which during my stay were being moved to a new building; thus, research access was very limited. This is an important area for further research. For information on the history of statistics in Azerbaijan see “History of the Official Statistics in Azerbaijan”.

[9] Cell phone usage has increased eightfold in Azerbaijan between 2002 and 2008. In 2008 there were approximately 76 phones per 100 inhabitants. This is an adoption rate increase comparable to that of Russia, which in 2008 sported a whopping 132 cell phones per 100 people. However, the level of adoption in Azerbaijan was spectacular given the difference in income levels in the two countries. In 2008 the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in Azerbaijan was $3,830 vs. $9,620 in Russia. By comparison, in the United States in 2008 there were 87 cell phones per capita with a per capita income of $47,580 (UNData).

[10] Many thanks to Aaron Kashtan for this insight.

[11] Admittedly, some good efforts have been made by publications like the journal Azerbaijan International to re-frame and re-connect readers to a number of Soviet-era Azerbaijani writers as resistance writers who wrote and published veiled and coded criticism of Stalin and the USSR. See, for example, issue 12.1, “Passionate Pens in Pursuit of Truth,” Spring 2004.

[12] Interestingly, striking a blow for copyright protection (in a country where very little copyright law is observed), the website also just published a page of “similar” (i.e. plagiarized) cartoons submitted this year that were more or less copied from previous year submissions.

[13] Allowing for the important role of the single-panel cartoon and caricature in the development of Russian comics, Alaniz nevertheless maintains McCloud’s distinction between multi-panel sequential graphic print narratives (comics) and single panel graphic “cartoons” – or, as he sometimes calls them, “proto-comics” – and argues for the primacy of sequential narrative in definition of the comics form (6). While I too find this distinction helpful, it is not especially useful at this time for a discussion of comic arts in Azerbaijan, which have been comprised mainly of single-panel pieces and animated film (or web) cartoons.

[14] Although the constitution of Azerbaijan provides for free speech, a somewhat “elastic” clause allows for prosecution of just about anything judged to be a “grave crime,” including libel against officials. Most commonly, however, those participating in political critique or protests are found guilty of unrelated crimes. Opposition journalists and activists are currently in prison in Azerbaijan for charges of “corruption,” “drug possession,” and “hooliganism.”

[15] As an interesting corollary, the annual Eurovision Song Contest (also a visual spectacle) appeared to offer the Azerbaijani population across the country the opportunity to continue the same discussion the Donkey video partakes in, namely criticism of frivolous government expenditures. As far as in the village of Shishteppe, an overnight train ride and 25 minute drive from Baku, immediately after the broadcast of the program and results, villagers were expressing disgust for what they heard was a 10 million dollar expenditure by the Azerbaijani government on “prepping” the country’s candidate. “How many other things could that money buy?” said one woman to me.

[16] For a brief but clear discussion of the Muslim cultural prohibition against representational imagery and its different interpretations in the Persian and Arab worlds, see Engber.

[17] See Fierman (80) for discussion of Baku as a center of assertive language planning in the region during the Soviet period. See Lester for a synopsis of alphabet changes. The unpublished article by Hajieva and Naghieva provides some background on legislated changes and restrictions on the use of language in Azerbaijan since 1991.

[18] Recent policies designed to reinstate and raise the status of the country’s titular language have been very successful. The aggressive re-centering of Azerbaijani as the dominant local language in the aftermath of centuries of occupation has helped this country minimize the loss and devaluation of a dominant local language, a loss experienced by many other post-colonial nations, including nearby Kazakhstan (Fierman). Although Russian remains a significant force in the capital of Baku, particularly among the more educated elites known as “Bakinski” (Wistrand), Azerbaijani, a Turkic language, is now widely spoken and used for official and business communications by people of all walks of life, in both public and private venues.

[19] During 2007-8, while I was in Azerbaijan, ten journalists were jailed and one died in prison. According to the “Media Sustainability Index” published by The International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) in 2009, Azerbaijan now ranks a low 1.67 out of a possible 4 points, as an “Unsustainable, Mixed System.”

[20] Warning: Sometime after I first accessed, it became listed as a “suspicious” site that has a few links that appear to contain malware of some kind. I have yet to verify with the author when this happened and why. There is, however, a virtual cyber-war currently going on between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, each hacking the other’s Web pages, and does contain two political cartoons related to the current Azerbaijan/Armenian territorial conflict. I use a Macintosh computer and have not experienced problems accessing these cartoons.

[21] Thanks again to Aaron Kashtan for this association.


Afary, Janet. Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Akhundov, N. “Molla Nasreddin zhurnalinin nashri tarikhi” (Publishing history of the journal Molla Nasreddin). Baku: Azerbaijan National Press, 1959. Print.

Alaniz, Jose. Komiks: Comic Art in Russia. USA: University of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

Aliev, Aliekper. Personal interview. Baku, Azerbaijan. April 2008.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso, 1991. Print.

Azercartoon: Official Website of Azerbaijan Cartoonists’ Union. 22 April 2010.

Barry, Ellen. “In Azerbaijan, a Donkey Suit Provokes Laughs and, Possibly, Arrests.” New York Times 14 July 2009. Web. 15 April 2010.

Beaty, Bart. Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2005. Print.

Chute, Hillary. “Ragtime, Kavalier & Clay, and the Framing of Comics.” Modern Fiction Studies 54.2 (Summer 2008): 268-301. Web. 4 February 2010.

Chute, Hillary. “The Texture of Re-Tracing in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36.1/2 (2008). 92-110. JSTOR. Web. 22 May 2010.

Clifton, John M., Laura Lucht, Gabriela Deckinga, Janfer Mak, and Calvin Tiessen, “The Sociolinguistic Situation of the Khinalug in Azerbaijan,” SIL International, 2005. (Originally in Studies in Languages of Azerbaijan I, 77-98. Ed. John Clifton, SIL International. St. Petersburg, Russia, 2002.) Web. 4 February 2007.

Cooper, Sarah. Keynote address on cartoons in Cuba. The 2008 UF Conference on Comics: “Convergences: Comics, Culture and Globalization”. Gainesville: University of Florida. March 2009.

Elli (A Children’s Magazine) 49.3. March 2008. Baku, Azerbaijan: ANS-Press Publishing House. 35 p. Print.

Engber, Daniel. “Graven Images 101: Does Islam really prohibit images of graven figures?” Slate, February 7, 2006. Web. April 7, 2010.

Fierman, William. “Language Vitality and Paths to Revival: Contrasting Cases of Azerbaijani and Kazakh.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 198 (2009): 75-104. Web. 4 November 2009.

Garibova, Jala. “Laughter That Pricked the Conscience of a Nation.” Azerbaijan International 4.3 (1996). Web. 4 February 2010.

Hacizade, Adnan. “Essekle (Esel Heinz) Müsahibe” (Interview with a Donkey). YouTube. 29 June 2009. Web. 15 April 2010.

Hajiyeva, Aytan and Shahla Naghieva. “The Socio-Linguistic Situation in Azerbaijan in the Years of Independence.” Unpublished article, Azerbaijan University of Languages, Azerbaijan, 2008.

Hajizadeh, Bayram. “Our Centenary History of Cartoons.” AzerCartoon: The Official Website of the Azerbaijani Cartoonists’ Union. Web. 22 May 2010.

“History of the Official Statistics in Azerbaijan.” The State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Web. 22 May 2010.

IREX. “Media Sustainability Index 2009.” Web. 4 November 2009.

Javadi, Hasan. “Molla Nasreddin: Political and Social Weekly.” Encyclopedia Iranica. 15 Jul. 2009. Web. 20 May 2010.

Kallaugher, Kevin. “Kal Talks Cartoons in Azerbaijan.” Sketchblog: Scratchy Lines of Thought. June 29, 2008. Web. April 7, 2010.

King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Kocharli, Nigar. “The Business of Literature in Azerbaijan.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 14 (29 March 2010). Research Centre for East European Studies. Bremen, Germany. 5-7. Web. 12 April 2010.

Lester, Toby. “New Alphabet Disease?” Atlantic Monthly July 1997: 20-27. Web. 11 November 2009.

Mandaville, Alison. “Working Around Words: Rauf Talishinsky’s Azerbaijani Web Cartoons.” Interview and commentary. Translation assistance Nikki Kasimova. The International Journal of Comic Arts 11. 2 (Fall 2009): 322-335. Print.

Marzolph, Ulrich. “Molla Nasr al-Din in Persia.” Iranian Studies 28.3/4 (Summer – Autumn, 1995): 157-174. Web. 7 April 2010.

Masud, Afaq. Personal interview. Baku, Azerbaijan. April 2008.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Collins, 1994. Print.

Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want? Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2005. Print.

Paksoy, H.B. “Elements of Humor in Central Asia: The Example of the Journal Molla Nasreddin in Azarbaijan.” 13 pages. First published in Turkestan als historischer Faktor und politische Idee. Ed. Erling von Mende, Baymirza Hayit Festschrift. (Koln: Studienverlag, 1988): 164-180. Web. 7 April 2010.

Program of the Azerbaijan Republic: Great Britain, USA, and Australian National Literature. (Course Syllabus Curriculum Guide.) Ministry of Education. Baku, Azerbaijan. 2001. Print.

Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. “Narrativizing Visual Culture: Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics.” The Visual Culture Reader. Ed. Nicolas Mirzoeff. London: Routledge, 1998. 27-49. Print.

Siegel, Evan. “The Use of Classical Iranian Literature in Azerbaijani Satire: The Case of Molla Nser od-Din.” In The Middle Eastern Press As a Forum for Literature Ed. and introd. Horst Unbehaun. Heidelberger Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Modernen Vorderen Orients 30. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 2004. 231-48. Web. 12 April 2010.

“Social Indicators.” United Nations Statistics Division. Web. 22 May 2010.

Spiegelman, Art. “Drawing Blood.” Harper’s Magazine 312.1873 (2006): 43-52. Print.

Swietochowski, Tadeusz. “The Politics of a Literary Language and the Rise of National Identity in Russian Azerbaijan before 1920.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 14.1 (1991): 55-63. Web. 4 November 2009.

Swietochowski, Tadeusz. Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of National Identity in a Muslim Country. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. Print.

Talishinsky, Rauf. “Mult.Az.” Web. 15 April 2010.

Tavernise, Sabrina. “Pakistan Widens Online Ban to Include YouTube.” New York Times, May 20, 2010. Web. 22 May 2010.

UNdata. United Nations Data. Web. 22 May 2010.

Wesselski, Albert. Der Hodschen Nasreddin. Weimar: Dunker, 1911. Print.

Wistrand, Jennifer. “Teaching Citizenship in a Post-Soviet World: Azerbaijan’s Changing Schools.” Individual Advanced Research Opportunities Program: Research Report 2007-8. IREX. Web. 4 November 2009.

Zerkala: Database on Russian Colonialism in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Directors Juergen Paul and Beate Eschment. Institute of Oriental Studies. Martin Luther University. Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. 22 April 2010.

Related Articles