Omar Faig Nemanzadeh & Molla Nasreddin

According to Mirza Sharif  Mirzaev, a chief Censor (1906-1917) of the Muslim press at the censorship committee in Tbilisi, the public life of Omar Faig Nemanzadeh had not received a fair assessment by his contemporaries, but future generations would be proud to remember his name. Mirzaev wrote:

Is it possible that our future generations would not remember the name of a man who in the harshest days for the reactionaries after the first Russian revolution with a great courage ignoring all the dangers still promoted revolutionary ideas and called up his compatriots to the light of freedom?’

This opinion remains true to this day.

Today, Molla Nasreddin in Azerbaijan and elsewhere is associated only with the name of Jalil Mammadguluzadeh. He is regarded as the founder and main author of the satirical magazine. Only a narrow circle of historians, philologists and professional journalists in the Caucasus are aware of the fact that from the very first issue Jalil Mammadguluzadeh was the editor-in-chief, while Omar Faig Nemanzadeh was also the founder and main author of the magazine. Unfortunately,  over the past decade, the name of Omar Faig as a founder of Molla Nasreddinis has been dismissed to such an extent that his name is not mentioned even as a writer of the magazine.

Omar Faig Nemanzadeh’s name had remained blacklisted up until the collapse of the Soviet Union. A newly granted public access to archives in Azerbaijan – also occuring elsewhere in former Soviet republics – has evoked great interest in academic circles and subsequently in the general public to review and rediscover their own country’s history, stories and facts that had been hidden and ignored for seven decades. Despite the 1956 rehabilitation of the formerly executed “enemies of the people” that had also included Omar Faig, inertia and a deep fear embedded in the minds of intelligentsia and academics deeply prevailed. The latter remained faithful to the established ideological dogmas of the Soviet era and preferred to bypass the inconvenient world view and ideals of Omar Faig. Only by the mid 80s, some literary critics – living witnesses of those times – dared to mention his name.

A full-scale exploration of Omar Faig was carried out by a scholar, Professor Shamil Gurbanov, who, in addition to his academic research, brought the subject to the general public’s attention in his book Omar Faig Nemanzade(Baki, Genclik 1985) which highlights the multifaceted works of Omar Faig.

Prof Gurbanov states, “with regret it must be acknowledged the journalistic legacy of Omar Faig Nemanzadeh has not yet been adequately studied, his contribution to Molla Nasreddinmagazine is not fully known, his signatures have not been studied partly due to the  fact that authors of some articles at Molla Nasreddincould not be established & hence the authorship has not yet been restored. As A.Mirahmedov rightly notes, ‘Omar Faig’s place in the history of Molla Nasreddin, his role in the organization and management of the Geyriat publishing house has not been thoroughly kept in records, and as a result, a very important part of his merits got attributed to his friend Jalil Mammadguluzadehh.’ Dr Vagidov, a philosophical researcher, also shares the opinion that Feuilleton “Joke”, “One Barrel of Water”, “Sanctuary of Bibiheybet” and others which are attributed to Jalil Mammadguluzadeh are actually written by Omar Faig. The late academic, Mukhtar Gasimov, also claimed that the author of some feuilletons originally attributed to the work of Jalil Mammadguluzadeh is actually Omar Faig. In any case, the solution of authorship issue awaits further research.”

Mirzaev, being in charge of the censorship of Molla Nasreddinpublications sometimes turned a blind eye to some of them. Making an assessment of the merits of Omar Faig he wrote: ‘Initially he founded a publishing house, Geyriat, in Tiflis, provided with all the required equipment and created a weekly satirical magazine Molla Nasreddin. He dedicated all his talent, energy and strength to his people and worked tremendously hard as director of the publishing house and as a journalist too. In order to understand the complexity of the conditions Omar Faig worked in, and the extent of his activities, it would be sufficient to look through the Molla Nasreddin issues of 1906. Only this way you can feel how dangerously he was exposing himself with these revolutionary ideas.’A Chief Censor of the Muslim press Mirza Sharif Mirzaev in 1919 wrote:

I got to know Omar Faig much closer in the year 1906-1910. I read all of his official and non-official articles when he was on his duty as a censor of Eastern languages... He quite deliberately exposed himself to risk. He wrote: ‘to reach the goal or die.’ In his publishing house in the Azerbaijani language, he published various books, leaflets, and proclamations of a revolutionary character, thereby on many occasions creating the risk of arrest or exile.

Omar Faig’s introduction to Jalil Mammadguluzadeh , a literary star of the period and founder of modern Azerbaijani literature, occurred in 1903 at the Shargi-Rus, the only Azerbaijani newspaper of that time. Meanwhile, Omar Faig, as an advocater of liberal views so alien to the society, was closely watched by the local authorities – ready to issue arrest orders anytime and with any excuse. There was little chance for Omar Faig to get a licence on his own to set up and run the press in the Russian Empire.

In 1905, Shargi-Rus went bankrupt and the owner M. Shakhtakhtinsky decided to sell the publishing house. With the close of Shargi-Rus, a new milestone began between the work of Omar Faig and Jalil Mammadguluzadehh.

Omar Faig wrote about this in his memoirs as follows: “I told Mirza Jalil that they could not allow the Turkish publishing house fall into the hands of merchants or let it close, it was necessary to save it at any cost.” Jalil laughed and said, “Of course, I agree, but surely Magomed-aga will want money for the publishing house, and neither you nor me have them. And also, Faig, I am afraid that if Magomed-aga finds out that the publishing house will go into your hands, he will refuse to sell it.” Omar Faig said, “Do not utter my time and ask Magomed-aga to wait, promise that you will find money, do not be afraid!’ Jalil Mammadguluzadeh recalls those days as follows “… for acquiring a publishing house and further work, we began to look for a third party to get involved with some money at least.”

Omar Faig finds himself such a person. Meshedi Alaskar Bagirov from Nakhichevan lent them money to buy the publishing house, and later took over the expenses of the publishing house and the magazine Molla Nasreddin. The new publishing house begins its work in March 1905 under the name Geyriat. This starts a new stage in the literary and cultural life of Azerbaijan. The ideological trend known as “Mollanasreddintsy”originates precisely in the publishing house  of Geyriat. One of the first books was written by Omar Faig himself, and on April 2, 1905, he received permission to print it in the censor’s commission. The book called “Nashri Asara Davet” was soon published and distributed free of charge.

When the publishing house Geyriatbegan , Omar Faig, together with Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, came up with the idea of ​​creating a new print magazine and first turned to the government for permission to publish a magazine Torpag (Earth). From Omar Faig writes, “Mirza Jalil insisted that the leadership of the magazine was entrusted to me.” But the Main Directorate of Press, under the pretext of  Omar Faig’s Turkish education received in Istanbul, did not grant a permission for a new magazine. After some time, Novruznewspaper, which Mammadguluzadehh wanted to publish, also could not see the light of approval. Finally,  in 1906, the friends obtained permission to publish Molla Nasreddin. The official editor was Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, and the main author was Omar Faig.  Omar Faig was also in charge of admin and financial maintenance matters of the magazine.

After this begins the dawn of publishing activities for Omar Faig. He turns into an irreplaceable right-hand to Mirza Jalil in the editorial office. The Republican Institute of Manuscripts stores Omar Faig’s article-memorandum “What is the magazine Molla Nasreddin?” outlining creation, mission and vision of the magazine highlighting two key points which, according to Kurbanov, have not been brought to attention before. One of them is the title of the magazine, and the other is the division of responsibilities in the editorial board. Both points were important for the success of the magazine. In the words of Omar Faig, “the name itself of Molla Nasreddin  is an advertisement and stapled proof,  making the reader think of funny stories, anecdotes, fables, wise sayings. (note for English-speaking readers: Molla or as also known as Hoca Nasreddin  is a Turkish tickster character used in folk tales) 

Another key point, as Omar Faig writes, “in our discussions over the concept of the magazine we reached the agreement that it must include caricatures. ” Omar Faig thought that it would be clearer for public readership when their subjects of satire are exposed  in a mocking form and Molla Nasreddin as a character plays role of ‘people’s protector’. And it worked. In his memoirs, Omar Faig follows, “the general public absolutely loved the magazine. On the contrary, the clergy, the riches and the beks sent us only curses and bags of threat-letters. Hatred and curses flowed from the upper classes, but we gained respect  from the working people. To what extent one grieved, to the same extent rejoiced the other. The credibility of the magazine indicated that the change of people’s mindset was in full swing.

The first issue of Molla Nasreddin from themes of caricatures, articles to telegraphic news and puzzles was compiled by both Mirza Jalil and Omar Faig. Omar Faig was the second in command in regards to the magazine in all content and graphic materials. In the archive of Omar Faig, stored in the Republican Institute of Manuscripts in Baku  (Azerbaijan), you will find some caricatures with an inscription “mine” written by his hand.

Later, Omar Faig and Mirza Jalil invited the greatest Azerbaijani poet of the 20thcentury to join the writing team – Sabir.

Over time, Molla Nasreddin magazine represented a completely unique team of talented publicists and artists. The caricatures by two ethnic Germans, O. Schmerling and D. Rotter, brought a genuine delight to the public (including the illiterate). Up until this day we are still fascinated by their artwork – their compositions and vividness in colours give the magazine such a picturesque style.

Omar Faig Nemanzadeh and Jalil Mammadguluzadeh took on the task of defining the character and composition of caricatures. From the memoirs of Omar Faig: ‘Many of the caricatures and graphics in Molla Nasreddin related to our public life are in fact not caricatures, not a fiction or likening. I would dare to say these are the true photos of people and realities.’

In 1906 Omar Faig, in his article ‘Invitation and request’ on the program, goals and objectives of the publishing house Geyriat refers to the readers with the following statement: ‘Let anyone who wants to join a holy purpose to serve your nation, write articles about the hardship of the poor, about the tyranny of the authorities and other essential matters and then send to the publisher Molla Nasreddin or Geyriat’. (‘Irshad’ Newspaper, September 6, 1906).

Omar Faig addressed his readers further:

Muslim Brothers, you are living witnesses that for more than a year we have been fighting for the independence and prosperity of our motherland and our people. We have repeatedly asked for your help. However we have not seen any decisive steps. Is this to be a Muslim unity? If you live according to God's Word, join us. After freeing ourselves from the hands of the enemy, let us fight for our well being. To save our children from suffering, to end the humiliation that we suffer from officials and gendarmes, we need to unite. Think over these words. At this time, to end the current system and take a control of the authorities we, all Muslims, should seek a constitutional rule and parliamentary elections. If you join with us to make this happen, the results will not be long in coming. This can be achieved only if we can end the current regime through parliamentary election‘s. We send you this message, so you act with us. We write to you in Turkish so everyone can understand. Anyone who reads this announcement and does not share it with another Muslim brother, will be a traitor. Struggle as we do. Allah helps the Muslims brothers and supports the patriots of their country.

Omar Faig’s harsh political speeches in the magazine engendered hatred and anger among the ruling forces and respect among democratically minded enlighteners. In 1907, he was arrested for portraying Sultan Abdulgamid in the form of a monkey in front of European states, but at the request of the people he was released 2 months later.

When in 1907 Molla Nasreddin was temporarily closed by the authorities, Omar Faig wrote in Irshad newspaper : ‘The poor things, they believe that by closing the magazine Molla Nasreddin, they can conceal their shame. They are not aware that many of us are already Molla Nasreddins. Today they close Molla Nasreddin, and tomorrow there will be ‘Molla Hayreddin’.’ Later, a poet Sabir would  dedicate a prominent poem “Reprimand” to Omar Faiq and his stoic resistance to persecutions by authorities.

Meanwhile the newspaper Shargi Rus was the first daily newspaper in the Azerbaijani language and as per Omar Faig’s quote ‘it was published, printed in the most appropriate and important publishing place for Turkic readers – Tiflis’. He considered this kind of newspaper ‘a new light’ for the awakening of national consciousness and socio-political development.

According to Prof. Gurbanov, “neither during his life nor after his death the works of Omar Faig were classified and collected for publication in the form of a single book. Only the author of these lines was able to publish a scanty part of his heritage (in 1983) and memories (in 1985).  With great difficulty most of the works of the publicist were collected. Along with newspaper and magazine articles, I dedicated my research to his literary works, feuilletons and other archival materials. Omar Faig used over forty pseudonyms. Many of them were published on the pages of Molla Nasreddin magazine, which was an extensive, free arena for his journalistic and publishing activities. So far, many of Omar Fag’s articles have not been identified, some of them were attributed to Mammadguluzadeh’s pen, and the rest are ‘author not defined’.  But now, we can say with confidence that such popular articles as “Armenian and Muslim women”, “Two open letters to Sheikhulislamu” and others which triggered a strong public opinion at the beginning of the 20th century belong precisely to Omar Faig Nemanzade.”

Gurbanov continues, “to the attention of  Molla Nasreddin researches, in the first issues of the magazine there were only two pseudonyms “Molla Nasreddin” and “Laglagi”. The first belongs to Jalil Mammadguluzadeh, and the second is to Omar Faig. Later, both colleagues used these signatures, but in most cases Omar Faig.  “Because of the articles” Woman (Zövci aher) “and” Hijab Questions (Hicab məsələləri) “published under the signature” Dardimend “, where I demanded to recognize the rights and freedom of women in 1907 in Tiflis, the Akhund of Shah Abbas mosque, where a lot of people gathered to sue me. ”


However, Omar Faig in comments about his cooperation with this newspaper, wrote: ‘in addition to official censorship of our articles, they were also censored by the editor, who would not allow us to write a single word about open discriminative attitude of authorities against the Azerbaijanis – and by not giving them the opportunity to receive an education, they want to keep them blind and ignorant.’ He wrote further:

I look around, everyone is busy with building up their own welfare. Everyone in their own way - believer by prayers, Mollas by collecting donations, intelligentsia by serving their own interests, a rich man by hoarding, each of them is trying to save only their own soul. Thus public opinion’ which every nation should have’ does not even exist in our minds, there is no wish to be bond to our people, their fate, we still do not know how to feel the pain of our people as our own pain. (‘Iqbal’, April 17, 1915).

In the first six years, the magazine turned into the arena of his activities; his writing became more critical addressing the remnants of the past, backwarded rites and customs of his people. Prior to Molla Nasreddin, Omar Faig had a wealth of journalistic experience, over 10 years in the newspapers Terjuman and Shargi-Rus. Yet, during that period he was dependent on other editors and was experiencing certain limitations and pressure from the management. He dreamed of a free, independent publishing house belonging to him. Omar Faig, recalling his cooperation in Sharghi-Rus, wrote,“besides the official censorship, our articles were censored by the editor, he did not allow us to write a single word about the government’s discriminating policies towards Azerbaijanis rejecting them to right to education to keep them blind and ignorant. ”

The editorial board of Molla Nasreddin believed that the religious clergy and its insitutions in an unfree country could only be a pressurising tool so well executed by the authorities, accomplices of their arbitrariness. The most serious confirmation of this is the subsequent history of the country in which all the victims of this arbitrariness turned out to be all: the authors of the journal, its readership and the objects of their satire.

After a year of publication, the popularity of the magazine had exceeded all expectations – it was a triumph. Undoubtedly, it was precisely the talent of the authors of the magazine that provoked such sincere interest and attracted the attention of the entire Turkic public from Istanbul to Kazan. But the main reason for the popularity had clearly been determined by the political views and concept of the magazine on ever sensitive issues of national identity, culture and social structure of society.

The significant role this magazine took in the public life of the whole “Muslim East” cannot be overestimated. Its tremendous popularity was proven among both the educated and non-educated parts of the Turkic-speaking peoples.

Molla Nasreddin was published in Tiflis, Tabriz, and after the Bolshevik revolution, in Baku, but this was a different era and another magazine with a new sovietised concept.

After the establishment of Soviet power in Azerbaijan in 1921, the new authorities, given the enormous popularity of the magazine, decided to continue its publication, but Omar Faig refused to work in the magazine. This was a different era, a Soviet “satirical” magazine, and after 1921, he did not participate in any Molla Nasreddin publications.

According to the testimony of his daughter, Kamila Nemanzadeh, Omar Faig remained a very close friend of Jalil Mammadguluzadeh up until Mammadguluzadeh’s last days. Mammadguluzadeh at first agreed to continue publication of what he thought was a new Soviet satirical magazine, yet soon realised his short-sightedness and started objecting to the proposed ideas. His subsequent rejection of Soviet satire had become too vocal for the newly established authorities and he was eventually notified that he would no longer be disturbed – he would not be required to take part in the publication. However, the magazine continued to be issued with his editorial signature.

The signature of such a great authority as Jalil Jalil Mammadguluzadeh  was paramount to a new political power, and it was a signature which was reproduced in print and stamped on all issues of the magazine until his death. Such were the new realities in which they found themselves, and of which they could never dream about.

After 1920, Omar Faig witnessed the establishment of completely different values, a new kind of progress and culture, and the birth of a new Soviet man. The social ideas of the early 20th century had been transformed into the unrecognisable regime of the absolute power of Soviet serfdom.

Omar Faig Nemanzadeh buried his lifelong friend and comrade-in arms Jalil Mammadguluzadeh in 1932 in Baku. He went silent in his elder years in his native Akhaltsikhe (tr. Ahıska) in Georgia prior to his arrest and execution in the autumn of 1937, on charges of espionage in favor of Turkey. Seven years later, in 1944 came the total deportation of all his remaining 94000 compatriots, Ahıska (Meskhetian) Turks. The tragedy of Omar Faig’s life and of his people provide the real proof of his ideological and political views: his vision of the path to the consolidation and development of all Turkic peoples did not come to pass.

This website content is based on research of prof. Shamil Gurbanov, original works and memoirs of Omar Faig Nemanzadeh himself, scholar publications, as well as facts of oral family and public history. The material is not exhaustive and will be gradually expanded. For more information on Omar Faig Nemanzadeh’s life and his works, please visit “References” section for further reading.