Religious rhetoric, the satirical communication mode and the press

The introduction of new communication media such as the telegraph and newspapers, the establishment of a postal system and the improvement of travel and transport connections facilitated and advanced communication between the Iranian people over great distances.77

Already during the Tobacco Movement Persian newspapers from abroad like Qanun and Akhtar reported on the concession debate and the great foreign influence in Iran. The exact influence of the Persian journal Qanun, published by Mirza Malkom Khan (1833-1908) in London, on the Iranian people cannot be measured, but both he and Afghani had prominent friends in Iran, and the Islamic tone of their writings may well have influenced the religious classes.78 Furthermore, the distribution of information was well organized. Thus, hundreds of copies of anonymous leaflets that attacked the government’s policy on Islamic religious principles were distributed at night in the mosques and madrasehs. Later, large numbers of pamphlets were also sent by Malkom Khan, to be distributed in the provinces.79

The new intellectuals concentrated on the use of print media, which some of them thought to be the only means by which to spread new ideas.80 Kermani for instance, like many others, seemed to have generally avoided oral forms of transmission and ignored the fact that not the medium, but (religious) authority and the mode of expression were crucial for widespread success. Not so Afghani. His influence was greater, but without religious authorities his message also remained limited to intellectuals and the ruling elite. When he wished to convene Tehran’s intellectuals in 1889 to support him and his reforms and to overthrow the Iranian government, strengthening the opposition to the tobacco concession from London, he was able to gain the audience’s interest through his rhetorical capabilities. Despite this and the use of orthodox appeals to the religious,81 this was not sufficient to mobilize people.82 Keddie notices that ‘many’ Iranians only heard of Afghani when he published the Arabic newspaper al-‘Urva al-Vusqa in Paris,83 but this should be confined only to the elite circles of Iranian politicians who were interested in foreign news for political reasons. Furthermore, in most cases the new intellectuals and reformers were of lay backgrounds and had no religious authority to support them. This limited their impact on the masses. Even Afghani’s tactic of presenting himself as a religious figure with the support of admirers and disciples remained unsuccessful until he arranged an alliance with leading ‘olama’. Their authority and use of religious language and arguments were necessary to move the masses.84

The use of religious symbols underlined the social and political importance of religion at that time. The proclamation of an Azerbaijani mojtahed, which sets political issues in a religious context, is remarkable:

The unfortunate Azerbaijani, despite the lies of the slanderers with ulterior motives, is not a wicked insurgent, nor a rebel, nor does he lay claims to sovereignty: he is not seeking after independence or separation, nor does he wish to cause a bloody uprising or to take revenge. On every occasion, he has declared to his opponents and to all the world that his sacred goal and lost beloved is Iran’s Constitution of eternal dominion, and his cherished Ka‘ba is the National Assembly of Tihran. As for his equitable judge and arbitrator of all differences, it is none other than that ‘Holy Book’, the Constitutional Code.85

This example demonstrates the useful connection between conventional and new concerns postulating political reforms. Even though the Iranian masses were still illiterate and had no access to print media, periodicals were the most important medium and had crucial public influence. The technical standards of print allowed many editors to publish, and the weak government did not control the rising number of periodicals. The new public medium evolved not only into a communication platform for intellectuals, rather it gave them the possibility of addressing the masses, combining performative elements with literary forms. Most of the new newspapers aimed to demonstrate and explain the deficiencies of Iranian society to the people in order to gain their support for new ideas.

The dominant tone in public communications was critical. Periodicals which contained satirical texts and caricatures were the most successful media. Kubikova summarizes the situation as follows: ‘Satire occupies the foreground. ... This modern Satire documents best certain important changes in poetic diction: expressions and turns of speech taken from the colloquial language, ... plays on words proper to folk-poetry, dialect words and slang. Metrical principles are less strictly observed and, ... , strophic song forms are popular.’ Overall, poetry was still the preferred literary form, and had a didactic and political character.86 Even the first translations of French drama in 1866 were made in poetry.87

Satirical periodicals bridged the linguistic, social and regional gaps. They witness the influence and popularity of the Turkish satirical magazine Molla Nasr al-Din, published 1906-17 in Tiflis, 1921 in Tabriz and until 1929 in Baku.88 Its success was due to its well-known writers as well as to its caricatures. Like many other periodicals, Molla Nasr al-Din profited from a certain degree of free expression in Czarist Russia. Writers like Jalil Mohammad Qolizadeh, a satirist, playwright and short-story writer, and especially ‘Ali Akbar Saber (Taherzadeh, 1862-1911) have had a great deal of influence on Iranian poets and writers and brought about the beginning of the development of modern Persian satire. Saber had no objections to Islam, but opposed superstition, hypocrisy and sanctimony. Saber’s satirical poems draw a vivid and humorous picture of his contemporaries. He had a special interest in Iran and its political events in the course of the Constitutional Revolution. The clergy in Tabriz and the Iranian government regarded the journal and the writings of Saber as so dangerous and heretical that they confiscated the journal at Iran’s border.89 A very popular method of entertaining in Molla Nasr al-Din was the frequent use of a fictional molla named ‘Molla Da‘i’ or ‘Molla ‘Amu’. This was a humorous and cynical figure. He was present in every issue: he answered letters, advised the reader, parodied the viewpoints of the establishment and was figured in cartoons.90 However, this paper became a model for Persian satirical newspapers such as Nasim-e Shomal, Sur-e Esrafil and Azerbaijan91 and contributed to the social awareness of the Iranian people and their political agitation. Yet Molla Nasr al-Din’s sharp and principled criticism of Islam and the ‘olama’ and its radical views concerning the role of women were not reflected in the Iranian media.92 These media focused rather on a range of journalistic, literary and creative forms than on the expression of a radical politics.

A very popular Persian satirical paper of the time was Nasim-e Shomal, edited by Mirza Ashraf al-Din Hoseyni Gilani (1871-1934) and published in Rasht and Tehran.93 This was the only paper that was published for a longer period, namely until the reign of Reza Shah, but it became an ordinary newspaper after the death of Gilani. The Iranian poet translated or adapted many of Saber’s poems and published them in the journal. He was a witty and gifted narrator.94 Furthermore, its form - in poetry with recurring verses - made it easy for illiterate people to memorize. This guarantied its popularity among Iranians. Gilani’s popularity and his strong identification with the edited paper were reflected in his nickname ‘Mr. Nasim-e Shomal’. As to the paper’s distribution, it is said that ten- to twelve-year-old boys sold it on the streets. Sa’id Nafisi reports that children gathered in front of the printing house, proud to be the paper’s distributors and to bring a new sensation to the Tehran people.95 Those who could read did this in public spaces: in the bazaar, at crossroads, in coffeehouses and other places. Groups of people gathered there to hear the latest news and the poems of Gilani,96 which commented on everyday problems of the common people.

The Persian paper that has had a strong impact on both modern Persian literature and the development of satire until recent times was Sur-e Esrafil with its satirical column ‘Charand parand’, by ‘Ali Akbar Dehkhoda (1879-1959).97 Its success appears to have been unprecedented.98 However, Browne notes that, generally speaking, we have little knowledge about its reception among Iranians,99 and Catanzaro argues that Sur-e Esrafil might have been only part of the intellectual discourse, mainly in Kerman and Shiraz.100 Sur-e Esrafil was only published for one year in Tehran. It may have been the first paper that was officially distributed and sold by children in the street and the bazaar.101 The satirical column by ‘Dakhu’ may have had the largest audience.102 However, the paper’s impact on the development of modern Persian satirical prose literature is undeniable.

Both Nasim-e Shomal and the column ‘Charand parand’ used simple language, proverbs and common expressions. They showed their sympathy for the hardships of the common people, and criticized those responsible. While Dehkhoda marked a new direction in Persian prose literature, Gilani used the more popular literary form of poetry, which had a long tradition in Iranian popular culture. Both are the first Persian writers of modern Persian satire.103 Whereas Dehkhoda’s success stagnated after his paper was published abroad, Gilani remained successful and became much better known after moving from Rasht to Tehran, where he had a larger audience in all strata of Iranian society. It is worth mentioning that although Nasim-e Shomal was only distributed in Tehran, Gilani’s poems were known throughout Iran. People copied it and sent it by post in all directions of their country.104

Another well-know Iranian periodical was the regional Tabrizi newspaper Azerbaijan, whose special characteristics have been discussed by Raoul Motika.105 This constitutionalist newspaper was the first print medium intended for the Azerbaijani-Turkish people. Papers of the religious conservative anti-constitutionalists existed, but were of lesser importance, such as the paper Ey Molla Amu.106Whereas Azerbaijan was written in Persian, Ey Molla ‘Amu was published in Turkish. The anti-constitutional paper was not a professional paper, but also included Molla Nasr al-Din’s method of dialogues between a molla and an ordinary man of the masses.107 It was propagandistic and often published simple copies of telegrams or text without any journalistic form. The language and syntax were simple and near to the spoken language and dialect.

A discussion in Ey Molla ‘Amu acknowledges the importance of the telegram as a valuable mode of communication for the Constitutional Movement to contact the ‘olama’ in Tehran and urban centres of the provinces, but it also recognizes its vulnerability for manipulation.108 The anti-constitutional paper tried to protect the influence of the Shari‘a and the orthodox clergy, and denounced the constitutionalists as tricksters,109 whereas Azerbaijan’s rhetoric remained Islamic because this still shaped the people’s worldview and sense of identity more than the developing Iranian national consciousness. This was the main strategic factor for mass mobilization in regard to constitutional aims. They emotionalized the people, relating the recent situation of the Constitutional period to the martyrdom at Karbala, or demonstrating solidarity with Muslims of all confessions using a pan-Islamic vocabulary. However, nation and belief are strongly interconnected with each other, but Azerbaijan subordinated belief to the concept of the Iranian nation and laid claim to a civil law, which was refused by traditionalists as un-Islamic.110

We have no information about the reception of the newspaper Azerbaijan, and Motika notices that the number of copies of a newspaper does not necessarily reflect its circulation. Even illiteracy was not a hindrance to the circulation of a newspaper’s contents. People gathered around and listened to those who read articles aloud for instance in coffeehouses, where the recitation of the Shah-nameh was replaced by the reading from a newspaper. Furthermore, public contests promoted the spread of certain poems. For instance, those who could recite the poem ‘Feryad-e vatan’, a Persian translation of a poem in Molla Nasr al-Din that was published in the Cairo paper Hekmat, received a free subscription to Azerbaijan.111

In summary, Motika observes a transition between older forms of public communication, which were intended for the ruling elite, and novel forms, such as newspapers, which were addressed to the masses as potential political activists. He comes to the conclusion that even though there were religious and ethnic conflicts they were seldom the subject of constitutionalist debates in Azerbaijan. Motika argues that the constitutionalists intentionally avoided references to those conflicts. They rather intended to create a new national consciousness and not to endanger the Constitutional Movement.112 Further, he does not find the mention of a separate religious group. By the simple division between oppressors and the oppressed, who were in alliance with the ‘olama’, the newspaper offered a definition of the Iranian nation beyond religious and social differences.113 The choice of Persian as the main language of the newspaper also indicates the emphasis of the national aspect.

The instances of the Persian newspapers show the different aspects and complexity of mass communication and political participation. During the Tobacco Movement religious authority and argumentation were still important and traditional oral communication dominated. Islamic reformists did not gain much success despite an organized distribution of their written ideas. The situation changed in the Constitutional Period when an increasing number of intellectuals published periodicals to motivate people for political participation. The most successful papers emotionalized people through a satirical communication mode, the use of colloquial language and popular literary forms. They also gained the people’s interest through religious rhetoric, allegories and metaphors without obtaining the support of a religious authority.

There was no equal access to the print media and a limited distribution of the newspapers because of a small number of copies, an often irregular and brief publication and an illiterate audience. Since the Constitutional Movement, the daily press was not only a public political medium, it also became the first arena of contemporary literary activities.114 Addressed to relatively large and heterogeneous audiences the relevant written concerns were still transmitted through oral communication at traditional public places. Eskandari-Qajar summarizes:

Newspapers and their contents had crossed over into popular culture, not only as conveyors of news but also as purveyors of entertainment and a kind of entertainment that meshed well with existing traditional modes of entertainment such as naghali (recitation) and the coffee house culture that sustained it.115

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