ṢĀBER, MIRZĀ ʿALI-AKBAR ṬĀHERZĀDA (b. Šamāḵi [Shemakha], 30 May 1862; d. Šamāḵi, 12 July 1911), famous Azerbaijani satirist and poet. He came from a middle-class religious family who seemed reluctant to provide him with a modern education. However, in his early adolescence he found a sympathetic teacher in Ḥājji Sayyed ʿAẓim Širvāni (1835-88), a poet of some fame, who had started a progressive school where Arabic, Persian, Azeri, Russian and other subjects were taught. Encouraged by Sayyed ʿAẓim, Ṣāber began translating Persian poetry and wrote poems in Azeri. His father, a grocer by trade, deemed a few years of schooling sufficient for him and wanted Ṣāber to work in his shop but the son’s strong resistance and his attempt to run away from home and join a caravan to Mašhad, forced him to relent and he allowed him to follow the literary career that he so coveted. He wrote many ḡazals in imitations of Persian poets, particularly Neẓāmi and he found many friends among the literary circles of Shirvan. In 1885, he embarked on a tour of some of the cities of Persia and Central Asia. His travels greatly widened the horizon of his intellectual perception and later on inspired him to depict a vivid picture of the people of these lands. After his return, Ṣāber married and settled down in Shirvan.
Ṣāber had eight daughters and one son, and had to work hard to support his large family. For fifteen years he worked as a soap maker and humorously would remark: “I make soap to wash away the external dirt of my countrymen.” He unsuccessfully tried to open a European style school. Also, on account of his criticism of the reactionary and conservative elements, he kept on receiving unsigned and threatening letters. According to some accounts these letters were sent by the journalist Hashem Beik Vezirov (1868-1916), whose nom de plume was “bir kas"(a person). Ṣāber answered him in the journal Sāda: “I am a poet, the mirror of my age/ in me everyone sees his own face/ As it happened yesterday, ‘a person’ looked at me /Seeing none other than himself in the mirror.” (ʿAli-Akbar Ṣāber, Hup-Hup-nāma, Baku, 1962, p. 291.)
The first poem of Ṣāber appeared in 1903 in Šarq-e Rus (East of Russia) in Tiblisi. At the time the poet was not known outside his native city. Three years later and five months after the first issue of Mollā Naṣreddin, he began to publish in this journal. Within a few years Sāber was known not only in Azerbaijan, but also in Persia, Turkey and Central Asia. He also created many bitter enemies for himself at home and abroad. Some of the conservative mullahs of Tabriz denounced Mollā Naṣreddin as heretical and called Ṣāber an unbeliever (Ārianpur, Az Ṣabā tā Nimā II, p. 48). The campaign against him became so intense that he defended his faith in a famous poem addressed to the people of Shirvan:
I am a Shiʿite, but not in the ways you desire
I am a Sunni, but not like the examples you like. I am a Sufi, but not like the ones you describe. I am a lover of truth, O people of Shirvan. (Hup Hup-nāma, p. 359)
Not being able to stay in Šamāḵi, Ṣāber left for the more cosmopolitan and progressive Baku, where he was employed as a schoolteacher in 1910. Here he wrote nearly all of his short satirical pieces called “Taziyanaler” (The Whips). Unfortunately his stay in Baku did not last long and a liver ailment curtailed his activities. Ṣāber went back to Šamāḵi for treatment while the weeklies Guneš and Mollā Naṣreddin were publishing his poems. Mollā Naṣreddin began a publicity drive to collect funds for his operations in Tiblisi, but the poet did not consent to the operation.
The satirical works of Ṣāber embrace a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the defeat of the Tsarist armies by Japan to scenes of social and domestic life at home. Political satire was an important part of his work, and the butt of his satire ranged from Emperor Wilhelm of Prussia to Moḥammad-ʿAli Shah of Persia, and from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid to corrupt petty officials and ignorant mullahs. Frequently religious hypocrisy was a subject of his criticism, with superstitious and ignorant women as well as chauvinistic men as targets of his satire.
In the art of poetic satire Ṣāber surpasses all others in Azerbaijani literature. According to his friend ʿAbbās Ṣaḥḥat, himself a writer of some significance, Ṣāber created a revolution in Azerbaijani literature, and the difference that he created between old and modern poetry was such that after him hardly anyone dared to go back to old ideals and style (Hup-Hup-nāma, p. xii.). Apart from his originality of theme and subject, Ṣāber’s poetic language was new and well suited to the topics he chose. It was conversational, witty and lively, and in this respect it greatly differed from the formal language of his predecessors. The famous Persian writer and lexicographer ʿAli-Akbar Dehḵodā, himself a great satirist, writes: “Ṣāber was a great innovator in Azerbaijani literature. He was a child of one night who traveled the way of one hundred years, and surpassed the thoughts and the writers of his age by centuries. He was incomparable in depicting political and social problems.” (Loḡat-nāma, under “Ṭāherzāda,” p. 101).
In the early years of the twentieth century, Russian Azerbaijan and to a lesser degree Iranian Azerbaijan, enjoyed a remarkable literary revival and particularly in satirical journalism. The period between 1905 and 1920 was the “Golden Age” of Azerbaijani satirical newspapers. Of 405 journals and newspapers published between 1832 and 1920 in Russian Azerbaijan in Azeri, Persian, Russian and a few other languages, fifteen were satirical papers in Azeri. With two exceptions, the publication of all of them was in the space of these fifteen years. Mollā Naṣreddin (1906-1932) under the editorship of Jalil Memedqulizadah was an exceptional driving force in Azeri journalism and its influence went as far as Persia, Turkey and Central Asia. Ṣāber wrote for many journals under different pseudonyms, and from the early issues of Mollā Naṣreddin until his death he was very closely associated with this journal. This period in Ṣāber’s life coincided with the Persian Constitutional Revolution (1905-11) and his vibrant and biting political satire was recited by the Constitutionalists in the trenches of Tabriz. His influence was considerably far-reaching: Sayyed Ašraf Gilāni freely translated or adapted him in his journal Nasim-e Šemāl (Ārianpur, Az Sabā tā Nimā II, pp. 46-77) and the poet Muʿjiz of Šabestar (Nazim Akundov, Azerbaycan Satira Journallari 1905-1920, Baku, 1968, p. 346) was greatly influenced by him. Some of his political satire were commented on in the journal Azerbaijan and by Dehḵodā in Sur-e Esrāfil. On the occasion of the assassination of Atābak-e Aʿẓam in August 1907 Azerbaijan published a poem addressing “Mulla Amu,” boasting how one of the enemies of constitution was killed. Ṣāber answered (Mollā Naṣreddin, October 2nd, 1907) that “don’t be so self assured. I don’t doubt the assassination of Atābak. There are still thousands of other Atābaks left on your way.” (Az Ṣabā tā Nimā, ii, p. 46) Such literary disputations (monāẓaras) between Azerbaijan, Sur-e Esrāfil and Mollā Naṣreddin were very common. Abu’l-Qāsem Lāhuti in a letter to the biographer of Ṣāber, Mir Ahmadov on June, 17, 1954, writes “Ṣāber’s poetry is so simple, fluent, intelligent, brave and well-liked by people and so imbued with a courageous spirit that it leaves a great impression on the minds of people desiring freedom.” He went on to say that not only him but most Iranian satirists of this era were indebted to him. (Az Ṣabā tā Nimā II, p. 169-170). Nimā Yušij believed that Ṣāber, with his lucid and popular style, enabled common people to enjoy poetry (Arzeš-e eḥsāsāt, Tehran, 1958, p. 126).
Though Ṣāber was closely associated with Mollā Naṣreddin, he wrote for many other journals including Ḥayāt, Fiużāt, Rahbar, Dabestān, Olfat, Eršād, Ḥaqiqat, Yeni Ḥaqiqat and Maʿlumāt. By publishing in newspapers he was able to reach a much wider audience than earlier poets. The topics that he chose for his satire were such that appealed to a wide range of people: reforms needed to improve the lives of his countrymen, criticism of superstition, male chauvinism, corruption of the officials, despotism of the rulers and sham piety of the clerics. From the point of view of satirical technique, Ṣāber uses almost all the forms and techniques employed by satirists before him. He exploits a large arsenal of forms and meters in his works, from qaṣida to ḡazal and from maṯnawi to robāʾi and baḥr-e ṭawil. Ṣāber sometimes parodies a well-known poem, or, to be more precise, he takes the first bayt and tags on a pasticheof the poem. He also made a fine verse translation of some passages of Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma into Azeri, including the episode of Siyāvaš. In one poem, imitating the style of the Šāh-nāma in a mock-heroic form, Ṣāber makes a general in M oḥammad-ʿAli Shah’s army, who has been sent to fight Sattār Khan and the Constitutionalists in Tabriz, boast of his valor. The poem turns farcical when he is defeated by Sattār Khan, and he tries to defend himself in a letter to the king (Hop-Hopnāma, pp. 167-71).
In summing up the achievements of Ṣāber in the development of Azeri literature in particular and as a poet and satirist in general, one should emphasize the originality of his themes, his versatility in using a wide variety of poetic forms in his satire and in adopting conversational and remarkably witty language. In the words of the Italian scholar Alessio Bombacci: “In Sāber, the anger of Juvenal, the bitter remarks of Béranger, and the infinite humanity of Nekrassov are gathered in one.” (Ahmet Caferoglu, “Azerbycanin mizah şaerleri: Ali-Akbar Saber” Doğumünun 100 yili münasibbetiyle, Turklulturi, Ankara, no. 3, p. 15).
Nazim Akundov, Azerbaycan Satira Journallari 1905-1920, Baku, 1968.
Yaḥyā Ārianpur, Az Ṣabā tā Nimā, 2 vols., Tehran, 1973.
ʿAli-Akbar Dehḵodā, Loḡat-nāma, under “Ṭāherzāda.” Asad Behrangi, Ṣāber wa moʿāṣerin-e u, Tabriz, 1979.
Mirza Ibrahimov, Azerbijanian Poetry, Moscow, 1969.
M. J. Jaʿfarov, Aḵundov va Sābir, tr. into Persian by Aḥmad Šafāʾi, Tabriz, 1977.
Hasan Javadi, “Ali-Akbar Sābir, The Poet Satirist of Azerbaijan,” in Sabri M. Akural, ed., Turkic Culture Continuity and Change, Bloomington, 1987.
Idem, Satire in Persian Literature, Rutherford, 1988.
Jaʿfar Khandan, Ṣabir, Azerbaycan Elmler Akademisi, Baku, 1943.
Idem, “Buyuk Realist ve Akhlaqi Satir yazan Sābir,” Azerbaijan 6, Baku, 1952.
Idem, “Sābir ve social realism xxinci Azerbycan eddabitinda,” InceSen’at 27, Baku, 1956.
Moḥammad Payfun, Našriya-e Mollā Naṣreddin payk-e enqelāb, Tehran, 1979.
ʿAli-Akbar Ṣabir, Hop Hop-nama, ed. Abbas Zamanov, Baku, 1962.
Raḥim Ṣadriniyā, Hop Hop zabāni barā-ye enqelāb, Tehran, 1978.
Aḥmad Šafāʾi, Hop Hop Nama, Baku, 1965 (a fine translation of Hop Hop-nama into Persian).
Abbas Zamanov, “Azadliq ve demokrasiya sha’eri,”(on 45th anniversary of Ṣābir’s death), Išchi 172, Baku, 1956.
Originally Published: July 20, 2003
Last Updated: July 20, 2003