There is nothing new in the world but to a newborn, all stories are new. For the newcomer to Nasreddin Hodja, the 111 stories that follow promise a discovery. As for Nasreddin’s old friends, they are a modest aide-mémoire.
This booklet was mainly written for my imaginary grand children. I collected the traditional Hodja fables under this title because, to advise or teach, I do not like to tell one directly how to think or what to do. Instead, almost everything “reminds me of a story”. Often, it is a Nasreddin story.
As I am a shameless thief of wisdom, my last concern is to be original. Of late, I care to scatter some good seed on the footpath, not to boast as when I was young: “Me! Me! Me!” These stories belong to the wisdom treasury of the world, they were told for centuries and only this narration is mine. I worked hard to rewrite the folkloric gems in my own words, in this language which is not my mother tongue, in order to avoid the tyranny of other people’s copyrights. I want everyone to enjoy freely - as all knowledge should be - an honest personal selection from the Nasreddin treasury, careful to bring back astute ideas often lost in the “joke” variants so abundant on the Net and in the chap-printings.
I re-tell the Nasreddin tales from the point of view of Western civilisation willing to learn some subtlety from the East. I hope that such rendering builds bridges among cultures in times when mutual understanding and respect are rather wanting.
As you will find in innumerable sources, Nasreddin the Hodja or Hoça or the Mullah was born in Turkey but also in many other countries of the East. His mule was – and still is - loaded with many hundreds of stories of disparate kinds and origins: Turkish, Jewish, Persian, Indian and Afghan, even Chinese. The Balkans, North Africa and Asia swarm with avatars of Nasreddin. At present, European and American stories also claim their place in the Nasreddin treasury of wit. At times, in my turn, I made the mullah's mule carry stories from other traditions, in all good faith, because of their "family resemblance"; today the Hodja stories are, I am convinced, a living folklore of the World. And tell me, who is forbidden to contribute to folklore?
Over centuries, people imagined the Nasreddin that fitted their needs and fancy. There are sage Sufi-flavoured Mullahs that teach us esoteric wisdom and stupid Effendis that make the stupid feel clever. There are bold subversive Hoças ridiculing tyranny and fanaticism at the whiskers of the tiger and, if one likes so, sheepish little nasruddins ready to sell their soul (as my late much-loved dogs Tao or Gad would have done) for a plate of mutton. Some people even enjoy a paedophile Hoça, the scatological Hoça, or an evil, idiotic, “Beavis and Butthead”– like Nasreddin. You will find those collector items in “complete” academic anthologies but certainly not here. We have the right to select.
My chosen Hodja is wise and bright, maybe somewhat cynical - it is the downside of experience - but he is certainly a good, caring person. He is a close parent of Birbal of India, Till Eulenspiegel of the Low Countries or Ludas Matyi of Hungary. He lived long years under tyranny and his wisdom is the one of the intellectual subverting oppression while surviving under it. He can bite, if needed. He would play the fool and make a fool out of himself if that is the price, to make other people discover how silly they are, but he is no fool. He is a sage worth listening to. So I hope...
There are good reasons to use Nasreddin fables for teaching: The attention-grabbing anecdotes of the Mullah make us learn as children learn – from examples; the unquestioned common places used as arguments cause us to absorb paradoxes without resistance. Once assimilated, the dissonance provokes minds to open. How is this possible ? Nasreddin’s intuitive playing with obviousness, slippery words and challenge is ceaselessly testing the top, the borders and the bottom of everyday thinking. He reveals received ideas and exposes the nonsense we utter everyday.
In my opinion, these stories smuggle a crash course in critical thinking. And critical thinking means freedom to think with your own head, more choices in the mind. This makes a big difference in one's life…
Such innocent looking stories are deeper than amusement; as you leaf through this booklet, it assays you: you go on reading or you lose interest. If you choose to read the whole book, it reads you in its turn: What you understand, depends on who you are but you absorb its metaphors and its turns of mind. In the end, once familiar with the stories, you cannot unknow them any more. You may even be somewhat changed.
Ioan Tenner 2007 - 2017
Wisdom is a treasure that grows as you give it away; miraculously, it allows you to do more and more with less and less. For those ready to understand what I mean this truth is proven by experience.
How noble! but giving away does not make you rich, only wiser; moreover, the common of folks are vain enough to believe they do you a favour when they listen and deign to accept your advice (remember that such people value only what they pay for).
Accordingly, I warn you: do not offer unasked counsel and do not hand it out free, as I do so often.
This reminds me of a story:
Curiously, the wiser the Mullah grew, the less food there was on his table. The more he taught the less he got.
Something had to be done to make both ends meet. Lack of better ideas, Nasreddin thought that he could at least teach his donkey to eat less; so, he will spare some money.
Day after day, little by little, he would give the animal less and less barley.
The good old donkey did not seem to mind so much, on the contrary its temper improved, he became tame and slower, careful to keep on the road.
Seeing such good progress, Nasreddin went on with the diet until the donkey only had a handful of fodder and some water for the day. The villagers were impressed.
Alas, it happens that one morning the Hodja looked into the stable and run to see his neighbour, lamenting:
"Misfortune! Everything was going so well and now, just when I taught him not to eat at all, my donkey died.
Beware; nothing is impossible for the man who does not have to do it himself. Dictators, theorists, politicians gone astray from reality, will come upon you with utopian nowhere places and reckless orders and doctrines, without care for your life or for the realities you live. But as an African proverb goes, "when the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows deeply and farts in silence".
When faced with lunatic, dangerous commands, you do not owe them a sacrifice in the name of Truth; survive with unashamed make-believe. Under tyranny, public delusion is a way of life. This reminds me of a story:
Some learned people say this story was about bright Birbal, the Hindu sage at King Akbar’s court. But I say, for my storytelling purpose, that it was about Nasreddin, at Tamerlane’s palaces in Samarkand.
At that time Nasreddin still had the ear of Emir Timur, and enjoyed the luxury of speaking some truth from time to time. From the gold thrown to him by the master, our Mullah had built for himself a nice house, with a nice little green garden shaded by charming wines and even his own nice, deep, stone well with fresh water. This prosperity filled the royal barber and other flatterers with envy.
Now everybody knows that for Timur, other people’s sons and fathers did not count more then chaff, but he was much attached to family values when it came to his own. He would keep a close eye on his sons and heirs, throw a palace here and a garden or a mosque there for his wives and most of all cherish the memory of his late father Taragai of the Barlas. His father had been unquestionably a saint. The proof was that Timur said so and nobody in their right minds ever contradicted him to his face.
To the royal barber, whom Nasreddin had fooled a couple of times, this filial piety seemed to offer a smooth path to getting revenge.
One morning, while busying his hands in the Emir’s beard, the barber related to the ruler an amazing dream he had the previous night:
“Great emir, he said brazenly, I dreamt I was in heaven last night. Lo, there were martyrs everywhere, taking delight, as they pleased, in the company of innumerable virgins, the honey was flowing like rivers and the people of times past, few of which I knew, were enjoying themselves, each according to his merit before the all knowing face of Allah the Merciful.”
“Did you meet my father the saint?” asked Timur suddenly interested.
“Certainly I did, even as I see you now, Master! And he honoured me by allowing me to bring you his best wishes. Barber, he said, tell my son that I am well here, in great health, all ailments past. Nothing wrong ever befalls me. In fact, nothing ever happens in this blessed place. Except, perhaps that I am so bored. Could my son please send to me his jester to amuse me with his silly stories? Would he do this much for his departed father?”
Tamerlane allowed himself to be very touched by this testimony. He sent for Nasreddin and told him of the wonderful dream:
“Be happy", he said, "my father wants your company in Paradise. Your troubles are ended. I have no doubt, to serve me, you will be cheerful to leave this world for the better one.”
Nasreddin had only the briefest moment of hesitation before replying:
“I will be glad and greatly honoured, Master” he said shyly, while wiping the cold sweat from his nape with a large handkerchief. “But I am so surprised that I can hardly speak. May I consider till tomorrow and be allowed to choose the manner in which I will pass away?”
“You may”, allowed the Emir, generously.
Early next morning, after a night of deep thought, Hodja came forth:
“Kind Master, I need the month of Ramadan to clean myself of all sinful thoughts. Then, I would like to depart by means of jumping into the well in my own garden. I hope your Majesty will deign to be my witness. After I leave, I wish the well to be covered without delay with a stone slate and never be used again. Is this allowed by your incommensurable magnanimity ?”
“It is. Go and prepare.”
Nasreddin went home and worked the whole month in the well, day and night, digging a long siphon tunnel that started hidden under water level and ended in a secret basement cellar of the house. He also amassed ample provisions and some secret company, which we will mention soon. After this, the Hodja came into the exalted presence of the Emir and said:
“I am ready, Master. What message do you send to your saintly father?”
“With my greetings, bring him my excuses for the worthless gift of your person. And do your best to amuse him with witty stories.”
At the end of Ramadan, the Mullah jumped into the well in the presence of the Emir surrounded by a large assistance. A huge slate of heavy marble was at once placed upon the well and in a few days the whole matter was forgotten.
Meanwhile, Nasreddin, plunged in the water. swam and crawled safely into his basement and hid there in a comfortable nest.
For six dark months, at the perfumed light of oil lamps, he relaxed, ate delicacies and drank sweet wine in the company of two charming dancers, pampered with pleasures we cannot mention here in detail, for fear of hurting young ears. For all this time, he left his hair unkempt and his beard untrimmed, notwithstanding the well known advice of the Prophet (pbuh).
When the six months were over, he came out and presented his scruffy self to the presence of Timur.
“Nasreddin!" exclaimed the Emir. "What on earth are you doing here?”
“I’m back from Paradise. Your noble father was pleased with me and let me to serve him for long months. After I ended all my stories he sent me back to enjoy my days on Earth, inch Allah. He sends you word that he is very well and proud to learn about your great deeds. But he has one annoyance: as you can see, barbers seldom get to paradise. After having listened to my stories, he would now like to have his white beard and his hairdo cared for. He wishes you to send your own barber to him for a short while.”
This was done promptly, as Timur knew how to appreciate pitiless humour.
When the whole world smells fish.. you better clean your nose. Understanding these words will spare you much trouble and danger in your life. The feeling that everybody is against you, is a sign that the problem is with you, not with everybody. You may chose to improve yourself instead of fighting the whole world.
This reminds me of a story:
Nasreddin was on his way home from saint Mecca.
Midway on the sandy road between two cities he met a man. They greeted each other and sat down to chatter, as lonely travellers are so happy to do.
"Tell me Hoca," asked the pilgrim, who looked worn and worried, "since you came that way you must know. "How are the people in the city from where you came and where I happen to go?"
The mullah inquired:
"First tell me how were the people in the town you come from?"
"They were despicable evil people. They were out to get me. I was lucky to escape."
"Well, my friend, they will be all the same in the city where you go."
Some simpletons, too busy with what they want, will first importune you and then ask for a favour. To do better than this, when you petition people start by considering them, not just you! Look where they are and ponder what may count for them at that given time. Care to understand them if you need their understanding.
This reminds me of a story:
Nasreddin was repairing the roof. Not easy to climb up when you are beyond your first youth.
A neighbour called him from the street.
“Come down, I have something important to talk with you.”
The Mullah climbed down from the roof with some pain.
“What is it?”
The neighbour whispered into his ear, confidentially:
“Can you please lend me five silver akce?”
“Come up with me.” said Nasreddin.
The man worked his way up a creaky ladder after the Hodja. This took some time. Finally on the roof he asked again:
“Can I have the money now?”
Nasreddin leaned over and whispered confidentially into his ear:
“I’m so sorry, I do not carry my purse with me when I'm repairing the roof.”
It is most difficult to see things that are not there but the obvious is even harder to observe.
Do fish notice water? No, it is all around them. Is water important for fish? Certainly, it is. This common difficulty to notice the evident makes detecting the obvious a vital art of masters: therefore, learn to marvel - naively - why some long held belief is so certain and look at it otherwise. Be prudent sough. Such trifles change the world.
This reminds me of a story:
It used to happen when Nasreddin was still forever young and his beard was still black and cheeky.
Season after season, day in day out and even three or four times a day, he would ride his donkey through the toll gate up the valley. So often that you couldn't tell anymore whether he was coming or going, annoying like a buzzing fly. Time after time, the customs officers would check his load, saddlebags and even his turban.
They never found more than loads of hay. They knew there had to be something but just couldn't find what. Finally, they gave up.
This ploy continued under the nose of the border guards, for several years, to the annoyance of the captain.
Forty years later, the retired captain leaned over the table at the tea house in Aksehir, closer to the Mullah's now respectable white beard and asked:
"Just tell me Hoça, before we both die in our old age and your smart trick gets lost. What were you hiding? I checked you so many times, with my own hand, and your donkeys never carried anything other than hay. What was it that you smuggled?"
The Mullah stared at him with his round innocent eyes.
"Donkeys, my good man, what else?"
A way of wisdom is to fit constantly your dreams to your means. This reminds me of a story:
At the coffee-house, everybody was bragging of their military exploits.
“And you?” asked one turning to Nasreddin.
“I ? One day, on the battlefield, I cut an enemy’s leg with one strike of scimitar.”
“Why not the head, as other people do?”
“That was impossible. Someone else had already taken the head.”
Bare truth is a sharp knife. As Balthasar Gracian said, you should seize things not by the blade, which cuts you, but by the handle to use them.
Among people, clothe naked truth with good sense and politeness.
This reminds me of a story:
As everybody knows by now, Timur the Lame was not only limping but also one-eyed and crippled in one wrist. At one time of leisure, in Samarkand where he sat court and erected his sky-blue palaces, dream gardens and lavish imperial tents, the mighty Emir fancied his painted image to be made for the wonder and joy of generations to come. A portrait to last across the ages to show who he used to be.
The court painter, who was sent for in China, displayed his finest art. For thirty days he ravished into a spitting image, a perfect reflection, the very twin of the living Timur, the incomparable emir, looking straight at you from the canvas.
The thirty-first day, the ruler ordered the portrait to be uncovered, looked at it and grew angry: "This is true, but it is ugly. Take this worm out and bring me back his head on a platter, to rest my shorter leg and my blind eye on it!"
The second painter of the court tried his luck. With shaking limbs, he presented his own work to the brow rising emir. Timur admired the picture for a while before he decided,
"This image is beautiful but it is not true. Take this cheap flatterer out of my presence and let him be beheaded! You can leave his head outside, by his feet."
No third painter gathered enough courage to try again, so that it was, as often before, Nasreddin's time to be summoned and offered to choose between brush and blade. Hoça chose the brush and worked hard (with some help from paid artists, too shy to claim their merit at that time).
After six months, when the spring came, the day of showing could not be delayed any more.
Timur uncovered the portrait with his own hand.
He looked, and looked, scratched his head, frowned, turned his eye skywards, smoked a whole narghileh and then allowed a large smile to spread on his imperial face.
"Not so bad", he said. "I'm not handsome but seen from a reasonable distance among my troops I look proud. On horseback, who could notice that I'm lame? From one side, nobody sees that I have only that good eye. As I am holding my side quiver, my deformed wrist is hidden. Let this witty painter be showered with a thousand gold dirham. He knows how to show the truth to the people."
You heat and you forget. You see and you remember. If you want to really learn something, do it. Live through it! You cannot swim on the shore nor exchange kisses through a messenger. This reminds me of a story:
It is the meaningful tale of the son and heir of a thief, as the Mulla learned it in far away China and then told it as his own, many times:
The son of a thief saw his father growing older and resolved to start helping him.
“If you become too old, I will have to be the breadwinner of the family.” said he. “It’s time to teach me your craft of stealing, if you please.”
The old thief agreed and took him the same night to rob a rich house.
The thief cut a hole in the fence and they tiptoed into the house. Then he opened a large chest and pointed his son to go inside and look for jewels.
As soon as the young man got in, the thief shut the lid, locked it, and left. He also threw a stone in the courtyard to wake up the family while he quietly slipped away through the fence.
The people of the house lighted candles but found nothing. The son froze frightened, confined in the chest.
After a while, as his heartbeat decreased but his despair grew, he had an idea. He scratched the wood with his nails to imitate the gnawing of a mouse.
The lady of the house told a maid to take a candle and look into the chest. Once the lid unlocked, the captive leaped out, blew out the light of the maid’s hand and fled. Everybody caught arms and charged after him.
The boy ran for his life. Through the bushes, the party was getting closer. Then he saw a well.
He threw in a boulder and hid in the thicket. As his chasers lost time to fish out his drowned body the boy crawled away and got safely to his house.
His father looked at him with interest and asked him how he got off.
“Why did you act so cruelly?” reproached the son.
“Well my son, isn’t this what you wanted? Here you are, now you know the secret art of burglary.”