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Volume 48, Number 5September/October 1997

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Tales of the Hoja

Written by John Noonan
Illustrated by Yurdaer Altintas

A roly-poly, turbaned figure mounted on a donkey rides through six centuries of Turkish folk tales. He is Nasreddin Hoja, the Anatolian preacher, teacher and farmer whose mythical adventures puncture pomposity, give grounds for hope, and recognize the realities of daily life not only of 13th-century Anatolia but of every place and age.

Nasreddin Hoja (hocameans "teacher" in Turkish) is both crafty and naive, wise and foolish, a trickster and the butt of tricks. He is devout, but has human failings; is happy, but has his share of troubles; sweet-tempered, but capable of testiness and even rage. Every Turk can tell stories—often dozens of stories—about this invincible victim of life's ironies.

And not only Turks. In coffeehouses and caravanserais throughout the Ottoman Empire, and from there along the Silk Roads to China and India, stories about him were told; they spread among the Turkic tribes and into Persian and Arabian cultures, and across North Africa from Egypt to Algeria. The stories—mostly invented, though the person himself probably did exist—were loved and retold and expanded because they embodied peasant craft, village wit and the wisdom of the powerless in dealing with life's vagaries and setbacks. They were certainly also revised and adapted to apply to the struggles and circumstances of the tellers.

Thus Nasreddin Hoja had to deal not only with Timur, the terrifying Mongol conqueror of Anatolia, but also with nagging wives, thoughtless sons, intrusive neighbors, bungling bureaucrats and assorted animals. He emerged from these collisions with his gentle nature dented but unbroken. He rebuked rudeness or greed with a deft phrase that rings down the centuries. He coped with frustration and outrage to win the smiles that made humdrum life endurable—and sometimes even instructive.

Many of the Nasreddin Hoja stories were adopted into the folk-tale repertoires of other cultures. The Arabian tales of Juha, for example, tell of jokes and pranks almost interchangeable with the Hoja's, and he was also assimilated into the characters of Bahlul, the wise fool of the Middle East, the German peasant character Till Eulenspiegel, the Finnish Antti Puuhaara, Birbal in India and Bertholdi of Serbo-Croatian humor.

Family squabbles, human weaknesses and foibles, the differences between the great and the humble—all were the objects of Nasreddin Hoja's way of dealing with life as he found it, with a heart-winning, rueful smile and recognition of fellowship. Concluding a description of how his donkey had strayed and been lost for two days, the Hoja adds, "Thank goodness I wasn't on it at the time, or I'd have been lost too!"

Nasreddin Hoca stories do not tell of blood, battle and martial glory except to deflate them. "Why," the Hoja boasts, "I went forth onto the battlefield and, with one terrible swift stroke of my sword, I cut the hand right off one of the enemy!" Asked if he had then cut off the wounded soldier's head, Nasreddin confesses, "As a matter of fact, no. Somebody else had done that an hour earlier."

A large number of the Nasreddin Hoja tales tell of his dealings with Timur (Tamerlane), who defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Innocent, unintimidated and sly, the Hoja provided laughter at the presumptions of the great.

"What is my true worth, my value?" demanded Timur of Nasreddin Hoja. "You see before you a man who has conquered the whole world, who has slain armies and makes the mountains tremble! Look carefully and tell me what you think is my real worth." The Hoja peered at the emperor, stroked his chin and replied, "About 20 gold pieces." "What? Idiot!" raged Timur. "Just this belt alone is worth 20 gold pieces!" Nasreddin Hoja nodded. "I included that when 1 gave you my estimate," he said.

Tales like that one were banned during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who was not a humorous man. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the other hand, was an avid fan of Nasreddin Hoja stories. And their nose-tweaking quality may also have appealed to another great deflator of the mighty: There are scholars who suggest that Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, may have heard Nasreddin Hoja stories after his capture by the Turks off Algiers, during his imprisonment from 1575 to 1581. One can see some of the lineaments of the Hoja in Don Quixote's sidekick, the bungling but unsinkable Sancho Panza.

The following stories are some that I have heard in the course of four happy decades in Turkey.

Nasreddin Hoja had journeyed long on his donkey to reach the town where an Ottoman official had invited him to dinner. Stiffly, he dismounted and knocked on the imposing front door. When it was opened, he saw that the feast was already in progress. But before he could introduce himself, his host, looking at his travel-stained clothes, told him curtly that beggars were not welcomeand shut the door in the startled Hoja's face.

Undismayed, Nasreddin Hoja went to the saddlebag on his donkey and unhurriedly changed into his finest attire: a magnificent silk robe trimmed with fur, and a vast silk turban. Thus arrayed, he returned to the front door and knocked again.

This time, his host welcomed him warmly and with many courtesies, and conducted him to the main table. Servants placed dishes of delicacies before him. Nasreddin Hoja poured a bowl of soup into one pocket of his robe. To the astonishment of the other guests, he tucked pieces of roast meat into the folds of his turban. Then, before his horrified host, he pushed the fur facing of his robe into a plate of pilav, murmuring "Eat, fur, eat!"

"What's the meaning of this?" demanded the host.

"My dear sir," replied the Hoja, "I am feeding my clothes. To judge by your treatment of me half an hour ago, it is clearly they, and not myself, which are the objects of your hospitality!"

A group of villagers came upon Nasreddin Hoja one day at the edge of the lake. To their surprise, they saw he was kneeling by the water, carefully spooning creamy yoghurt from a wooden bowl into the ripples.

"Hoja, for heaven's sake!" they shouted in astonishment. "What are you doing with the yoghurt?"

"I'm putting starter into the lake," he replied calmly. "There'll be enough yoghurt for everybody."

"You're crazy!" the villagers told him. "This lake will never turn into yoghurt!"

"Well, 1 know, I know," Nasreddin Hoja admitted. "But just imagine: How wonderful if it did!"

One morning when Nasreddin Hoja went to fetch his donkey, he found it missing. The old rope that had tied the animal up was pulled apart, and the donkey was gone. When his neighbors heard of their Hoja's loss, they came to help find the beast. They knew that, like their own, Nasreddin Hoja's livelihood depended on the donkey's work. Some searched in nearby fields, while others checked empty buildings and other places the donkey might have strayed.

When it became apparent that the animal was nowhere in or around the village, some of the younger neighbors took it on themselves to search the nearby hills in their quest.

Toward sunset, the exhausted searchers returned to the village. To their surprise, they found Nasreddin Hoja sitting in the coffee-house, sipping a glass of tea and smiling benignly.

"Have you found your donkey, Hoja?" one of them asked.

"As a matter of fact, no," replied Nasreddin Hoja.

One man, more outspoken or perhaps more tired than the others, snapped at the Hoja. "Then why the devil are you smiling? It's your donkey, and how are you going to make your living without it?"

Still smiling, Nasreddin Hoja placed the tulip-shaped glass on its saucer, and replied, "My boy, all places where the donkey could possibly be have been searched, without successexcept that high hill to the west. Now, let me assure you, if that hill is also found to be without my donkey, then you'll hear some real moaning!"

Nasreddin Hoja was very fond of liver, and he was very pleased when a friend sent him a wonderful new recipe for preparing it. He hurried to the market and bought each of the ingredients his wife would need to follow the recipe, including a kilo of fresh liver.

As he was crossing the village square, however, getting hungrier with each step, a hawk swooped down, snatched the liver from his hand and flew away. Nasreddin Hoja ran after the bird for a few steps, but it was useless, of course. Through his anger and his disappointment, the Hoja nonetheless saw a silver lining. Waving the letter from his friend, he shouted after the hawk, "Go ahead and take the liver, thenyou can have it! But I've still got the recipe!"

One summer's day in Turkey, Nasreddin Hoja and his faithful old donkey were plowing in the fields. It was a hot day and they had been plowing since early morning. "Let's rest awhile, my friend," the old man said to the donkey. They walked over to the shade of a large walnut tree. Near it was a pumpkin field, and a deep well. Nasreddin Hoja drank some of the cool well water and gave a bucketful to the donkey. Then with an "aahl" he sat down slowly on the ground and leaned his back against the trunk of the walnut tree.

It was such a hot day. He still felt warm, even in the cool shade. So he took off the big white turban that he always wore on his bald head. Then he rested his head against the tree, and felt better. He looked up at the big strong branches full of leaves and ripe walnuts. Then he closed his eyes and slept awhile.

Suddenly he woke and sat up, looking at the huge pumpkins around the well. They looked like big warm orangy-brown stones, surrounded by leaves and the thin twisting vines they grew on.

Then he looked again at the walnuts hanging from the tree's thick branches, and he thought about Hie pumpkins and the walnuts in the slow, careful way he always thought about things. After a while, he spoke aloud. "Oh God, you are great and wise, and I am only a farmer and the preacher in our village mosque. But some people say I'm the wisest man in the village, God, and I was just wondering....

"Shouldn't the walnuts and the pumpkins be changed around? I mean, shouldn't the big heavy pumpkins grow on the thick branches of a strong tree like this one? And shouldn't the little walnuts grow on the ground on thin spindly vines like those over there? Surely that would make more senseand think how beautiful a green tree full of big orange pumpkins would look!"

Just then, there was a zipping sound in the tree above Nasreddin Hoja, and a ripe walnut fell from a high branch andouch!hit the old man right on the top of his bare bald head. "Ay!" he said, and rubbed the spot. He could already feel a lump growing, and he looked angrily up at the tree.

Then another thought crept slowly into Nasreddin Hoja's mind, and he stopped being angry. "Forgive me, God," he said quietly. "You are great and wise, and I am only a foolish old man. Now I understand. What if this tree had been a pumpkin tree, and what if it had been a big ripe pumpkin that hit me on the head, instead of a little walnut!"

He called to his donkey. "We're better off with the pumpkins on the ground, aren't we?" he said. "Come on, let's go and do the work we were meant to do, and leave the running of the world to God." And Nasreddin Hoja and his donkey went back to their plowing,

As he was returning home late and tired one night, Nasreddin Hoja stopped at the village well to draw a drink for himself. He was horrified to see the full moon reflected in the dark water at the bottom of the well.

"Good Lord, the moon's fallen down the well!" he muttered to himself.

"I've got to rescue it! What would we do without the beautiful moon?"

He grabbed the bucket and rope that lay beside the well and tossed the bucket in. Then he maneuvered it with the rope until he saw the moon reflecting safely from the water in the bucket. Bending over the well, he tried to raise the bucket. But its lip was stuck on a stone, and the more Nasreddin Hoja pulled, the less successful he was at raising the bucket and rescuing the moon. Finally he braced his foot on the edge of the well and heaved. Suddenly the bucket broke loose and the Hoja tumbled onto his back beside the well. Above him, he saw the lovely full moon floating serenely in the sky.

"Well, that's a good job done," he said to himself as he got to his feet. "Praise God, the moon is back where it belongs!" And he went home to bed. A

Nasreddin Hoja and his traveling companion were destitute. Pooling their last paras, they had just enough money to buy a single glass of milk at an inn.

"You drink your half first, Hoja," said the friend. "I have a little sugar in my pocket, and I want to stir it into my half of the milk."

"Well, stir it in now," said the Hoja. "Sweetened milk would be a grand treat!"

"No, you drink your half first," the friend insisted. "I only have enough sugar for my half."

"Well, in that case," grumbled Nasreddin Hoja, reaching for the salt-cellar, "I think I'll drink my half salty."

Some neighbors asked Nasreddin Hoja, "What was that loud crash we heard from your house last night?" "Nothing much," he replied. "My wife was angry, and she threw some clothes down the stairs."

"What a loud noise, just for clothes!." they pried.

"Well, if you must know," said the Hoja, "I was in them at the time."

Nasreddin Hoja was standing in a field when a passerby quizzed him, asking what the people in the next village down the road were like.

"Well, what did you think of the people in our village?" he asked the stranger.

"Block-headed, lazy, stupid and rude, if you must know," replied the traveler.

"That's probably how you'll find them in the next village, too," said the Hoja.

A little later, another passing stranger struck up a conversation with Nasreddin Hoja. He too asked what the people in the next village were like.

"How did you find the people in this village?" countered the Hoja again.

"Warm-hearted, smiling, gentle and hospitable," answered the stranger.

"Then that's how you'll find them in the next village, too."

Nasreddin Hoja was afflicted with a bothersome, pesky neighbor who abused whatever he borrowed. If he asked for a saw, it would be returned unsharpened; if he borrowed an axe, it would be returned damaged, if it was returned at all; and money lent to him was repaid only after many reminders.

On this particular morning, the neighbor asked if he could use Nasreddin Hoja's donkey, explaining that he wanted to fetch bundles of firewood from the mountain, and his own donkey had a limp.

Knowing the animal would be returned beaten and unfed, Nasreddin Hoja replied, "Oh, what a pity I don't have him to lend! Just yesterday I lent him to my wife's cousin in the next village."

Just then Nasreddin Hoja's donkey brayed loudly from the shed behind the house. Hearing, it, the neighbor huffed and indignantly accused Nasreddin Hoja of lying.

Unperturbed, the Hoja wrapped himself in his dignity, stuck out his chin and demanded, "Whom are you going to believe? Me, or that stupid animal?

Misfortune befell Nasreddin Hoja. Returning from a wedding party one night, he and his wife found their home had been burglarized. Awakened by the lamentations of the Hoja's wife, neighbors rushed to offer commiserations.

But soon the clucking of tongues and the soulful sighs changed to criticism of Nasreddin Hoja.

"You should have left a lamp burning in your house, to make the thieves think someone was there," said one.

"I always urged you to get a dog," said another.

"You kept putting off repairing the lock on that door," chided his wife.

"Enough!" cried the exasperated Hoja. "You are all blaming me for this and blaming me for that. Don't you think the thieves deserve a little bit of the blame?"

As a young airman in the early 1950's, Boston-born
John Noonan became enamored of Turkey's folklore and history; much of his poetry and writing in the subsequent four decades has dealt with those subjects. He lives in Bodrum, in southwestern Turkey.

Yurdaer Altintas, one of Turkey's best-known graphic artists, is a founder of the Turkish Society of Graphic Designers and was its president for seven years. His theater posters in particular have been exhibited around the world.

This article appeared on pages 30-39 of the September/October 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1997 images.