Comic Sage of the Ages
“One day Molla Nasreddin went to a banquet. As he was dressed rather shabbily, no one let him in. So he ran home, put on his best robe and returned. Immediately, the host came over, greeted him and ushered him to the head of an elaborate banquet table.
When the food was served, Nasreddin pushed his sleeves up to his plate and said, “Eat sleeves, eat! It’s obvious that you’re the real guest of honor today, not me!”
Hundreds and thousands of stories about Molla Nasreddin are enjoyed throughout the world, not just among Turkish speakers where the anecdotes originated. Azerbaijanis and Iranians know this comic sage as “Molla Nasreddin.” Turks and Greeks call him “Hoja Nasreddin.” Kazakhs say “Koja Nasreddin;” Arabs, “Juha;” and Tajiks, “Mushfiqi.” (Spellings sometimes vary: Nasreddin can be found as Nasrudin, Nasr ed-din and Nasr al-din; Molla is also written as Mulla; and Hoja as Khoja.)
Molla Nasreddin stories are eternal; they deal with social issues which are fundamental to human nature-social injustice, class privilege, selfishness, cowardliness, laziness, incompetence, ignorance, narrow-mindedness and all kinds of fraud. Though most of the stories are set in 13th century teahouses, bath houses, caravansarai and market places, Molla’s observations about human nature are so insightful and told so cleverly that they have the power to entertain and mesmerize us centuries later.
Right: From the Magazine, “Molla Nasreddin,” July 7, 1906.
He was a great advocate of women’s rights.
Molla’s observations involve people from all walks of life, from beggar to king, politician to clergy, and scholar to merchant. His wife and his donkey (not necessarily in that order) are among his most constant companions. His stories often point to an obvious truth which has been taken for granted and usually include an unexpected twist that make his ideas witty and fresh. Though Molla often appears as a fool, he usually is the one who cleverly exposes other people’s foolishness.
Some say Nasreddin is a legendary figure. Others insist that he was a real person though the exact details of his actual life have not been proven. It is generally accepted that he was born in a Turkish village in 1208 and died around 1284. Every year, an “International Nasreddin Hoja Festival” is held between July 5-10 in the town where he was buried in Turkey, giving writers and artists a chance to present their works of drama, music, paintings, films and animation and keep the memory of Nasreddin alive.
Azerbaijanis are extremely fond of Molla Nasreddin anecdotes and entertain one another by telling them at parties and family gatherings, injecting Molla’s humor and wit into the natural flow of conversation just as they do with proverbs and jokes. Many people have a large repertoire of Molla stories to draw upon and can introduce them into real life situations at the appropriate moment.
A sampling from the great treasury of Molla Nasreddin stories follows. Since these anecdotes have been passed down orally, generation after generation, considerable variations may exist in the way they are told through time and space. Despite the differences, or perhaps even because of them, Molla Nasreddin is esteemed as the most popular satirical comic character of all Eastern folk literature.
“How old are you, Molla?”
“But you said that two years ago when I asked.”
“That’s right. I always stand by my word!”
In the old days, men were permitted to have more than one wife. Molla himself took a second wife who was younger than the first one. One evening he came home to find them quarreling about which of them Molla loved more.
At first, Molla told them he loved them both, but neither of them were satisfied with his answer. Then the older one asked, “Well, just suppose the three of us were in a boat, and it started to sink. Which of us would you try to save?”
Molla thought for a moment, and then said to his older wife, “My dear, you know how to swim, don’t you?”
Secret of Longevity
One day Molla was asked the secret to longevity.
“Keep your feet warm, your head cool, be careful what you eat and don’t think too much.”
Chickens to the Defense
One day, some other mollas were complaining about Molla to Tamerlane, so Molla took a hen with its chicks to one of Tamerlane’s advisors. The following day, Nasreddin and the mollas were summoned to the palace.
After the complaint was heard, the advisor began his defense for Molla. Then Tamerlane asked Molla, “What can you say to prove that you’re not guilty?” Molla replied, “I have nothing more to say, your Majesty. The hen and chicks have already spoken in my favor.”
To Make the People Stop Talking
One day, Molla and his son went on a journey. Molla preferred to let his son ride the donkey while he walked. Along the way, they passed some travelers.
“Look at that healthy young boy on the donkey! That’s today’s youth for you! They have no respect for their elders! He rides while his poor father walks!”
The words made the lad feel very ashamed, and he insisted that his father ride while he walked. So Molla climbed on the donkey and the boy walked by his side. Soon they met another group.
“Well, look at that! Poor little boy has to walk while his father rides the donkey,” they exclaimed.
This time, Molla climbed onto the donkey behind his son.
Soon they met another group, who said, “Look at that poor donkey! He has to carry the weight of two people.”
Molla then told his son, “The best thing is for both of us to walk. Then no one can complain.”
So they continued their journey on foot. Again they met some travelers.
“Just look at those fools. Both of them are walking under this hot sun and neither of them is riding the donkey!”
In exasperation, Molla lifted the donkey onto his shoulders and said, “Come on, if we don’t do this, it will be impossible to make people stop talking.”
One day Molla Nasreddin was sprinkling some powder on the ground around his house.
“Molla, what are you doing?” a neighbor asked.
“I want to keep the tigers away.”
“But there are no tigers within hundreds of miles.”
“Effective, isn’t it?” Molla replied.
One day a neighbor called on Molla.
“Molla, I want to borrow your donkey.”
“I’m sorry,” Molla said, “but I’ve already lent it out.”
As soon as he had spoken, the sound of a donkey braying came from Molla’s stable.
“But Molla, I can hear your donkey in there.”
“Shame on you,” Molla said indignantly, “that you would take the word of a donkey over my word.”
Whatever You Say
One day the King invited Molla to his palace for dinner. The royal chef prepared, among others, a cabbage recipe for the occasion. After the dinner, the King asked, “How did you like the cabbage?”
“It was very delicious,” complimented Molla.
“I thought it tasted awful,” said the King.
“You’re right,” added Molla, “it was very bland.”
“But you just said it tasted ‘delicious,'” the King noted.
“Yes, but I’m the servant of His Majesty, not of the cabbage,” he replied.
As Fast As Sound
One day Molla climbed up into a minaret and shouted at the top of his lungs. Immediately, he came down and started running.
“What’s happening? Why are you running, Molla?” asked a passerby. “To see how far my voice carries,” he replied.
One day Molla bought three okes (an oke is 2.8 pounds) of meat and took it home to his wife. Then he returned to work. Immediately, his wife called her friends and prepared a superb dinner. In the evening, Molla returned for supper, and his wife offered him nothing but bread and onions.
He turned to her and said, “But why haven’t you prepared anything from the meat?”
“I rinsed the meat and was going to put it on the stove when this damn cat came up and took it away,” she said.
Molla at once ran to get the scales. Then he found the cat and weighed it. It was exactly three okes!
Then he turned to his wife and said, “Look here! If what I have just weighed is the cat, then where’s the meat? But if this is the meat, then where’s the cat?”
The Doctor’s Cure
One day Molla fell seriously ill. His wife became very frightened and, thinking Molla might die, ran for the doctor.
“Oh, Doctor, my husband is gravely ill. We’re very poor and have many children. I’m afraid something might happen to him, and then who will take care of the children?”
On hearing the word “poor,” the doctor replied, “Why do you create problems for the poor man? Even if I prescribed medicine for him, how would you pay for it if you don’t have any money?”
The wife returned home and told Molla. A few days later Molla recovered. Soon, he headed off to the doctor. “I’ve come to say ‘thank you.’ I’ve recovered, thanks to you.”
The doctor replied, “How’s that? I didn’t treat you.”
“And that’s the very reason I recovered. Had your ugly breath touched me that day, who knows which cemetery I would be lying in today?”
Man’s Best Qualities
One day someone asked Molla, “What are the best qualities of mankind?”
“Well,” he replied, “a philosopher once told me that there are two. He had forgotten the one, but he told me the other. But to tell you the truth, I’ve since forgotten that one, too.”
According to social rules existing during Molla’s day, brides didn’t show themselves to their future husbands prior to marriage.
On Molla’s wedding day, his wife unveiled her face to him and asked, “Tell me, which of your relatives can I see without covering my face?” Molla replied, “Show your face to whomever you want; just make sure you keep it covered in my presence!”
Light at Night
One day, someone asked Molla, “Which is more valuable to man, the sun or the moon?”
“The moon, of course, because we need more light at night.”
Dreams in Detail
Once Molla woke his wife in the middle of the night and said, “Hey, be quick, give me my glasses.” The wife asked, “Why do you need your glasses in the middle of the night?” Molla replied, “I’m having a very interesting dream and need to see some of the details that are a bit blurry.”
(Obviously, the reference to glasses would indicate that this story was added much later than the 13th century).
Questions as Answers
One day Molla was asked, “How is it you always answer a question with another question?”
“Do I?” he replied.
The Turkish Bath
One day Molla went to a Turkish bath but as he was dressed so poorly, the attendants didn’t pay much attention to him. They gave him only a scrap of soap, a rag for a loin cloth and an old towel.
When Molla left, he gave each of the two attendants a gold coin. As he had not complained of their poor service, they were very surprised. They wondered had they treated him better whether he would have given them even a larger tip.
The next week, Molla came again. This time, they treated him like royalty and gave him embroidered towels and a loin cloth of silk. After being massaged and perfumed, he left the bath, handing each attendant the smallest copper coin possible. “This,” said Molla, “is for the last visit. The gold coins are for today.”
From Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.