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Dedicated to: The Children of the World

Nasreddin Hoca: Chuckles for all ages

by Prof. Talat Sait HALMAN

"The test of true Comedy" wrote George Meredith, "is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter." Nasreddin Hoca, the most durable folk philosopher and humorist to emerge from Anatolia, has provided thoughtful chuckles for all ages since the 13th century. Ancient Greek culture was enriched by Aesop's fables, Germany by Till Eulenspiegel's merry pranks, England by Shakespearean clowns, the United States by Mark Twainís and Will Rogers' quips- and Turkish life by the wisecracks and the satiric barbs of Nasreddin Hoca.

In Turkey, Nasreddin Hoca is truly a household name- a ubiquitous cultural figure whose anecdotes are invoked with remarkable frequency by authors and men-in-the-street alike. Most of his gags and punch lines are used like proverbs:  Turkish conversations are often entering larded with allusions to the inexhaustible tales of the Hoca (the word "Hoca", meaning scholar or religious teacher, is Anglicized as "Hodja.")

Precious little is known about Nasreddin Hoca's life. He lived probably in the 13th century although some authorities place him in the 14th or even the 15th century. He was born in Sivrihisar near Eskisehir, had his education either in Konya or Aksehir where he spend many years serving as religious teacher, preacher, and judge. He died and was buried in Aksehir where his "mausoleum" stands as an appropriate sight gag: all its walls are missing; only the iron gate remains intact with a huge padlock hanging on it. At this funniest mausoleum, Hoca's devotees hold a mostly humorous memorial ceremony  each year.

A principal criterion of success for a humorist is universality. One nationís laughter is often another nationís bafflement or boredom. Not so with Nasreddin Hoca. His wit has transcended national and cultural boundaries: For six centuries he has remained the foremost humorist in the Moslem and non-Islamic communities of the Middle East and the Balkans. His tales have been translated into many languages including English, Russian, German, French, etc, attesting to his universal appeal. He can also ìburlesqueî situations: Once a man brought to him a letter to read, Hoca said "The handwriting is illegible, I can't read it." The man got angry. "Fine Hoca you are. You wear a turban, yet you can't even read a simple letter." Hoca promptly took of his turban, put it on the man's head, and blurted: "Here, now you are wearing the turban; see if you can read the letter."

Hoca's humor is often brought, but not without subtlety. One day, while traveling, Hoca was famished and dropped in on a village imam he was acquainted with. The imam asked him if he was sleepy or thirsty, and Hoca replied: "On the way here, I took a nap by the fountain." Although Nasreddin Hoca is not given to malice, he can be vindictive if he is double-crossed. Tamer Lane had conquered Aksehir and terrorized the people. He ordered the townsfolk to feed and groom his elephant. The people suffered greatly because of this, and decided to send a committee, headed by Nasreddin Hoca, to Tamerlane to plead with him to take the elephant back. As the committee was about to enter the tyrantís palace, Hoca noticed that the other members of the committee got scared and turned back. He was left alone, facing the tyrant. "Youíre Highness,"he said. I am here ìto make a request on behalf of the people. They are so happy with the elephant you were kind enough to give us that they would like to take care of one more elephant."

Nasreddin Hoca represents the indomitable sprit of the common people. He is a symbol of courage, the invincible underdog, when he is pitted against the terrible Tamerlane (see "Tamerlane's Price" by Orhan Veli Kanik). Hoca's fearlessness is preserved in another story involving Tamerlane. Once when Nasreddin Hoca was in Tamerlaneís presence, the tyrant insulted him: "You are not far from a donkey!" Hoca retorted: "I am only a couple of yards from him."

Hoca was a tireless critic of the establishment and its false values. One day, he went to a banquet in his ordinary robe: the guards wouldn't let him in. He rushed home, put his luxurious fur-coat on - the guard saluted him this time as he made his entrance. When he sat at the table he began to feed his fur-coat saying: "Eat my fur-coat, eat".

The Hoca tales occasionally banter with God: At his wife's insistence, Hoca buys a cow, but since there is no room for both the donkey and the cow in the barn, if one sleeps the other one has to stand. Hoca implores: "My God, please kill the cow so that my donkey can get some sleep." Next morning he goes into the barn and sees that the donkey is dead. He lifts his eyes to the sky and says: "No offense, my Lord, but you have been God for all these years and yet you canít tell a cow and a donkey apart." Nasreddin Hoca relishes drolleries. One dark night, he looks out the window and catches a glimpse of a man in the garden. He grabs his bow and arrow, lets the arrow go, and hits the figure right in the belly. Next morning, he goes into the garden and finds the arrow sticking out of his own robes which his wife had left on the clothes-line. Hoca says: "Thank God, I wasn't in my robe."

His irreverence is often directed against blundering bureaucracy and slow justice. One day Hoca is walking in the street, and a stranger comes near him and lands a mighty slap on Hoca's face. The man is immediately rounded up. Hoca, witnesses, and the culprit go before a judge. The man is sentenced to pay Hoca one gold coin. The judge orders him to go and get the money. Hoca waits in presence of the judge. Hours go by, but the man doesn't show up. Hoca is impatient- and not optimistic about the manís return to court. He gets up, goes up to the judge, slaps him on the face, and says: "I've got to go now, Your Honor. Here's your slap. When the man comes back, you get the gold coin."

Self-satire is a leitmotiv of Hoca's anecdotes. He tries to mount a horse, but fails. For the benefit of the people looking on he remarks: "I wasn't like that as a young man."Then he mutters to himself: "You weren't any good as a young man. Either." Ionesco has observed that "the comic is the intuition of the absurd."

Nasreddin Hoca obviously had this modern sense of the "absurd" - even of "black comedy". An acquaintance complains to Hoca about headache and Hoca suggests "The other day I had a toothache. It went away as soon as I had the tooth pulled out." And once he was rowing ten blind men across a river for ten cents a piece. In the middle of the river he made the wrong move and one of the blind men fell into the river and was carried away by the current.

His friends started to scream. Hoca was imperturbed: "Stop  shouting! So you will pay me ten cents less that is all."

Nasreddin Hoca perfected the art of tongue-in-cheek humor. Virtually everything he did was good-natured and zany, marked by bonhomie and optimism and often admirable for his grace. Once he was visiting a village and he  happened to lose his purse. He reported the loss to some of the villagers and remarked: "If it isn't found, I know what I am going to do." The villagers, who respected and feared him, undertook a thorough search. When they handed him the purse, they inquired: "Hoca, you got us all scared. If the purse hadn't turned up, what would you have done?" Hoca chuckled: "Oh, that." He said, "I have an old remnant of a carpet at home. I was going make a new purse out of that." Nasreddin Hoca stories embody the entire spectrum of Turkish humor- from the  gentlest bathos to outlandish buffoonery, from good-natured badinage to  biting mockery. In evoking "thoughtful laughter", his bel esprit fulfills  the requisites of comedy as expressed by some great practitioners of humor  and satire: Shakespear's maxim, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Swift's observation "Humor is odd, grotesque, and wild. Only by affectations spoiled."Jane Austen's assertion, "The liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." Indeed, Nasreddin Hoca's comic genius held its odd, grotesque and wild aspects never falls into pitfalls of affectation, relates the stories in simple and spare terms, delivers the punch lines swiftly and utilizes the expressive resources of Turkish with literary precision.

The name Nasreddin means "Helper of the Faith." This is far from a ponderous appellation. It actually suits the man's personality and humor. Nasreddin Hoca was an affirmative person who upheld faith in life and in human beings- also aiding others to do so. No wonder the common people of Anatolia have always imagined him as a chubby burly affable man- like Falstaff or Bottom. He is said to have lived at a time of war and turbulence but he accepted life stoically, turning anguish into humor and tears into smiles. He avoided the melancholy litanies of poets among his contemporaries, prefering to offer his tomfoolery fanciful raillery to give succor to the suffering people of his day as well as to succeeding generations. Nasreddin Hoca's stature as the humorist has been abiding. In fact, his "lore of laughter" has grown along the centuries- even in our time: "His authenticated stories number about three hundred but hundreds have been- and are being- ascribed to him, in recognition of his status as the creator, custodian and embodiment of Turkish folk humor."

The range of Hoca's faculty is dazzlingly broad- from subtle ironic piquancy to black comedy, from whimsical philosophic twists to ribald lampoons.

Whatever the mode, his humor always has justice to the principle of ridentam dicere verum, to speak the truth even while laughing. As satire, his most effective quips are those that expose sham, cant, hypocrisy and fanaticism, self-righteousness, avarice and all human foibles.

Nasreddin Hoca's wisdom is quintessential: "Listen carefully to those who know. If someone listens to you, be sure to listen what you are saying." A laconic anecdote sums up ethics: An inquisitive man -the village gossip- once ran up to Hoca: "I just saw someone carrying a lamb." Hoca said: "So? What do I care?" "But he is taking the lamb to your house." Hoca retorted: "So? What do you care?"

In a mini-Rashomon story, Hoca posits the ides of relativity: Two men involved in a dispute ask Hoca to settle it for them. When the first man tells his version, Hoca says: "You are right." The second one protest. When he tells his version, Hoca remarks: "You are right." His wife, who has been listening in, intervenes: "But they can't both be right." Hoca promptly replies: "Wife you are right, too." Nasreddin Hoca is a folk philosopher par excelence: Many of his stories, as lessons in moral conduct and as jocular practical jokes, offer critical commentary on stereotyped social thought and behavior as well as pointing up imaginative alternatives. The bravura with which he confounds life's incongruities and yet affirms faith in man is a captivating challenge to our sensibilities. Take his extravagantly wistful gag: Sitting by a lake, Hoca keeps dipping leaven into the water. Passersby come up to him and ask what he is doing. Hoca calmly says: "I'm making yoghurt." They laugh: "You must know that the lake wonít turn into yoghurt." Hoca replies: "But if it does!"

There are some farcical Hoca anecdotes which might well be TV comedy akits: Hoca is sick and tired of feeding his donkey and asks his wife to do it. She refuses. They quarrel. Then they have a bet: Whoever speaks first will feed the donkey. Hoca is resolved not to lose out. One day, when his wife is out, a burglar breaks into the house. Hoca is home, but he says nothing to the burglar lest he lose the bet. The thief packs everything up and goes. When Hoca's wife comes home and sees that everything is gone, she screams: "My God! What happened?" Hoca beams with the light: "I have won the bet! You have to feed the donkey."

Nasreddin Hoca's donkey is reminiscent of Sancho Panzaís mount in The Adventures of Don Quixote-expect itís more of a comic device. One of the most popular Hoca stories about the donkey provides food for thought: Hoca decides that his donkey eats too much so he reduces the daily amount of the fodder. With each passing day the donkeyís intake becomes so skimpy that it starves to death. Hoca says incredulously: "Just as he was getting used to it, he died."

Hoca is a master of ironic touch: He was passing through a village where there was a big feast. He observed: "You people must be very prosperous."

The villagers replied: "No, we are not. We work hard throughout the year and save all we can for this day of the festivities." Hoca sighed and remarked: "If only every day happened to be a day of feast, then nobody would go hungry."

The prevailing mood of Nasreddin Hoca tales is jeu díesprit. His humor has no arrogance, no cynicism, no salacious or scurrilous elements, no stridency or venom. It is also free of the ethnic or national prejudices which mar the folk humor of so many other cultures. His targets are universal foibles.

That is why he is hilarity can be -and is- enjoyed by so many nations. He had fate in the proposition that "nothing lacks an element of risibility." Heaping ridicule on fallacies and mores, he served as an indefatigable critic of taboos. His persiflage and piquant satire helped t break down inhibitions and to liberate minds from boredom and conformity. Since he refused to act the part of ìcourt jesterî, he also became a symbol of the independent spirit and an eloquent advocate of the primacy, even supremacy of the common people. Once they asked him: "Who is greater -the Sultan or the peasant?" Hoca's reply is significant: "The peasant of course. If it werenít for his wheat, the Sultan would starve to death." These are the thoughtful chuckles of Nasreddin Hoca for all ages.

_ . _

Originally published by ISTANBUL HILTON in print; SUMMER 1971 - MAGAZINE vol.2 no: 6; re-published on the Light Millennium with the permission of Prof. Talat Sait HALMAN as his dedication for the Children Of the World.

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