International Folktale Character: Nasreddin Hodja

I’ve got a little vacation time coming up and I’d like to use it in July.  Any suggestions?   Sure!  If you’re looking for a vacation spot with a difference, look no further than Akşehir, Turkey, where they hold the International Nasreddin Hodja Fest every July.

Sounds great!  Um…What is it?  In honor of this famous Sufi teacher, judge, philosopher, wit, and imam from the 13th century, his hometown throws a big party once a year, with music, comedy, and theatre performances.  There’s even a Nasreddin impersonator tossing yoghurt into a lake (don’t ask).

Well, I guess you won’t find that sort of thing on Cape Cod.  So tell me more about this Nasreddin character.  It might be easier to introduce him with a story:

One day Mullah Nasreddin headed to mosque on his donkey.  But the people in the village noticed something strange: he was riding it backwards, facing the donkey’s tail!

“Teacher!” the people cried, “You are riding your donkey backwards!  What on earth is going on? Have you lost your senses?”

Nasreddin replied, “It is not I who am riding my donkey backwards. It is my donkey who is facing the wrong way.”

I like this guy!  But has anyone heard of him outside of Turkey?  Only the entire Muslim world.  Nasreddin Hodja, whose name is spelled countless different ways depending on where you are, is both famous in and claimed as a citizen of countries from Azerbaijan to Mongolia, from Bulgaria to Iran, from Serbia to China.  People all over the world tell and re-tell his funny, enlightening stories.

And they’re happy to have their town squares decorated with statues of this dude riding his donkey…backwards?  Ah, but that’s the beauty of Nasreddin.  He’s the wise fool.  He starts out in many of his stories appearing silly, odd, or gullible – but his faith, wisdom and humor always impress people and he has the last laugh in the end.  Take, for example, the story of the fresh little boy and the Hodja’s turban:

One day when Nasreddin was having his regular daily coffee at his usual seat in his usual outdoor café, a schoolboy came along and knocked off his turban. Unperturbed, Nasreddin picked up the turban and put it back on his head. The next day, the same schoolboy came along and knocked off his turban again. Again, Nasreddin just picked it up, put it back on and resumed whatever conversation he was having. When the little brat repeated the prank for the third time, his friends protested and told him to punish the boy.

 

“Tsk, tsk. That’s not how this principle is working,” said Nasreddin offhandedly.

 

The next day, an invading army occupied the city and Nasreddin did not turn up for coffee as usual. In his seat was a captain from the invading army. When the schoolboy passed by as usual, he knocked off the soldier’s hat without a second thought and the captain sliced off his head with a swift single stroke of his sword.

 

Wait…if he’s a real guy, how can he be a folktale character?  Well, he was real once – but his legend has taken on a life of its own.  His wit, wisdom, and anecdotes have been translated and passed down through so many people and over many years (the first manuscript to mention him dates from 1571) that Nasreddin has become more of a character than a historical figure.

 

It’s so cool how he manages to span and unify so many cultures and so much time!  They should give him his own year…  Way, way ahead of you.  1996-97 was the UNESCO International Year of Nasreddin Hodja.

 

Don’t say…Hey, why is that guy throwing yoghurt in the lake?

Do say…Don’t worry, you make riding a donkey backwards look fun.

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