One day Hodja and his students were on the way to their lesson. Hodja was sitting backwards on his donkey. “Hodja, they asked him “Why on earth do you sit that way? Isn’t it uncomfortable?”
“If I sit the other way,” he answered, “you would all be behind me and we wouldn’t be face-to-face. Riding this way is better.”
(Kabacali, A., Nasreddin Hodja, p.1)
A white-bearded and big-bellied man wearing a huge turban and a green caftan— a representative of Nasreddin Hodja—paraded the streets of Rotterdam to deliver messages of peace, tolerance and secular wisdom in 2005 at the Nasreddin Hodja Festival in Netherlands. In 2006, the inauguration of a statue of Nasreddin Hodja facing backwards on his donkey, on Rue Galait in Schaerbeek, Brussels, took place with similar messages.
People in Turkey have known the jokes and stories of Nasreddin Hodja, a comedic writer said to have lived in the 13th century, since their childhoods. His stories have traveled over land and sea, making their way into the hearts and minds of tribal members of various cultural backgrounds, from Turkey to the Persian, Arabian and African cultures, even along the Silk Road to China and India. His messages are so universal that every culture seems to claim this man as their own. However, despite his popularity, there are still debates about his very existence. So, who is Nasreddin Hodja and did he really exist?
One day four boys approached Hodja and gave him a bagful of walnuts.
“Hodja, we can’t divide these walnuts among us evenly. So would you help us, please?”
Hodja asked, “Do you want God’s way of distribution or mortal’s way?”
“God’s way,” the children answered.
Hodja opened the bag and gave two handfuls of walnuts to one child, one handful to the other, only two walnuts to the third child and none to the fourth.
“What kind of distribution is this?” the children asked baffled.
“Well, this is God’s way,” he answered, “He gives some people a lot, some people a little and nothing to others. If you asked for mortal’s way I would have given the same amount to everybody.”
(Kabacali, A., Nasreddin Hodja, p.3)
Through his many names, Nasruddin Hodja became the main character in a vast number of tales told in regions all over the world, particularly in countries in or near the Middle East. However, although the mysterious figure of Nasreddin Hodja is claimed by many different cultures as their own, it does not shed any light on his origins.
In Arabic-speaking countries, he is known as “Juha”. However, Juha was also a separate folk character found in Arabic literature as early as the 9th century CE. In Sicily and Southern Italy, Nasreddin Hodja is known as “Giufa”. In the Swahili culture, many of his stories are being told under the name of “Abunuwasi” or “Abunawas”, although this again confuses Nasreddin Hodja with an entirely different man – the poet Abu Nuwas who is known for his poetries. In China, Nasreddin Hodja is known as 阿凡提 (Āfántí). However, his historical existence is still problematic, as the various theories regarding his biography did not succeed to build certain facts. Even his place of birth is debated as the Uyghurs believe that he was from Xinjian, while the Uzbeks believe he was from Bukhara. From the 16th century, this personality served increasingly as a point of crystallization for a popular, albeit formless, tradition of jokes and anecdotes of different origins.
Stories credited to Nasruddin Khodja can be found in manuscripts from as early as the 15th century CE. The earliest story occurred in Ebu’l-Khayr-i Rûmî’s Saltuk-nâme (1480 CE). According to anecdotes in this book, Nasruddin was a dervish of Seyyid Mahmud Hayrani in Aksehir, in the northwest of modern Turkey. However, there is no exact agreement among chroniclers as to the real identity of Nasruddin Khodja.
It was not until the 19th century that light was shed on the historical background of Nasreddin Hodja. Hüseyin Efendi writes in Mecmua-i Maarif that Nasruddin was born in 1208 CE in the village of Hortu in the region of Sivrihisar and died in 1284 in Aksehir, the town to which he had immigrated. He was educated respectively in Sivrihisar and Konya schools where he learned fiqh (jurisprudence), met the famous Jalal al-Din al-Rumi (1207-1273 CE) and learned Sufism. He became an imam and, later, a judge in Aksehir. Another element linked to Nasruddin Khodja’s biography is a tomb stone in Rumi’s graveyard which is said to belong to Nasruddin’s daughter Fâtima.
“Nasreddin Hodja usually brought a gift to Timur in hopes of inspiring some good humor in him. This time, he decided to take him beets. As he was on his way with his basket full of beets in his arm, he ran into a friend.
‘Where to, Hodja Effendi?’
‘Timur called for me. I am taking him beets.’
‘Hodja Effendi, beets don’t make a good gift.’ advised the friend, `you’d be better off if you took him figs.’ Nasreddin Hodja took the counsel, went home and re-filled his basket with figs. Sadly, the Hodja had no idea that the dreaded ruler hated figs. When he offered his basket of figs to him, Timur ordered his men to throw the figs at Hodja’s head. As the men showered the Hodja with one fig after another, the Hodja was laughing and praising Allah.
‘What are you laughing at?’, Timur roared, ‘What are you being so thankful for?’
‘Great Timur,’ answered the Hodja, ‘I am giving my gratitude to Allah for making me listen to the recommendation of my good friend. What would happen to me now, had I not listened to that good man and brought you beets instead of figs? You were going to break my head with them!”
(Kabacali, A., Nasreddin Hodja, p. 8)
In 1694, Orientalist Antoine Galland presented to the French public Les paroles remarquables, les bans mats et les maximes des Orientaux, a florilegium of “remarkable utterances, witticisms and clever sayings of the Orientals”, translated from books originally compiled in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. In this book, Galland quotes a number of anecdotes mentioning “Timour”, a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia, whom he introduces with, “Timour is the real name of Tamerlan, and the word Tamerlan is a corruption of Timourlenk, meaning Timour the Lame, a name he was apparently given in his time by those who had reason not to love him. But it should not be used by us, who have not been subjected to any trouble by him.”
Galland’s explanation coincides with the favorable Western evaluation of Timur current in his days. Reliable historical information on Timur had hardly been accessible before Galland’s time, and so Timur’s image in Europe was dominated by a number of inspired, but largely fictional, portraits, such as the ones in Pedro de Mexia’s Silva de Varia Leccion (1540s) or Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great (1587).
Timur and Nasreddin Hodja featured in many anecdotes together as opposite forces. Some sources even considered Nasreddin Hodja as a court fool. To account for the further development which drew its energy from the convincing opposition between Timur the tyrant and Nasreddin Hodja the jester, it is helpful to remember that the general phenomenon of the jester relies on a long tradition in the Near Eastern cultures. Alexander the Great is said to have employed jesters to stay alert during his night campaigns. Various medieval Arabic authors, such as Mas’udi, quote the Sassanian emperors Ardasir I (ruled 226-241 CE), Sapfu I (241-272 CE), Yazdagird I (399-421 CE) and others as employing court jesters divert their minds after dealing with serious business as well as to demonstrate the hidden truth by apparent absurd action.
The relevant phenomenon in analytical folklorist terminology has been coined as “crystallization“, which denominates characters who in popular tradition serve as a point of crystallization for a tradition otherwise highly diversified and amorphous, since these traditions were originally attributed to various anonymous or sometimes known characters. Nasreddin Hodja, as well as his relationship with Timur, is an example of this crystallization. This led to the belief that Nasreddin Hodja was not a real person but was an embodiment of different traditional characters. This also proves that this crystallization is not necessarily historically accurate as Timur was not born until 1336 CE— making him 128 years younger than Nasreddin Hodja.
There are also supporting evidences showing that Nasreddin Hodja was traditionally a protector saint for the city of Aksehir. He was believed to hold powers such as the ability to break a chronic drought, grant wishes, heal ailments, and protect people during long journeys.
Generally, an imam (worship leader in a mosque) leads the prayer, which often takes place in the fields. In Aksehir, people used to perform rain prayers on the tomb site. Townspeople would unite in a common prayer to break the drought. It was another popular practice to tie small pieces of cloth on the railings of the tomb representing wishes asked of Nasreddin Hodja. The Nasreddin Hodja figure and his tomb were also especially integrated in the local wedding rituals and beliefs about reproduction. The betrothed used to cordially invite him to their wedding ceremonies before everybody else. An okuyucu (the person who was chosen to pray) would visit his tomb and pray to him first. Then, they would ask him to join the wedding ceremonies. On the day of the wedding, the groom and his best man would also visit Hodja’s tomb and pray for a happy marriage and healthy children. Parents would bury the umbilical cord of their first-born child near Hodja’s tomb. People who were about to leave for a long trip, and those who had just returned from one, would visit his tomb to ask for his blessings before traveling and thank him after their return. People with health problems would rub on some dirt from his tomb to heal themselves. His tomb was a very popular shrine. However, these days, these once popular religious practices are considered offensive and largely forgotten.
The very existence of the legend of Nasreddin Hodja is a part of a very long tradition of jokes to impart simple knowledge and philosophy. The translation of a 1,000-year-old ‘Art of Party Crashing’, written by historian al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, whose work is influential in the teachings and interpretation of the Prophet Mohammed, suggests that jokes are the best way to gatecrash a party. An example is:
“Once a man crashed another man’s party.
“‘Who are you?’ the host asked him.
“I’m the one who saved you the trouble of sending an invitation! he replied.”
(Al-Baghdadi, A., Selections from the Art of Party-crashing in Medieval Iraq, p.96)
The book, although containing many jokes, also offers some practical advice such as suggesting that turning a hungry person away from a place laden with food was cruel – as food was sometimes in short supply to the poor. Manners are also advised with one told to wash one’s hand before eating, take little bites and chew thoroughly— table manners that still stand in every culture to this day.
As with many of his anecdotes and witticisms, Nasreddin Hodja’s observational humor stands the test of time, and as comedians still do today, serves to point out human foibles while imparting lessons of life, as in this story:
“One day the Hodja was invited to a wedding. Having arrived in his shabby clothing nobody seemed to take any notice of him. Well, this wouldn’t do. He bided his chance and slipped out unnoticed.
He returned, wearing his best robe and his finest fur coat. From the entrance on he was overwhelmed with compliments, given the best seat at the table and urged to partake of the choicest morsels. Smiling, he began to dip the sleeve of his fur coat into the dishes, saying:
‘Help yourself, my fur coat!’
‘What are you doing, Hodja Effendi?’ cried the host and some guests in alarm.
‘Why, I was just inviting my fur coat to partake of these delicacies, since it seems to command so much respect! A few minutes ago, without my fur coat, I wasn’t even noticed. Because of it, I am now being overwhelmed with attention!”