Background Aroly-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 recongnize the realities of daily life not
only of 13th-century Anatolia but of every place and age. Nasreddin Hoja (hoja
means "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 alos 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 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 enduralbe -- and sometimes even
instructive. Many of the Nasreddin Hoja stories were adpoted into the folk-tale
repertoires of other cultures. 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. A large number of the Nasreddin Hoja
tales tell of his dealing 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. "You see before you a man who as 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."
"Waht? Idiot!" raged Timur. "Just this belt alone is worth 20
gold pieces!" Nasreddin Hoja nodded. "I included that when I 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 Miquel 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
At the bazaar, a broker said to the Hoja, "I heard that you are on good
terms with the devil, Nasreddin. Tell me, what does he look like?"
"Certainly," answered the Hoja, "Look at yourself in the
The Sheep and the Wolf
Once a big official saved a sheep from the jaws of a wolf. The sheep was then
obliged to follow his savior home. But as soon as they arrived, the man decided
to slaughter it. The poor beast began baaing with all its energy. The uproar was
too much for the Hoja, who lived next door, and he came over to see what was
"You see this sheep?" the lord said. "I saved it from a
"Then why is it curing you?" asked the Hoja.
"Cursing me?" asked the neighbor.
"Yes, he says that you too are a wolf."
The Soul of the Padishah
Talking with the Hoja one day, the padishah asked him this question
"Nasreddin, listen: when I die will my soul go to heaven or hell?"
"To hell for sure," replied the Hoja. "I have finally reached
The padishah lost his temper. His eyes flashed and he began a torrent of
"But, Shadow of Allah, don't get so excited!" interrupted the Hoja,
trying to calm him down. "It is the only conclusion possible because you
have killed so many people who deserved to to to heaven that the place is now
too crowded to leave any room for you".
The Gold Plant
The Hoja borrowed a few grams of gold, then went out of the city one morning on
the back of his donkey. When he reached the desert he got down, dug a hole and
began dropping the gold into it. Just then, the padishah, as usual, passed by on
his way hunting. Seeing the Hoja at this curious task, he said in astonishment,
"Nasreddin, what the devil are you doing?"
"On your majesty, it's you. As you can see, I am planting a little
Even more astonished, the padishah asked, "And after you have planted it,
what will happen?"
"Oh, nothing unusual," answered the Hoja. "Now I plant. On the
fifth day I will come for the harvest, which will be about two pounds, and then
I will go back home."
The eyes of the padishah shone with greed. Such a little investment, he thougtht
to himself, even less than it takes to buy a fat tail of mutton. Then, with
great smile, he said, "My dear Nasreddin, planting such a modest quantity
of gold won't make you rich. You should plant a little more. If what you have is
not enough, come to the palace to get some more. I will give you as much as you
want. We will consider it as though we had planted together. When the gold grows
up, you will give me only eighty per cent of the harvest and keep all the
"All right, you majesty."
The next day the Hoja went to the palace of the padishah and got two pounds of
gold. Two weeks later he brought the padishah more than ten pounds. The padishah
opened his mouth in astonishment and, looking at the glittering metal, he got
such pleasure that he couldn't shut it again. Then he ordered the guards to give
the Hoja all the chests in the treasury.
The Hoja took the gold back home and distributed it to the poor. One week later,
with empty hands, a frown and a sad expression, he went to the padishah. When
the sovereign saw that sad face, he grew pale with anger. Narrowing his eyes
into slits, he asked, "Ah, you are back? And the ox- carts with the gold in
sacks, they are also here?"
"Your majesty, what a catastrophe!" The Hoja began to weep. "You
have seen yourself: it hasn't rained a drop for days. So the gold dried up! All
of it was lost! Not only the harvest but even what I planted!"
Foaming with rage, the padishah came down the throne and began to swear.
"Nonsense! Liar! Dried-up gold! Who do you think you're fooling?"
"All right, it seems strange to you," said the Hoja, "but if you
can't believe that gold can dry up, how can you believe that it can grow?"
The padishah subsided as though someone had stuffed a gag in his mouth.
The Rolls and the Padishah
One winter, being without money for food, the Hoja repaired his green house and
planted some melons. When they were ripe he chose the best of them and went to
sell them to the padishah. Who could have imagined that the sovereign wouldn't
pay a cent? The padishah complimented the Hoja a great deal, declared that he
was indeed a very good citizen and, with his mouth still full of melon, said,
"Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!"
The Hoja left the palace still hungry as a wolf, without one cent in his pocket.
After a moment of reflection, he went into a restaurant, ordered twenty mutton
rolls, sat down and ate them all. Then he got up and started toward the door,
saying in a loud voice, "Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!"
"Hey, my money!" cried the restaurant keeper.
"What? I just paid you!" said the Hoja, pretending to be astonished.
The restaurant keeper seized him and dragged him before the padishah. Hearing
that the Hoja had eaten without paying, the padishah's face became dark.
"So, Nasreddin, you eat and do not pay?"
"Your majesty, believe me, I haven't done anything wrong," answered
the Hoja. "This man is greedy, that's all. It's true I ate his rolls but I
paid him with the three excellents' that you gave me -- not even keeping one of
them for myself."
The padishah shook his head in fury but couldn't say a word.
The Governor of the Donkeys
The padishah wanted to humilate the Hoja. So one day he called him to the palace
and, in front of all the ministers, he assumed a very solemn air and proclaimed,
"Today I make a great announcement. I hereby confer on Nasreddin the title
of governor of all the donkeys in the town!"
The ministers began to laugh. The Hoja arose, made an elaborate bow, then with
the gr3eatest indifference passed in front of the padishah and went to sit on
the canopy of the throne above the padishah.
"What impudence!" yelled the padishah. "How do you dare to sit
highter than I? Come down from there at once!"
Most regally, the Hoja raised his hands for calm. Then he said to the padishah
and the ministers, "Whoa, there! Silence! A little respect! Am I or am I
not your governor?!"
A Breath of Air
One evening the Hoja was crossing a graveyard when in the distance he saw some
men approaching on horseback. Suspicious, he said to himself, "Ten to one,
these people are bandits" and he hid in a tomb.
Unfortunately, the men on horseback had seen him. They rode up to the tomb and
called out, "Who are you?"
The Hoja stuck his head out. "I am a dead man.".
"And what is a dead man doing out at this hour?"
"Breathing the fresh night air."
"Dead men don't need to breath fresh air!"
"Ah, you are right," said the Hoja. "I made a midstake." And
he withdrew into the tomb again.
The Three Truths
One day the Hoja took his carrying pole and rope and went to the bazaar looking
for work. He joined a group of day laborers waiting to be hired, squatted down
and hoped for a bit of luck. After a while a great lord came along and called
out loudly, "I have bought a case of porcelain. To the one who will carry
it home for me I will tell three incontrovertible truths."
No one paid any attention to him. The Hoja however, grew curious.
"Money?" he thought. "There is always a way to earn it, but it
doesn't happen every day to listen to three incontrovertible truths. If I carry
the case for him I'll become more intelligent." He arose, picked up the
case with his carrying pole and followed the lord toward his home.
As they walked, the Hoja very humbly asked the lord to speak. The lord replied,
"Listen carefully. If somebody tells you that it is better to have an empty
stomach than full one, you must absolutely not beilieve him."
"Wonderful!" exclaimed the Hoja. "And what is the second
"If somebody tells you that to go on foot is better than to go on
horseback, at any cost you must not believe him."
"Right! So right!" said the Hoja. "It's such a pleasure to listen
to such profound truths! And what is the third truth?"
"Listen," said the rich lord, "If somebody tells you that in this
world there is somebody more idiotic than you, for heaven's sake you must not
The Hoja listened to him attentively, then suddenly opened the hand which was
steadying his carrying pole and -- crash! -- the case burst open on the ground.
Pointing to the broken pieces of porcelain, the Hoja said to the lord,
"Listen, if somebodoy tells you that your porcelain has not broken, for
heaven's sake you must not believe him!"
A Dinner of Smells
A poor man once went to find the Hoja and humbly said, "Wise and noble
Nasreddin, I want to ask a favor of you but I don't know if you will stoop so
slow as to help me."
"To help my neighbor is an honor and a pleasure. Speak," answered the
"Alas!" said the man with a sigh. "For us poor people, lie is not
easy. Yesterday I stopped a moment in front of the door of a restaurant
belonging to a great lord. He said that I ate the semll of his food and asked me
to pay him. Naturally I could not give him a cent and he took me before the
cadi. My sentence will be pronounced today. Can you help me? Say something in my
"All right," replied the Hoja and accompanied the poor man to the
court of the cadi.
The lord was already there, talking gaily with the cadi. As soon as he saw the
accused, the cadi changed his expression and began covering him with insults.
"Shameless man! You see this lord? You have filled yourself up on the smell
of his restaurant and have not even paid him. Pay him what you owe, at
"You will become ill with vexation, my lord," said the HOja, stepping
forward. He bowed and added, "This poor man is my elder brother. He doesn't
have a cent, so I will pay in his place."
The Hoja then took a little sack of copper coins from his belt, bent to the
lord's ear and jingled them. "Do you hear this sound?" he asked.
"Of course I hear it," retorted the lord.
"Well, now the debt is paid. My brother has smelled your meals and you have
heard his money."
He took the arm of the poor man and went away.