A Turkish Wit for
All Ages: Nasreddin Hoca
In Turkey, Nasreddin Hoca is truly a
household name-- a ubiquitous cultural figure whose anecdotes are invoked with
remarkable frequency by authors, speakers, and people-in-the street alike.
Most of his gags and punch lines are used like proverbs: Turkish conversations
are often interlarded with allusions to the inexhaustible tales of the Hoca.
"The test of true Comedy", wrote George Meredith, "is that it shall awaken
thoughtful laughter". Along with Aesop, who was born in a place near Ankara,
Nasreddin Hoca is the most durable folk philosopher and humorist to emerge in
Anatolia. He has provided thoughtful chuckles for all ages and for many
countries and cultures since the 13th century. German culture was enriched by
Till Eulenspiegel's merry pranks, England by Shakespearean clowns, the United
States by Mark Twain's and Will Roger's quips -- and Turkish life and letters
by the wisecracks and the satiric barbs of Nasreddin Hoca. A principal
criterion of success for a humorist is universality. One nation's laughter is
often another nation's bafflement or boredom. Not so with Nasreddin Hoca. His
wit has transcended national and cultural borders. For seven centuries he has
remained the foremost humorist in the Muslim and non-Islamic communities of
the Middle East and North Africa, the Balkans and Central Asia. His tales have
been translated into dozens of languages including English, Russian, German,
French, etc., attesting to his universal appeal. In recognition of the Hoca's
worldwide popularity and his timeless wisdom, UNESCO (United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization) decided by a unanimous
decision of its Executive Board and General Conference in 1995 to declare
1996/7 "International Nasreddin Hoca Year".
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 presumably born in Sivrihisar near Eskisehir, and had his
schooling either in Konya or Aksehir where he spent many years serving as a
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. Nasreddin Hoca stories embody the entire spectrum of
Turkish humour - from the gentlest bathos to outlandish buffoonery, from
good-natured badinage to biting mockery. In evoking "thoughtful laughter" his
bel esprit fulfils the requisites of comedy as expressed by some great
practitioners of humour and satire: Shakespeare's maxim, "Brevity is the soul
of wit." Jonathan Swift's observation "Humour is odd, grotesque and wild./
Only by affectation spoil'd." Jane Austen's assertion "The liveliest effusions
of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."
Indeed, Nasreddin Hoca's comic genius has its odd, grotesque, and wild
aspects, never falls into the pitfalls of affectation, relates the stories in
simple and spare terms, delivers the punchlines 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 humour. 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 humour and tears into smiles. He avoided the
melancholy litanies of the poets among his contemporaries, preferring to offer
his tomfoolery and fanciful artilleries to give succour 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 with the centuries - even in our time: His authenticated stories number
about three-hundred, but hundreds more have been - and are being - ascribed to
him, in recognition of his status as the creator, custodian, and embodiment of
Turkish folk humour.
The range of Hoca's comic faculty is dazzlingly broad - from subtle ironic
piquancy to black comedy from whimsical philosophic twists to ribald lampoons.
Whatever the mode, his humour always does justice to the principle of ridentem
dicere verum, to speak the truth even when laughing. As satire, his statements
never fail to have "moral sting" for all their levity. Among his most
effective quips are those that expose cant, hypocrisy, fanaticism,
self-righteousness, avarice, and all human phobias. Nasreddin Hoca's wisdom is
quintessential: "Listen carefully to those who know. If someone listens to
you, be sure to listen to what you are saying." A laconic anecdote sumps 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's
taking the lamb to your house." Hoca retorted: "So? What do you care?"
In a mini-Rashomon story, Hoca posits the idea 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 protests. When he tells
his version, Hoca remarks: "You're right." His wife, who has been listening,
intervenes: "But they can't both be right." Hoca promptly replies: "Woman,
you're right, too."
Nasreddin Hoca is a folk philosopher par excellence. Many of his stories, as
lessons in moral conduct and as jocular practical jokes, offer critical
commentary on stereotyped social thought and behaviour as well as pointing out
imaginative alternatives. The bravura with which he confounds life's
incongruities and yet affirms his 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. Passers-by 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 won't turn into yoghurt". Hoca replies: "But if it does!"
There are some farcical Hoca anecdotes which might well be TV comedy skits:
Hoca is sick and tired of feeding his donkey and asks his wife to do it. She
refuses. They quarrel. Then they make a bet. Whoever speaks first will feed
the donkey. Hoca is resolved not to lose. 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 delight: "I've won the bet! You have to feed
Nasreddin Hoca's donkey is reminiscent of Sancho Panza's mount in The
Adventures of Don Quixote - except it is 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
fodder. With each passing day the donkey's intake becomes so skimpy that it
starves to death. Hoca says incredulously: "Just as he was getting used to it,
Hoca is a master of the 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're not. We work hard throughout the year and save
all we can for this day of festivities." Hoca sighed and remarked: "If only
every day happened to be a day of feast, then nobody would go hungry." He can
also "burlesque" situations: Once a man brought 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 off his turban, put it on the man's head, and
blurted: "Here, now you're wearing the turban; see if you can read the
letter." Hoca's humour is often broad, but not without subtlety. One day,
while travelling, Hoca was famished and dropped in on a village imam he knew.
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. Tamerlane 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 tyrant's palace, Hoca noticed that the other
members of the committee got scared and turned back. He was left alone, facing
the tyrant. "Your Highness", he said, "I am here to 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 spirit of the common people. He is a
symbol of courage, the invincible underdog, when he is pitted against the
terrible Tamerlane. Hoca's fearlessness is preserved in a story involving
Tamerlane. Once when Nasreddin Hoca was in Tamerlane's presence, the tyrant
insulted him: "You are not far from a donkey!" Hoca retorted: "I'm 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: "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 offence, my Lord, but you have been God for all these years and yet
you can't tell a cow from a donkey." 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 robe which his wife had left on the clothes-line. Hoca
says: "Thank God, I wasn't in my robe." His irreverences are 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. Hours go by, but the man doesn't show up.
Hoca is impatient: - and not optimistic about the man's 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 Honour. 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 murmurs 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 a headache and Hoca suggests:
"The other day, I had a tooth-ache. It went away as soon as I had the tooth
pulled out." And once he was rowing ten blind men across the 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 unperturbed: "Stop shouting! So, you'll
pay me ten cents less, that's all." Nasreddin Hoca perfected the art of
tongue-in-cheek humour. 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 loved 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 to make a new purse out of that."
Such is the satirical world of Nasreddin Hoca anecdotes. This Turkish wit
endures as a gift to universal humour.
Prof. Talat S. Halman, Bilkent University
Turkish Humour, Turkish Cultural Foundation