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A Turkish Wit for All Ages: Nasreddin Hoca


Nasreddin HocaIn 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 the donkey".

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, he died."

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










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