to: The Children of the World
for all ages
Prof. Talat Sait HALMAN
test of true Comedy" wrote George Meredith, "is
that it shall awaken thoughtful
laughter." Nasreddin Hoca, the most durable folk
philosopher and humorist
to emerge from Anatolia, has provided thoughtful chuckles
for all ages
since the 13th century. Ancient Greek culture was enriched
by Aesop's fables,
Germany by Till Eulenspiegel's merry pranks, England
clowns, the United States by Mark Twainís and
Will Rogers' quips-
and Turkish life by the wisecracks and the satiric barbs
of Nasreddin Hoca.
Turkey, Nasreddin Hoca is truly a household name- a
ubiquitous cultural figure
whose anecdotes are invoked with remarkable frequency
by authors and men-in-the-street
alike. Most of his gags and punch lines are used like
proverbs: Turkish conversations are often entering
larded with allusions to the
inexhaustible tales of the Hoca (the word "Hoca",
meaning scholar or religious
teacher, is Anglicized as "Hodja.")
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 born in Sivrihisar near Eskisehir, had
his education either
in Konya or Aksehir where he spend many years serving
as 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
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.
principal criterion of success for a humorist is universality.
laughter is often another nationís bafflement
or boredom. Not so with
Nasreddin Hoca. His wit has transcended national and
For six centuries he has remained the foremost humorist
in the Moslem
and non-Islamic communities of the Middle East and the
Balkans. His tales
have been translated into many languages including English,
French, etc, attesting to his universal appeal.
can also ìburlesqueî situations: Once a
man brought to 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 of his turban, put
it on the man's head, and
blurted: "Here, now you are wearing the turban;
see if you can read the letter."
humor is often brought, but not without subtlety. One
day, while traveling,
Hoca was famished and dropped in on a village imam he
with. The imam asked him if he was sleepy or thirsty,
and Hoca replied:
"On the way here, I took a nap by the fountain."
Nasreddin Hoca is not given to malice, he can be vindictive
if he is
double-crossed. Tamer Lane 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 tyrantís palace,
Hoca noticed that the other
members of the committee got scared and turned back.
He was left alone,
facing the tyrant. "Youíre Highness,"he
said. I am here ìto 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."
Hoca represents the indomitable sprit of the common
people. He is a
symbol of courage, the invincible underdog, when he
is pitted against the terrible
Tamerlane (see "Tamerlane's Price" by Orhan
Veli Kanik). Hoca's fearlessness
is preserved in another story involving Tamerlane. Once
Hoca was in Tamerlaneís presence, the tyrant
insulted him: "You are
not far from a donkey!" Hoca retorted: "I
am only a couple of yards from him."
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".
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: "My 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 offense, my Lord, but you have
been God for all these years
and yet you canít tell a cow and a donkey apart."
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 robes which his
wife had left on the clothes-line. Hoca says: "Thank
God, I wasn't in my robe."
irreverence is 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
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. Hoca
waits in presence of the judge. Hours go by, but the
man doesn't show up.
Hoca is impatient- and not optimistic about the manís
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 Honor. Here's your slap. When the man comes
back, you get the
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 mutters to himself:
"You weren't any good as
a young man. Either." Ionesco has observed that
"the comic is the intuition of the absurd."
Hoca obviously had this modern sense of the "absurd"
- even of "black
comedy". An acquaintance complains to Hoca about
headache and Hoca suggests
"The other day I had a toothache. It went away
as soon as I had the tooth
pulled out." And once he was rowing ten blind men
across a 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.
friends started to scream. Hoca was imperturbed: "Stop shouting! So you will
pay me ten cents less that is all."
Hoca perfected the art of tongue-in-cheek humor. Virtually
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 feared him, undertook a thorough search.
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 make a
new purse out of that." Nasreddin Hoca stories
embody the entire spectrum of Turkish humor- from the
gentlest bathos to outlandish buffoonery, from
good-natured badinage to biting mockery. In evoking "thoughtful
laughter", his bel esprit fulfills the requisites of comedy as expressed by
some great practitioners of humor
and satire: Shakespear's maxim, "Brevity
is the soul of wit." Swift's observation
"Humor is odd, grotesque, and wild. Only by affectations
Austen's assertion, "The liveliest effusions of
wit and humor are
conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."
Indeed, Nasreddin Hoca's
comic genius held its odd, grotesque and wild aspects
never falls into
pitfalls of affectation, relates the stories in simple
and spare terms, delivers
the punch lines swiftly and utilizes the expressive
resources of Turkish
with literary precision.
name Nasreddin means "Helper of the Faith."
This is far from a ponderous appellation.
It actually suits the man's personality and humor. Nasreddin
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 humor and tears into
smiles. He avoided the
melancholy litanies of poets among his contemporaries,
prefering to offer
his tomfoolery fanciful raillery to give succor to the
of his day as well as to succeeding generations. Nasreddin
as the humorist has been abiding. In fact, his "lore
of laughter" has
grown along the centuries- even in our time: "His
authenticated stories number
about three hundred but hundreds have been- and are
being- ascribed to
him, in recognition of his status as the creator, custodian
of Turkish folk humor.
range of Hoca's faculty is dazzlingly broad- from subtle
ironic piquancy to
black comedy, from whimsical philosophic twists to ribald
the mode, his humor always has justice to the principle
of ridentam dicere
verum, to speak the truth even while laughing. As satire,
his most effective
quips are those that expose sham, cant, hypocrisy and
avarice and all human foibles.
Hoca's wisdom is quintessential: "Listen carefully
to those who know.
If someone listens to you, be sure to listen what you
are saying." A laconic
anecdote sums up ethics: An inquisitive man -the village
ran up to Hoca: "I just saw someone carrying a
lamb." Hoca said: "So? What
do I care?" "But he is taking the lamb to
your house." Hoca retorted: "So?
What do you care?"
a mini-Rashomon story, Hoca posits the ides 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 protest. When he
tells his version, Hoca remarks: "You are right."
His wife, who has been listening
in, intervenes: "But they can't both be right."
Hoca promptly replies:
"Wife you are right, too." Nasreddin
Hoca is a folk philosopher par excelence: Many of his
stories, as lessons
in moral conduct and as jocular practical jokes, offer
on stereotyped social thought and behavior as well as
pointing up imaginative
alternatives. The bravura with which he confounds life's
and yet affirms faith in man is a captivating challenge
to our sensibilities.
Take his extravagantly wistful gag: Sitting by a lake,
dipping leaven into the water. Passersby 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 wonít turn into yoghurt."
Hoca replies: "But if it does!"
are some farcical Hoca anecdotes which might well be
TV comedy akits: Hoca
is sick and tired of feeding his donkey and asks his
wife to do it. She refuses.
They quarrel. Then they have a bet: Whoever speaks first
will feed the
donkey. Hoca is resolved not to lose out. 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 the light: "I
have won the bet! You have
to feed the donkey."
Hoca's donkey is reminiscent of Sancho Panzaís
mount in The Adventures
of Don Quixote-expect itís 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 the fodder.
With each passing day the donkeyís intake becomes
so skimpy that it starves
to death. Hoca says incredulously: "Just as he
was getting used to it,
is a master of ironic touch: He was passing through
a village where there
was a big feast. He observed: "You people must
be very prosperous."
villagers replied: "No, we are not. We work hard
throughout the year and save
all we can for this day of the festivities." Hoca
sighed and remarked: "If
only every day happened to be a day of feast, then nobody
would go hungry."
prevailing mood of Nasreddin Hoca tales is jeu díesprit.
His humor has no
arrogance, no cynicism, no salacious or scurrilous elements,
no stridency or
venom. It is also free of the ethnic or national prejudices
which mar the folk
humor of so many other cultures. His targets are universal
is why he is hilarity can be -and is- enjoyed by so
many nations. He had
fate in the proposition that "nothing lacks an
element of risibility." Heaping
ridicule on fallacies and mores, he served as an indefatigable
of taboos. His persiflage and piquant satire helped
t break down inhibitions
and to liberate minds from boredom and conformity. Since
to act the part of ìcourt jesterî, he also
became a symbol of the independent
spirit and an eloquent advocate of the primacy, even
the common people. Once they asked him: "Who is
greater -the Sultan or the
peasant?" Hoca's reply is significant: "The
peasant of course. If it werenít
for his wheat, the Sultan would starve to death."
These are the thoughtful
chuckles of Nasreddin Hoca for all ages.
_ . _
published by ISTANBUL HILTON in print; SUMMER
1971 - MAGAZINE vol.2 no: 6; re-published on the Light
Millennium with the permission of Prof. Talat Sait HALMAN
as his dedication for the Children Of the World.