Saturday, May 31, 2014

Take a Tip from Nasreddin Hodja

Welcome, pilgrim. Sit, listen, partake of my impart of precocious import.

Have you heard the teachings of Nasreddin Hodja? Well, if you haven't, you're sort of out of the loop. Ask your nearest middle-eastern acquaintance. The folk anti-hero Nasreddin's exploits are well-documented throughout much of Eurasia among Turks, Arabs, Persians and every culture they've impacted. They tended to get around back in the day, you see, and in between invading this-and-that they spread the name Nasreddin, a viral meme of the quill-pen age, a nebulous figure espied through hookah vapors, all the way from Eastern Europe to Western China.

In fact it's practically impossible to know Nasreddin's exploits as a whole. Every culture which has adopted the name and persona has attributed to it a new name and new set of anecdotes, putting today's fan-fiction proliferation to shame. He ranges from preacher to teacher to cheater, from sanctimonious bureaucrat to petty scoundrel, at the storyteller's whim. Not a combative hero but a polite, upper-class sly trickster twisting folkways or stumbling headlong into their pitfalls, his adventures center on fairness, reversals and counter-intuitive solutions. Maybe he even spawned the English phrase "ass-backwards"... really, I wouldn't put it past the clever rogue. So, at no risk of being sued for defamation, I shall now mangle in my own words three of my favorite Nasreddin anecdotes.

1. Rabbit Soup
One of Nasraddin's friends stopped by with a rabbit he'd hunted and asked the sage to cook it so they could share it.
"Certainly" the Hogia replied and set upon boiling a delicious soup. Each had a bowl and the friend praised the teacher's talent in cooking.
The next day, a couple of men he'd seen around the village knocked on his door.
"Oh, Effendi, we are friends of your friend who brought you the rabbit and he has told us of your wondrous dish. May we sample it?"
Nasrudin having some soup left over welcomed them, watered what remained down a bit and served the men most graciously. They left satisfied and vowed to spread word of his culinary prowess.
The next day after that, four complete strangers showed up at his door.
"Afandi, we are friends of the friends of your friend who brought you the rabbit. We have heard how delicious it was and wished to taste it ourselves."
Having no soup left, Nasreddin nonetheless invites them in, begs them be seated at his table and brings them four bowls of simple water. They each taste it and ask what the meaning of the jesture might be.
"Why this" replied the Hodja "is the soup of the soup of the soup of the rabbit."

2. Lying Ass
The wise Nastradini Effendi was once asked for the loan of his donkey for the day.
"My friend" bows the Mullah "I would love nothing more but as it happens I have already lent it to someone else."
Just as he spoke, the donkey brayed from the stable behind him. His friend frowned:
"How can that be when I hear it even now?"
At which Nastratin exclaimed indignantly "Would you believe the word of a mere ass over myself?"

3. Bath House
At one visit to a bath-house, Nasreddin Hoca was treated rather poorly. The attendants were disinterested, the water lukewarm and the towel worn. Nonetheless he left them twice the normal tip.
On his next visit, recognizing him, the attendants jumped to welcome him, treating him to piping hot water, scented oils and a brand new towel. When leaving, the Hogea calmly handed them only half the customary tip.
"But why?" the attendants protested.
"Because this is the tip I owe you for my last visit."
"But what about the one for this visit?" they insisted.
"I gave it to you last time."

So, class. What have we learned?
On one hand, the outward simplicity and millennial popularity of the stories has earned them a reincarnation in modern pop culture. Certainly the predictable line "man, who you gonna believe" has showed up in endless buddy flicks and sitcoms. You don't need Nasreddin to tell you people will try to take advantage of social standing to bluff their way through embarrassing situations. The universality of the material, ignoring minor details, makes these plays on social protocol instantly recognizable. We've all encountered mooching acquaintances of acquaintances, lying misers and lackadaisical but greedy service workers. Replace the rabbit with a tank of gas and the soup with car trips. Replace the braying donkey with a ringing cellphone. Replace the bath-house with a trendy new sidewalk cafe. The barrel might change, but we monkeys sure haven't.

On the other hand, the subversive element of such anecdotes too often gets lost in translation, not linguistic but cultural, and that element is the persona of Nasreddin himself. Despite the underhandedness of his tactics, despite being widely known as a trickster, Nasreddin is always a fundamentally respectable figure. Though his modern pop-culture appropriators are most often lamentably painted as weak, despicable, uneducated lower-class slobs, he himself steps into the first line of each new joke as a pillar of the community or at the very least a model citizen. He is a mullah or a boyar, a teacher or a popular sage, a well-to-do private home-owner at worst. People trust him implicitly. Crucial, this view of the trickster as a basically upstanding citizen, because Nasreddin evidences abuses of good will and protocol. When he cheats it is important to remember that those in good social standing do cheat. When he outlines others' petty abuses of the social order, Nasreddin reminds us that it is fitting for upstanding citizens to do so.

Nasreddin stories are relics of at least tangentially Islamic medievalism, of some of the most repressive, mold-set societies the world has ever known and reflect a predictably slavish mindset, unwilling to out-rightly buck the social order but only cleverly poking a finger into sore spots on the body politic. Yet how much more damaging is the modern tendency to vilify social critics, to play the fool instead of fooling others? Why are so many of our modern Nasreddins, our sitcom stars, presented as hapless, discredited bunglers who only stumble across social critique instead of cleverly pointing it out? Instead of recounting the jokes ourselves over a nargileh, complicit to Nasreddin's finger-wagging, taking upon ourselves the mantle of storyteller and teacher, we the modern television-viewers, external to the action on screen, are encouraged to hold ourselves aloof and condemn the folkway-breakers we witness from our entrenched, complacent morality.

Are we perhaps meant to learn that critique itself is shameful?

I began this post with no clear intent aside from telling one Nasreddin joke (which turned into three along the way, sue me) and found as I wrote the last two lines that I'd reached, from such an odd starting point, a greater issue touched on by many others. Just off the top of my head, this article for instance.

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