In the folk tale hall of fame there is one single character who has probably become the star of more tales than any other. Not our friend jack, as it is clear from the number of mothers and wives he has had that these are different people who share the same name. No we must look further afield than our own shores. If we leave even Europe, cross the Bosphorus and head out through Turkey and the near east we will find the person we seek: Nasrudin. Unlike jack he goes by a variety of spellings, Nasreddin, Nasruddin, Nasredin and more. Often a Mullah, sometimes a Hodja or Hoca (teacher), he is known and claimed by Afghans, Iranians, Uzbeks, and Arabs, as well as the Turkic Xinjiang area of western China.
Is he some kind of hero? A middle Eastern Robin Hood? Well, not so much. His speciality is humorous and philosophical anecdotes. Often short pithy yarns that leave you thinking, but with a smile on your face. He is sometimes a trickster and sometimes a simpleton, something of a Divine Fool. Although a poor man, Nasrudin is a friend of kings, becoming the voice that speaks truth to power, even to the great 14th century Emperor Tamerlane who ruled from Russia to India, and from the Mediterranean Sea to Mongolia.
The venerable Mullah has rather crept up on me. Over the years I have found stories that simply appealed to me in a variety of compilations, mostly of world stories but also in a couple of books of Turkish tales. Without really trying, I have accrued the makings of a full set on the old fella. There is often a simplicity or innocence in Nasrudin’s actions, alongside a good dollop of absurdity that hides the deeper wisdom, when there is some. My favourite so far is one in which he takes advantage of a king who would like his beloved horse to read to him. It’s a little long for the space I have left so here are a pair of short ones to give you a taste.
The Mullah had a new house built in the town. When the door was fitted he attached a strong lock to it. Next to the door was a window which Nasredin left open in all circumstances.
His neighbours grew curious.
“Wise one” they said, “why do you have this strong door that you keep locked to prevent burglary, but then leave your window open, even when you are out, making it easy for a thief to enter?”
“The door is locked” said Nasredin “to keep my friends out that they do not disturb me when I am praying. A thief though, will get in and take what they want even if the window is locked, so I leave it open that they do not break the glass.”
Nasrudin’s neighbour looked over his fence and saw the Mullah walking slowly, stopping, and turning around by his back door, all the while looking down thoughtfully.
“Are you alright neighbour?” he called out.
“I’ve lost my key.” Came the troubled reply.
The neighbour rushed round and joined in the search while the Mullah thanked him profusely.
After a few minutes of fruitlessly scanning the stony ground he asked
“Are you sure this is where you lost it?”
“Oh no,” said the Mullah, “I lost it in the cellar.”
“Then why are you looking out here?” shouted the exasperated neighbour
“It’s so simple my friend” Said Nasrudin calmly, meeting his eyes with a clear gaze,
“The light is better!”