(The following is a post by Joan Weeks, Head, Near East Section and Turkish Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)
With winter doldrums fading away in the warm breezes of spring, many find frivolity and joyfulness a welcome relief to daily routines. April Fools’ Day is one such expression of the season. Although its origins are uncertain, some think it came about with the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar with some “fools” celebrating the old New Year at the beginning of April. Others enjoy frolicking in the newly growing grasses or lying idyllically under a blossoming tree. Still others like to recount the amusing stories or playful anecdotes such as those of Nasreddin Hodja.
Throughout the Muslim world people enjoy the stories of the wit and wisdom of Nasreddin Hodja. He is claimed by many, and his name, and some of his attributes, change depending on the region. Arabs, for example, have a similar character called Goha, or Juha, whose stories go back to the 9th century, but whose character was merged with that of Nasreddin Hodja sometime in the 19th century. While not a familiar figure in Western folklore, once acquainted with his wit many find great pleasure in reading and reciting his pithy sayings for all sorts of occasions like this one about Hodja’s dinner.
One day Hodja bought some meat at the market and on his way home he met a friend who told him about a great recipe for stew. Hodja asked him to write it down on a piece of paper so he wouldn’t forget it, and then proceeded along his way. Not more than a few steps further he was accosted by a large bird that flew off with the meat. Hodja yelled at the thief “it won’t do you any good, you don’t have the recipe” (adapted from “The Tales of Nasrettin Hoca“).
Hortu Village in Eskiseher province between Istanbul and Ankara in modern Turkey is the commonly accepted birthplace of Nasreddin Hodja, but some claim he was born in Khoy in the Western Azerbaijan province of Iran in the 13th century. Uzbeks believe he came from Bukhara, while Uyghurs believe he came from Xinjiang in China! The original character, however, seems to have settled in Anatolia and served as a Kadi or Islamic judge in what is now Kayseri, Turkey. His legal calling seems to have infused many of his stories such as this one.
Once while Hodja was serving as a Kadi, a neighbor came to him with a grievance against a fellow neighbor. Hodja listened and then ruled in his favor. The other neighbor came in and again Hodja listened, then said he was right. Hodja’s wife overhearing the entire conversation said, “Both of these men cannot be right.” Hodja answered, “Yes, dear wife, you are right” (adapted from “Nasreddin Hodja: Tales of the Turkish Trickster,” by D. L. Ashliman).
Many of the anecdotes are available in the vernacular languages of the Middle East and Central Asia in the African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED), and have been translated into English and European languages as well. A search of the catalog at catalog.loc.gov reveals a 1907 Azerbaijani periodical with a Romanized title: Molla Nasreddin (Nasreddin Hodja). English speakers may enjoy “The Tales of Nasrettin Hoca,” told by Aziz Nesin; retold in English by Talat Halman; illustrations by Zeki Fındıkoğlu.
When you look at the night sky tonight think of Hodja’s answer to a man who asked about where the full moons went. He replied: they cut them up and make the stars!