A Compilation from Eastern Europe
Retold by Priscilla Howe
Editor’s note: In his introduction to the collection, The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, Idries Shah relates that Nasrudin, when a boy, had the strange power of keeping his schoolfellow’s attention upon his stories. Their academic work suffered. The teacher, unable to prevent Nasrudin’s magnetism working, was himself a sage who managed to modify it. He put this spell on the young man:
“From now… however wise you become, people will always laugh at you. From now… whenever one Nasrudin tale is told, people will feel compelled to tell them until at least seven have been recited.”
With this “curse” in mind, storyteller Priscilla Howe offers seven tales about the trickster Nasrudin, whose name has many various spellings. He is also sometimes referred to as “the Mulla” and as “the Hodja.”
1. Out on A Limb
Once, Nastradin Odzha went out to cut wood. He propped his ladder up on a branch, climbed it and began sawing away on that branch. Just then, Clever Peter happened by. “Nastradin Odzha, what are you doing? You’ll fall when you cut that branch!”
Nastradin Odzha just sniffed, Do you think I have never sawed a branch before? I know what I’m doing!
So Clever Peter kept walking.
Nastradin Odzha sawed, sawed, and sure enough, when he cut that branch, the ladder fell. He said to himself, “That man predicted that I would fall. He must be a real sage. Surely such a wise man can tell me how many more years I’ll live.”
He ran to catch up with Clever Peter. “You, there! Since you knew that I was going to fall, maybe you can tell me how many years I’ll live?”
Clever Peter gave a slow smile at this ridiculous question, “Well, now. You have nine donkeys. Load them up, take them to the top of a hill, and count how many times they fart, that’s how many years you’ll live.”
Nastradin Odzha did just what the man suggested. He took his donkeys up the hill. He listened carefully, counting each fart: four, five, six, seven. Thus he knew how long he would live. When seven years passed, he knew he would die, according to the donkey farts. He dug himself a grave, lay down in it, and waited for his soul to die.
At about this time, a camel driver went by, bells clanking. When Nastradin Odzha heard the bells, he stood up to see what the noise was. On seeing him, the camels were so scared they turned over their burdens. The camel driver grabbed him, whacked him hard, reloaded his camels and went on his way. Nastradin Odzha picked himself up and went back to the village. When he got there, his friends asked him, “Did you die? What’s it like in that world?”
He answered, “There’s everything in that world, everything beautiful, but one bad thing, the camel drivers hit really hard!”
2. The Path Up Here
One day, Nastradin Odzha was walking home, wearing beautiful new slippers, followed by a crowd of ragged children.
Nastradin Odzha, where are you going? Give us a coin! Watch me! Tell us a story! Do you have any candy? Where did you get those shoes?
He came to a tree and saw his chance to escape. He put his slippers in his pockets and hoisted himself up to the lowest branch. The children yelled, “Nastradin Odzha, let us hold your slippers, we’ll take good care of them!
Nastradin answered from the upper branches, “Thanks, but no, I think I’ll keep going on the path up here.
3. Looking for Eggs
What are you doin in that tree, Mulla?
“Looking for eggs.”
“But those are last year’s nests!”
“Well, if you were a bird and wanted a safe place to lay, would you build a new nest, with everyone watching?”
4. Climbing the Great Pyramid
Nasrudin was sitting among the branches of a tree, sniffing the blossoms and sunning himself.
A traveller asked him what he was doing there.
“Climbing the Great Pyramid.”
“You’ re nowhere near a pyramid. And there are four ways up a pyramid: one by each face. That is a tree!”
“Yes!” said the Mulla. “But it’s much more fun like this, don’t you think? Birds, blossoms, zephyrs, sunshine. I can hardly think I could have done better.”
5. The Grand Plan
The Mulla was resting under a huge oak tree next to a field of melons. As he lay there, he thought, “Hmm, everyone says that the Creator has a grand plan, but look at this majestic oak tree with its ridiculously small acorns, and these spindly melon plants, with their huge fruits. I’d say the Creator made a mistake on this one.”
Suddenly an acorn fell right on his nose.
“OH! Now I understand the wisdom of the Creator!”
6. The Olive Trees and the Driftwood
A farmer asked Nasrudin whether his olives would bear in that year.
“They will bear,” said the Mulla.
“How do you know?”
“I just know, that is all.”
Later the same man saw Nasrudin trotting his donkey along a seashore, looking for driftwood.
“There is no wood here, Mulla, I have looked,” he called out.
Hours later the same man saw Nasrudin wending his way home, tired out, still without fuel.
“You are a man of perception, who can tell whether an olive tree will bear or not. Why can’t you tell whether there is wood on a seashore?”
“I know what must be,” said Nasrudin, “but I do not know what may be.”
7. Nastradin Khodzha and Clever Peter in the Cherry Orchard
One day the Hodja and Clever Peter went out to pick cherries. They climbed up the cherry tree, looking for the best fruit. The Hodja was bigger and stronger than Clever Peter, so he was able to reach the ripest cherries. At one point, he noticed that the cherries Clever Peter was eating were not quite ripe.
“Peter, why are you eating those green cherries? Come on up here, they’re better.”
“No thanks, these are pretty good.”
“Here, I’ll bend a branch down to you so you can get some of the good ones.” So the Hodja bent a big branch down toward Clever Peter, who took hold of it and began to eat the ripe cherries.
Suddenly, the Hodja let go of the branch and Clever Peter was flung out of the tree into some thorns. He landed right next to a rabbit. Clever Peter jumped up and deftly caught the rabbit by the back legs.
“Peter, why are you leaping around down there?”
“Oh, I saw a rabbit in the thorns, so I jumped down to catch it before it got away.”
I’ve been interested in Hodja stories for years, ever since I found one in a collection of Bulgarian stories. I was struck by the fact that the Hodja, a Turkish trickster, met up with Clever Peter (Khitur Petur), a Bulgarian trickster. I’d never seen tricksters from two cultures meet up like this. Of course, because this was a Bulgarian story and the Bulgarians were ruled by the Ottoman Empire for five hundred years, Clever Peter won out. When I lived in Bulgaria in the early 80s, I was well aware of the history of the conflict between the two cultures.
In a search for other Clever Peter stories, I found Khitur Peturi Nastradin Khodzha Iz Istoriia Na Bulgarskiia Naroden Anekdot (translation: Clever Peter and Nasrudin Hodja from the History of the Bulgarian Anecdote) by Velichko Vulchev (Sofia: BAN, 1975) and was intrigued enough to start translating and reworking these stories. This led me to look in other Slavic language sources for Hodja stories.
The Hodja is a wonderful example of the wise fool, his words often carrying a peculiar logic. Often, our laughter at these stories reflects our deeper recognition of the Hodja’s truth, which may be upside down and backwards but nevertheless makes sense.
Other sources for these tales include Sagesses et Malices de Nasreddine, Le Fou Qui Etait Sage” by Jihad Darwiche (Paris: Albin Michel, 2000), and The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, edited by Indries Shah (New York: Dutton, 1971)
About the Contributor:
Priscilla Howe has been a full-time storyteller since 1993, telling folktales, stories from books and original stories to listeners of all ages. A native New Englander, she now lives in Lawrence, KS. More information available at http://priscillahowe.com/