Adventures in Bukhara are tales told with irreverent wit and earthy wisdom. Tyranny is its villain; liberty its hero. Like Robin Hood, Khoja Nasreddin is the champion of the poor and downtrodden who cannot champion themselves. There is no danger he will not brave, no disaster he cannot avert, no villain he cannot bring to ridicule or destruction.
These zestful tales are set in ancient Bukhara, then a great centre of Islamic power. Nasreddin, masquerading as a beggar, returns taxes to the oppressed, rescues a lovely maiden from the Emir’s harem, and with ingenuity confounds usurers, hypocrites and all tyrants. He outwits his enemies even at his own scheduled execution.
The Nasreddin stories are known throughout the Middle East and have touched cultures around the world. Superficially, most of the Nasreddin stories may be told as jokes or humorous anecdotes. They are told and retold endlessly in the teahouses and caravanserais of Asia and can be heard in homes and on the radio. But it is inherent in a Nasreddin story that it may be understood at many levels. There is the joke, followed by a moral – and usually the little extra which brings the consciousness of the potential mystic a little further on the way to realization.
The anecdotes attributed to him reveal a satirical personality with a biting tongue that he was not afraid to use even against the most tyrannical rulers of his time. He is the symbol of Middle-Eastern satirical comedy and the rebellious feelings of people against the dynasties that once ruled this part of the world.
WHEN KHOJA Nasreddin reached the other end of the town he stopped, handed his ass to the care of a teahouse owner and hurried without loss of time to an eating-house.
It was crowded, full of smoke and the smell of cooking food. The stoves glowed hotly, and the flames lit up the sweating backs of the cooks who worked stripped to the waist. They bustled, shouted, jostled each other and boxed the ears of the kitchen-boys who dashed about wild-eyed, adding to the general crush, noise and confusion. Huge kettles bubbled under dancing wooden lids; thick steam gathered near the ceiling where clouds of flies were buzzing. In the smoky haze butter hissed and puttered furiously, the sides of red-hot braziers shone and the fat that fell from the spits on to the coals burned with a blue and smoky flame. Here they were cooking pilau, roasting shishliks, boiling tripe and baking pies stuffed with onion, pepper, meat and sheep’s-tail fat which melted in the oven and boiled in tiny bubbles as it seeped out of the pastry.
With great difficulty Khoja Nasreddin found himself a scat into which he had to squeeze so tightly that those whom he pressed with his back and sides grunted audibly. But no offence was taken, no one said a word to him, neither did he grumble. He had always liked the hot crowding of these bazaar eating-houses, all this discordant din, the jokes, the laughter, the shouting, the jostling, the vigorous snorting, chewing and champing of hundreds of men who have no time after a day of heavy toll to pick and choose among the dishes: powerful jaws grind anything – tendons and gristle alike – while the tough-lined belly accepts anything, so long as it is cheap and plentiful!
Khoja Nasreddin could put away a good deal. He ate at one sitting three bowls of noodles, three bowls of rice and two-dozen samsa-pasties on top of it all. It took something of an effort to finish the samsa, which he did, true to his rule never to leave anything in the bowl when it had already been paid for.
At last he started towards the door, and when, after working hard with his elbows, he finally emerged into the open air, he was bathed in sweat. His arms and legs felt weak and soft as though he had just left the hands of a hefty bath-attendant. Heavy from the food and heat he walked with dragging steps to the teahouse where he had left his ass. He ordered tea and stretched out luxuriously on the felts. His eyelids drooped and slow and pleasant thoughts floated through his mind:
“I have a pretty sum of money just now. It would be good idea to invest it in a workshop – a saddlery or a pottery. I know both these trades. It is about time I stopped wandering. Am I worse or more stupid than other men? Can’t I have a kind, beautiful wife? Can’t I have a son whom I could dandle in my arms? By the beard of the Prophet, the noisy little fellow will grow up into a famous rascal, and I shall not fail to pass on my wisdom to him! Yes, my mind is made up. Khoja Nasreddin gives up his restless life. To begin with I must buy a potter’s business or a saddler’s. … ”
He began to count. A good workshop would cost at least three hundred tangas whereas he had only one hundred and fifty. He cursed the pockmarked servant. “May Allah curse that robber with blindness. He took away from me just what I needed to make a start!”
Once again Fate came to his rescue. “Twenty tangas!” somebody called out suddenly. Then came the sound of dice falling on to a copper tray.
On the edge of the porch and quite close to the tie-rail where the ass was tethered there sat a close circle of men. The owner of the teahouse stood behind them craning over their heads.
“Gambling!” guessed Khoja Nasreddin, raising himself on his elbow. “As sure as my name is Khoja Nasreddin, they’re gambling! I must have a look, if only from a distance. I won’t gamble; I’m not such a fool. But why shouldn’t a wise man watch fools?”
He rose and went up to the gamblers.
“Foolish men,” he whispered to the owner of the teahouse. “They risk their last coin in the hope of gain. Has not the Prophet prohibited gambling for money? Allah be praised, I am free from this fatal passion…. But what luck that red-haired gambler has! He has won for the fourth time running. … Look, look – he has won for the fifth time! O the senseless fool! He is lured by the false vision of wealth, whereas poverty has already dug a pit in his path. What? He has won for the sixth time? I have never seen such luck. Look, he is staking again. Truly, there is no limit to human folly! He cannot possibly win without a break! This is how men perish who put their faith in false luck! This red-haired fellow should be given a lesson. If he wins for the seventh time, I shall stake against him, even though in my heart I am against all gambling. Were I the Emir, I should long ago have forbidden it!”
The red-haired gambler threw the dice and won for the seventh time in succession.
Khoja Nasreddin stepped resolutely forward, shouldered the players aside and squatted down in the circle.
“I want to play with you,” he said to the lucky winner, taking up the dice and examining them on all sides with an experienced eye.
“How much?” asked the red-haired one hoarsely. Tremors passed over his body. He was in a hurry to make the best of his ephemeral luck.
Khoja Nasreddin took out his purse, put back into his pocket twenty-five tangas for emergencies, and emptied out the rest. The silver twinkled and rang on the copper tray. The gamblers greeted the stake with an eager buzzing. A game for high stakes was going to start.
The red-haired man took up the dice and shook them for a long time, hesitating over his throw. Everyone held his breath, even the ass stretched out his muzzle and cocked his cars. The only sound was the clicking of the dice in the gambler’s fist. This dry clicking sent a yearning weakness through Khoja Nasreddin’s limbs and belly. At last the red-haired one made his cast. The other players craned forward, then fell back as one man, heaving a great sigh as though with one breast. The gambler paled and groaned through clenched teeth. The dice showed three spots – a certain loss, for the deuce turns up as seldom as the double six. Any other number would be to Khoja Nasreddin’s advantage.
Shaking the dice in his fist he mentally thanked Fate for being so kind to him on this day. But he had forgotten that Fate is whimsical and fickle and easily betrays him who importunes it. Now it decided to give Khoja Nasreddin a lesson for his self-assurance, choosing for its weapon his ass, or rather the ass’s tail adorned at the end with prickles and burrs. Turning his back upon the gamblers the ass swung his tail, which brushed against his master’s hand. The dice tumbled out, and instantly the red-haired gambler threw himself upon the tray with a hoarse shout, covering the stakes with his body.
Khoja Nasreddin had thrown two ones.
He sat for a long time silently moving his lips. The world tottered and swam before his staring eyes and a strange ringing filled his ears.
Suddenly he sprang up, seized a stick and began to belabour the ass, chasing him round the tie-rail.
“Accursed ass! O son of sin! O stinking brute and disgrace of all living creatures!” shouted Khoja a Nasreddin.
“Is it not enough that you should gamble with your master’s money, that you must needs lose it? May your rascally hide peel! May almighty Allah put a pit in your path so that you break your legs! When will you die and so let me be rid of the sight of such an abominable face! ”
The ass brayed. The gamblers shouted with laughter, and loudest of all the red-haired one who was now sure of his good luck.
“Let us play again,” he said when Khoja a Nasreddin, tired and out of breath, had thrown away the stick. “Come, a few more throws. You still have twenty-five tangas.”
So saying, he thrust out his left foot and slightly waggled it, thus showing his contempt for Khoja Nasreddin.
“Why not?” replied the latter, thinking that now the hundred and twenty-five tangas had been lost it did not matter what happened to the last twenty-five.
He threw the dice carelessly and won.
“The whole lot!” proposed the red-haired one throwing down his lost stake on to the tray.
Khoja Nasreddin won again.
The red-haired one could not believe that luck had turned its back upon him.
“The whole lot!”
Seven times in succession he said it, and every time he lost. The tray was full of money. The gamblers sat very still, their flaming eyes alone betrayed the inner fire that consumed them.
“You cannot win every time unless the devil is helping you!” cried the red-haired one. “You must lose some time! Here on the tray are one thousand and six hundred tangas of yours. Once more will you stake the whole lot? Here is the money I was going to use tomorrow to buy goods in the bazaar for my shop. I stake this money against yours.
He produced a small purse full of gold-rupees, tillas and tomans.
“Put your gold on the tray!” cried Khoja Nasreddin flushed with excitement.
Never had this teahouse seen such high stakes. The owner forgot all about his boiling kettles. The gamblers panted heavily. The red-haired one threw the dice first, screwing up his eyes because he was afraid to look.
“Eleven!” all cried in chorus. Khoja Nasreddin realised that he had as good as lost: only a double six could save him.
“Eleven! Eleven!” repeated the red-haired gambler in unrestrained delight. “Look – I have got eleven! You have lost! You have lost!”
Khoja Nasreddin went cold all over. He took up the dice and prepared to cast them, when suddenly he stayed his hand.
“Turn round!” he said to his ass. “You have managed to lose against three pips. Now try to win over eleven. Otherwise I’ll take you at once to the knacker’s.”
Seizing the ass’s tall with his left hand, he struck with it his right hand, which held the dice.
A great shout from all the men shook the teahouse. The owner clutched at his heart and sank helplessly to the ground, unable to stand the strain.
The dice showed a double six.
The red-haired gambler’’ eyes popped out of their sockets and glazed in his blood-drained face. He got up slowly and tottered away crying: “Woe is me! Woe is me!”
It is said that since that day the red-haired one has been seen no more in the town. He fled into the desert and there, all hairy and terrible to see, wandered among the sands and thorn-bushes, ceaselessly crying: “O woe! Woe is me!” until at last the jackals made an end of him. But no one lamented him, for he had been a cruel and an unjust man, and had done much harm by ruining trusting simpletons.
As for Khoja Nasreddin, he stowed his newly won riches into his saddle-bags, hugged his ass, giving him a hearty kiss on his warm muzzle, and treated him to some nice fresh bread-cakes, greatly to the astonishment of the worthy animal, who only a few minutes previously had been treated to something quite different.
MINDFUL OF the wise rule to keep away from people who know where you keep your money, Khoja Nasreddin did not loiter at the teahouse and started off for the marketplace. He kept looking back from time to time to see whether he was being followed, for the faces of the gamblers and of the tea-house owner did not bear the stamp of virtue.
It was a happy going. Now he would be able to buy any workshop, two workshops, and three workshops. This he made up his mind to do.
“I shall buy four workshops: a pottery, a saddlery, a tailor’s shop and a cobbler’s shop. In each I shall set two workmen on the job, and all I shall have to do is to collect the money. In two years’ time I shall become rich. I shall buy a house with fountains in the garden. I shall hang up gold cages with singing birds everywhere, and I shall have two, perhaps three, wives and three sons by each of them….
He let himself be carried away by the sweet river of daydreams. Meanwhile the ass, no longer feeling the bridle, took advantage of his master’s reverie. As they came up to a little bridge, instead of crossing over it like all other asses, he turned aside and taking a run jumped straight over the ditch.
“… And when my children grow up I shall call them together and tell them…” ran Khoja Nasreddin’s thoughts. “But why am I flying through the air? Has Allah turned me into an angel and given me wings? ”
The next moment he saw so many stars that he realised he had no wings. Catapulted out of his saddle he had landed on the road half a dozen yards ahead of his mount.
When he had picked himself up, groaning and covered with dust, the ass came up to him, pricking up his ears in friendly fashion and with the most innocent expression on his face, as though inviting his master to get back into the saddle.
“O you, you who have been sent to me as a punishment not only for my own sins, but for the sins of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather, for according to the justice of Islam it would be unjust to punish a man so heavily for his own sins!” began Khoja Nasreddin, his voice trembling with anger. “O you, you miserable offspring of a spider and hyena! O you…”
But here he broke off on catching sight of a group of people sitting not far off in the shade of a half-ruined wall.
The imprecations died on Khoja Nasreddin’s lips. He realised that a man who had got himself into such a ridiculous and undignified position in the presence of onlookers should himself laugh loudest at his own discomfiture. He winked at the seated group and grinned broadly, showing all his white teeth.
“Oho!” he said gaily in a loud voice. “What a fine flight I made! Tell me, how many somersaults did I turn? I had no time to count them myself. You old rascal!” he went on, slapping the ass good-naturedly although he felt more like giving him a good hiding. “He’s full of pranks! That’s the kind of fellow he is! No sooner do I look away than he’s up to his tricks!”
Khoja Nasreddin broke into a merry laugh but to his surprise no one joined him. The people sat still with bowed heads and gloomy faces, and the women who were holding babies in their arms wept quietly.
“Something is amiss,” thought Khoja Nasreddin.
He approached the group and addressed a grey-haired man with an emaciated face.
“Tell me, venerable old man, what has happened? Why do I see no smiles and hear no laughter, and why are these women weeping? Why are you sitting by the roadside in the dust and heat? Would it not be better to sit in the cool shelter of your homes?”
“Sitting at home is good for the one who has a home,” replied the old man sadly. “Do not question me, o passer-by. Great is our trouble, and in no way can you help us. For myself, old and decrepit as I am, I pray God sends me death quickly.”
“How can you say such things?” Khoja Nasreddin said reproachfully. “Men should never think like that. Tell me your trouble and do not judge by my poor appearance. Perhaps I may be able to help you.”
“My tale will be brief. Only an hour ago Jafar the Usurer passed along our street with two of the Emir’s guards. I owe him money and tomorrow the debt falls due. So they have turned me out of the house where I have spent all my life. I have no family, no place where I can rest my head. … And all my property-my house, garden, cattle and vineyards will be sold tomorrow by Jafar.”
The old man’s eyes filled with tears and his voice trembled.
“And do you owe him much?” asked Khoja Nasreddin.
“A great deal, o traveller! I owe him two hundred and fifty tangas!”
“Two hundred and fifty tangas!” exclaimed Khoja Nasreddin. “And a man desires death because of a miserable two hundred and fifty tangas! There, there, quiet –you,” he added, turning to the ass and untying the saddle-bags. “Now then, my venerable friend, here are two hundred and fifty tangas. Give them back to the usurer, kick him out of your house and spend the remainder of your days in peace and happiness.”
At -the sound of the clinking silver, the whole group came to life. The old man, unable to utter a word, looked up gratefully at Khoja Nasreddin with tear-filled eyes.
“You see? And yet you would not tell me your troubles,” said Khoja Nasreddin, counting out the last coin and thinking at the same time: “Never mind, instead of eight workmen I shall hire only seven, and that will be plenty.”
Suddenly a woman seated next to the old man fell at Khoja Nasreddin’s feet and weeping loudly held out her child to him.
“Look!” she said between sobs. “He is ill. His lips are parched and his face is burning. My poor little boy will die on the road, for I too have been turned out of my house.”
Khoja Nasreddin looked at the thin pale face of the child, at its transparent hands, then at the faces of the group of seated people. And the sight of these faces seamed with wrinkles, lined with suffering and with eyes dimmed by ceaseless weeping made him feel as though a hot knife had been plunged into his heart. A sudden spasm clutched at his throat. Pity and anger sent a hot wave of blood to his face. He turned away.
“I am a widow,” the woman continued. “My husband died six months ago. He owed the usurer two hundred tangas. According to the law, the debt fell upon me.”
“Certainly the boy is sick,” said Khoja Nasreddin. “Here are two hundred tangas. Go home quickly and put a cool bandage on his head. And here are fifty more tangas. Go, call a physician and buy some medicine.”
To himself he thought: “I can very well manage with six workmen.”
But just then a great big stone-hewer fell at his feet. On the morrow his whole family was to be sold into slavery for a debt to Jafar of four hundred tangas.
“Five workmen will be plenty,” thought Khoja Nasreddin as once more he began untying his saddlebag. No sooner had he tied it up again than two other women fell on their knees before him. The tales they told were so pitiful that Khoja Nasreddin did not hesitate to give them enough to pay off the usurer. Then, realising that the money left over would hardly suffice to keep three workmen, he decided it was no longer worthwhile bothering about workshops, and generously shared out his money among the other debtors of Jafar the Usurer.
No more than five hundred tangas were left in the saddlebag. Only then did Khoja Nasreddin catch sight of another man sitting by himself. He had not asked for help but his distress was plain to see.
“Hey you, listen!” Khoja Nasreddin called out. “Why are you sitting here if you are not in debt to the usurer?”
“I am in debt,” the man answered hoarsely. “Tomorrow I go in chains to the slave-market.”
“Why have you kept silent?”
“O generous and kind traveller! I know not who you are. Maybe you are the saint Baha ed-din arisen from his tomb to help the poor, or Harun al-Rashid in person. I have not sought your help because you have already spent a great deal and my debt is heaviest of all – five hundred tangas. And I was afraid that if you gave me such a sum there would not be sufficient for the old men and the women.”
“You are an upright and noble man, and you have a conscience,” said Khoja Nasreddin greatly moved. “But I too am upright and noble. I too have a conscience, and I swear you shall not go tomorrow to the slave-market. Hold out your coat.”
He emptied out his saddlebag to the last coin. Then the man, holding up the skirt of his khalat with his left hand, embraced Khoja Nasreddin with his right and pressed his face wet with tears to his breast.
“You certainly flew off your ass in fine fashion,” said the great big bearded stone-hewer suddenly bursting into a roar of laughter. At this, all the others burst out laughing – the men in rough deep voices, the women in their high-pitched ones, while the children smiled and stretched out their hands to Khoja Nasreddin who laughed louder than any of them.
“Oh-ho-ho!” he laughed, doubled up with mirth. “You don’t know what sort of an ass he is! He’s an accursed ass!”
“No! No!” said the woman with the sick child. “Do not speak like that of your ass. He is the cleverest, the noblest, and the most precious ass in the world. There never has been and never will be another ass like him. I would like nothing better than to look after him all my life, give him the choicest grain to eat, never burden him with work, curry him and comb his tail. For if this incomparable ass, who like a rose has nought but virtues, had not jumped over the ditch and thrown you from the saddle, you, O traveller, who came to us like the sun in the darkness – you would have ridden past without even seeing us and we would never have dared to stop you.”
“She is right,” said the old man importantly. “We owe much of our salvation to this ass. Verily he is an ornament in the world and shines like a jewel among all other asses.”
Then all of them loudly praised the ass and vied with each other in offering him cakes, roasted corn, dried apricots and peaches. The ass swished his tail at the pestering flies and serenely and gravely accepted the offerings, though not without an uneasy glance at the whip that Khoja Nasreddin was stealthily shaking at him.
The day was wearing on, shadows lengthened. Red-legged storks, crying and flapping their wings, were returning to their nests where the fledglings stretched their greedy gaping beaks towards them.
Khoja Nasreddin took his leave. All bowed and thanked him.
“We thank you. You have understood our troubles.”
“How could I fail to understand?” he replied. “Only today I lost four workshops where eight skilled workmen were working for me, and a house with a garden where fountains played and song-birds in golden cages hung on the trees. How could I fail to understand you!”
The old man said in his toothless mumble:
“I have nothing to offer you as a gift of thanks, o traveller. Here is the only thing that I took with me when I left my house. It is a Koran, the holy book. Take it, and may it be a guiding light for you in this world.”
Khoja Nasreddin had little use for holy books but, unwilling to hurt the old man’s feelings, he took the Koran, put it away in his saddle-bag and jumped into the saddle.
“Your name? Your name?” cried the others in one voice. “Tell us your name so that we may know whom to thank in our prayers.”
“Why do you need to know my name? True virtue needs no fame. As for prayers, Allah has many angels to inform him of pious deeds. If the angels are lazy and careless and sleep on soft clouds instead of counting the pious and impious deeds on earth, then your prayers will be of no avail, for Allah would be foolish to believe people on their word alone without demanding confirmation from trustworthy persons.”
While he was speaking one of the women suddenly let out a stifled gasp. So did another woman. Then the old man started and stared at Khoja Nasreddin. But the latter was in a hurry and took no notice.
“Good-bye! May peace and happiness abide with you.”
Followed by blessings he disappeared at the turn of the road.
The others remained silent. One single thought shone in their eyes. The old man broke the silence. He said solemnly and with feeling:
“Only one man in the whole world could perform such a deed. Yes, and only one man in the world can speak thus, and only one man in the world carries within him a soul whose light and warmth light up and warm the poor and oppressed, and this man is our–”
“Hold your tongue!” hastily interrupted another man.
“Have you forgotten that walls have ears, stones have eyes and hundreds of dogs would take up his trail?”
“You are right,” added a third man. “We must hold our tongues, for at present it is as though he were walking on a tight-rope. The slightest push might prove his undoing.”
“I will let them tear out my tongue rather than say his name aloud,” said the woman with the sick child.
“I too will be silent,” cried the second woman. “I would rather die than unwittingly resent him with a rope.”
So spoke all save the mighty bearded stone-hewer, who was not quick-witted. He could not understand from what he had heard why dogs should take up the traveller’s trail if he was neither a butcher nor a seller of boiled tripe. Again, if the traveller was a tightrope walker, why could not his name be spoken aloud? And why was the woman prepared to die rather than present her benefactor with a rope so necessary to his trade? By this time the stone-hewer was completely bewildered. He snorted loudly, took a deep breath and decided to think no more about it for fear of losing his reason.
Meanwhile Khoja a Nasreddin had covered quite a distance, but he still had before his eyes the emaciated faces of those poor people. He kept recalling the sick child, its feverish cheeks and parched lips. He thought of the grey-haired old man who had been turned out of his house, and a great anger rose from the depth of his heart.
He could no longer stay in the saddle. He jumped down and walked beside his ass, kicking the stones out of his way.
“Just you wait, master usurer, just wait!” he muttered, and a sinister glare burned in his black eyes. “One of these days we shall meet and then your lot will be bitter. As for you, Emir,” he went on, “tremble and grow pale, for I, Khoja Nasreddin, am in Bukhara! O vile and monstrous leeches that suck the very life-blood of my unhappy people! O grasping greedy hyenas! O stinking jackals! You will not prosper forever, nor will the people forever suffer! And as for you, Jafar the Usurer, may my name be eternally covered with shame if I do not settle accounts with you for all the sorrow which you bring to the poor.”
EVEN KHOJA Nasreddin, who had gone through much in his life, found his first day in his homeland too restless and too full of incident. He was weary and wished to find some secluded spot where he could rest.
“No!” he sighed, catching sight of a multitude of people crowding round a pond. “It looks as if there’ll be no rest for me today! Something seems to have happened here.”
The pond was at some little distance from the road and Khoja Nasreddin could easily have passed it, but he was not the man to miss an opportunity of mixing in a dispute, a row or a tussle.
The ass, which during the long years of their association had become well acquainted with his master’s ways, turned towards the pond of his own accord.
“What’s the matter?” shouted Khoja Nasreddin, steering his ass into the thick of the crowd. “Has somebody been murdered? Anyone robbed? Make way there! Make way!”
After pushing his way through the crowd to the edge of the pond, which was covered with green slime, he came upon an extraordinary sight. A few feet from the bank a man was drowning. From time to time he came up to the surface only to sink again, sending up large bubbles.
A number of people kept bustling about on the bank stretching out their hands to the drowning man and trying to seize him by his clothes, but he was just out of reach.
“Give us your hand they shouted. “Here! Give it here!”
The drowning man did not seem to hear what they were saying and did not stretch out his hand, but went on alternately bobbing up and going down again. As he went down to the bottom slow waves spread over the pond and gently lapped the bank.
“Strange!” thought Khoja Nasreddin observing the scene. “Very strange. What can be the reason for this? Why doesn’t he stretch out his hand? Maybe he is an expert diver and is doing it for a bet, but in that case why does he wear a khalat?”
He almost lost himself in speculation. Meanwhile the drowning man went down at least four times, each time remaining a little longer under the surface.
“Very strange,” repeated Khoja Nasreddin to himself, dismounting. “Wait here, he told his ass, while I go to take a closer look.”
By now the drowning man had gone down again. This time he did not reappear for so long that some of the people on the bank began to recite prayers for the dead. Suddenly he reappeared.
“Here! Here!” cried the men. “Give us your hand,” and they stretched out their hands towards him, but he only gave them a blank stare and again went soundlessly, smoothly to the bottom.
“Oh, you stupid fellows!” cried Khoja Nasreddin. “Surely you could see by his expensive khalat and silk turban that this man is either a mullah or a wealthy dignitary? And haven’t you learnt enough of the ways of mullahs and dignitaries to know how to pull them out of the water?”
“Pull him out yourself and be quick about it, that is if you know how!” shouted voices in the crowd. “Go on, save him! He has come up again! Go on, pull him out!”
“Wait,” answered Khoja Nasreddin. “I haven’t finished my speech yet. When, may I ask, have you ever seen a mullah or a dignitary give anything to anyone? Remember, o ignoramuses, that mullahs and dignitaries never, never give anything away; they only take. Therefore, they should be rescued scientifically, that is according to the peculiarities of their own nature. Now watch me.”
“But it is too late!” cried voices in the crowd. “He won’t come up again.”
“Do you think the water spirits will accept a mullah or a dignitary so easily? You are wrong. The water spirits will do their utmost to be rid of him.”
Khoja Nasreddin squatted down and waited, patiently. He watched the bubbles come up from the bottom and float to the bank, pushed forward by a light breeze.
At last a dark shape came up slowly from the depths. The drowning man appeared on the surface – for the last time, had it not been for Khoja Nasreddin.
“Here, take this!” shouted Khoja Nasreddin. “Take this!”
The drowning man clutched convulsively at the outstretched hand. Khoja Nasreddin winced at the pain of his grip.
It took a long time to unclasp the fingers of the rescued man.
For some moments he lay motionless, covered with weeds and evil smelling slime that concealed his features. Then water spouted from his mouth, his nose and ears.
“My pouch! Where is my pouch?” he moaned, and would not rest until he felt the pouch at his side. Then slowly he shook off the weeds and wiped his face with the skirt of his khalat. Khoja Nasreddin recoiled. This face with its flat, broken nose, flaring nostrils and one blind eye was hideous. Also, the man was hunch-backed.
“Who is my rescuer?” he asked in a grating voice looking around at the crowd with his one good eye.
“Here he is!” roared the crowd, and pushed Khoja Nasreddin forward.
“Come here, I am going to reward you.” The man plunged his hand into his squelching pouch and brought out a handful of wet silver. “Although there is nothing very wonderful or extraordinary in your having pulled me out. I might have got out by myself,” he added querulously.
While he was talking, and whether from weakness or some other reason, his hand opened slowly and the coins slipped through his fingers back into the pouch with a gentle clink. Only one solitary coin remained in his hand – half a tanga. Sighing deeply he offered the coin to Khoja Nasreddin.
“Here, take this money and go buy yourself a bowl of pilau in the bazaar.”
“This isn’t enough to buy a bowl of pilau,” said Khoja Nasreddin.
“Never mind. Buy some rice without meat.”
“Now,” said Khoja Nasreddin to the bystanders, “you see, I rescued him in a truly scientific manner.”
And he went off to his ass.
On the way he was stopped by a man-tall, lean, sinewy, of sullen and unfriendly appearance. His arms were black with soot and coal and he had a blacksmith’s hammer in his belt.
“What is it, blacksmith?” asked Khoja Nasreddin.
“Look here,” said the smith measuring him up and down with a hostile eye, “do you realise what man that was you rescued? Yes, and at the last minute, after which no one could have saved him? Do you know how many tears will be shed because of what you have done? Do you know how many people will lose their homes, their fields and their vineyards or will be sent to the slave-market, and from there in chains along the Khiva high-road?”
Khoja Nasreddin stared at him in astonishment.
“I don’t understand you, blacksmith! Is it worthy of a man and a Muslim to pass by a drowning man without giving him a helping hand?”
“So you think that one should rescue all the poisonous snakes, all the hyenas and vipers? ” cried the smith. Then something seemed to dawn upon him, for he added: “But are you a local man?”
“ No, I have come from afar.”
“Then you don’t know that the man you have rescued is an evil-doer and a blood-sucker, and that one man out of three in Bukhara groans and weeps because of him!”
A dreadful thought flashed through Khoja Nasreddin’s mind.
“Blacksmith!” he faltered, fearing to hear his guess confirmed. “Tell me the man’s name.”
“You have saved Jafar the Usurer, may he be damned in this and in the future life, and may festering sores plague his tribe to the fourteenth generation!” replied the smith.
“What?” cried Khoja Nasreddin. “What are you saying, blacksmith! O woe is me! Woe! Woe! O shame on my head! Have my two hands dragged this snake out the water? Truly, there is no atoning for such a sin! O woe! O shame! O calamity!”
His remorse touched the smith who unbent a little.
“Calm yourself, traveller, there is nothing to be done it now. Why did you ride up to the pond just then? Why didn’t your ass baulk and linger on the road? The usurer would have just had time to drown.”
“That ass!” said Khoja Nasreddin. “If he lingers on the road it is only to empty the money out of my saddlebags. He finds they are too heavy when they are full. But when it is a question of my disgracing myself by rescuing a usurer, you may be sure the ass will bring me to the spot in good time!”
“Yes,” agreed the smith, “but the deed cannot be undone. One cannot push the usurer back into the pond.”
Khoja Nasreddin’s spirits revived.
“I may have performed an evil deed, but I shall put it right! Listen, blacksmith, I swear that Jafar the Usurer shall be drowned by me. I swear by my father’s beard. Yes, he shall be drowned by me and in this very same pond! Remember my oath, blacksmith, for I have never spoken in vain. The usurer is to drown! And when you hear about it in the bazaar, then know I have atoned for my guilt before the citizens of Noble Bukhara!”
TWILIGHT WAS falling gently on the town like a cool and fragrant mist when Khoja Nasreddin reached the marketplace.
Cheerful fires were kindling in the teahouses, and soon lights circled the entire market place. An important market was to be held on the morrow. One by one caravans of camels came slowly padding by. As one of the caravans disappeared into the darkness, the rhythmic, clear and melancholy tinkling of its bells lingered in the air. And when at last the sound had faded into the distance, more bells would clang and moan as another caravan came into the square.
This went on and on, as though the very night itself were ringing, quivering and moaning softly, overflowing with sounds brought from the ends of the earth. Invisible bells from India and Persia, Arabia, Afghanistan and Egypt rang out in wistful song. Khoja Nasreddin listened, and felt that he could have listened forever. In a near-by teahouse a tambourine was booming and humming and was answered by the strings of a dutar. An invisible singer lifted his tense clear voice up to the very stars. He sang about his beloved and complained of her.
To the accompaniment of this song Khoja Nasreddin went off in search of a night’s lodging.
“I have half a tanga for myself and my ass,” he said to the owner of a teahouse.
“You may spend the night here for half a tanga,” said the man. “But you won’t get a blanket.”
“And where can I tether my ass?”
“Why should I worry about your ass?”
There was no tie-rail near the teahouse. Khoja Nasreddin saw a hook, which protruded from beneath the raised porch, and without troubling to look to what the hook was fixed, tied his ass to it. Once inside the teahouse he immediately lay down, for he was very tired.
He was dozing when suddenly he heard his name. He half-opened his eyes.
Close by, seated in a little circle and drinking tea were some men who had come to the market – a camel-driver, a shepherd and two artisans. One of them was saying in a low voice:
“They also tell this of Khoja Nasreddin. One day in Baghdad, he was walking in a bazaar. Suddenly he heard noise and shouting in a tavern. Our Khoja Nasreddin, as you know, is very inquisitive, so he went to look inside. There he saw a fat, red-faced innkeeper holding a beggar by the scruff of his neck and shaking him. He was demanding money from him but the beggar refused to pay. ‘What’s all this noise?’ asked our Khoja Nasreddin. ‘What are you quarrelling about?’ ‘This tramp,’ shouted the inn-keeper, ‘this scurvy, cheating beggar, may his bowels rot, came into my eating-house, took a piece of bread from the breast of his khalat, held it for a long time over the brazier where I was roasting a succulent shishlik, and waited until the bread had absorbed the smell of the roast meat and was doubly soft and tasty; then he devoured the bread. And now, may his teeth fall out and his hide peel off, he refuses to pay!’ ‘Is it true?’ asked our Khoja Nasreddin sternly. The beggar was too frightened to utter a word. ‘It is wrong, you know,’ said Khoja Nasreddin ‘it is wrong to make use of other people’s property without paying.’ ‘Do you hear, you wretch, do you hear what this respectable and worthy man is saying?’ said the innkeeper, very pleased. ‘Have you any money?’ Khoja Nasreddin asked the beggar. The beggar took his last coppers from his pocket and handed them to Khoja Nasreddin. The innkeeper stretched out his greasy paw for the money. ‘Wait, o worthy one,’ said Khoja Nasreddin. ‘Lend me your ear first.’ And for quite a while he jingled the coins in his fist at the innkeeper’s ear. Then he handed back the money to the beggar and said: ‘Go in peace, my poor fellow!’ ‘What!’ shouted the innkeeper. ‘But I haven’ t been paid!’ ‘He has paid you in full,’ replied Khoja Nasreddin, ‘and now you are quits. He smelt your shishlik and you heard his money ring.’ ”
The audience burst out laughing. One of the men hurriedly warned the others:
“Not so loud, or they will soon guess we are talking about Khoja Nasreddin.”
“How do they know?” thought Khoja Nasreddin smiling to himself. “True, this did not happen in Baghdad but in Stambul. Still, how do they know?”
Then a second man, in shepherd’s dress and a coloured turban showing him to be from Badakhshan, told his tale in a low voice.
“They also say that one day Khoja Nasreddin was passing a mullah’s kitchen-garden. The mullah was gathering some pumpkins into a sack. From greed he had filled the sack so full that he could not lift it, let alone carry it. So there he stood wondering how to get the sack home. He saw a passer-by and was delighted. ‘Listen, my son, can you carry this sack to my house?’ Khoja Nasreddin had no money at the time. ‘How much will you pay me?’ he asked the mullah. ‘O my son, why do you ask for money? While you are on the way and carrying the sack I will reveal three wisdoms to you and this will bring you happiness for life.’ ‘I should very much like to know what those wisdoms are,’ thought our Khoja Nasreddin.
“Curiosity seized him. He lifted the sack on to his shoulders and started off. The path was up-hill and skirted a precipice. Khoja Nasreddin halted to take breath. The mullah said, looking important and mysterious: ‘Listen to the first wisdom, for there has been no greater wisdom in the entire world since the time of Adam. If you come to comprehend the full depth of its meaning, it will be as much as possessing the secret meaning of the letters Alif, Lam, Mim with which Muhammad, our Prophet and teacher, opens the second sura of the Koran.
“ ‘Listen carefully: if anyone tells you that it is better to walk than to ride, do not believe him. Remember my words, o my son, and ponder over them ceaselessly by day and by night, and then you will comprehend the wisdom they contain. But this wisdom is nothing compared to the second, which I will disclose to you over there by that tree. Look, over there, ahead of us.’ ‘All right!’ thinks our Khoja Nasreddin. ‘You wait a bit, my fine mullah.’ Dripping with sweat he dragged the sack up to the tree.
“The mullah raised a finger. ‘Open your ears and listen, for the second wisdom contains the entire Koran and half of the Shariat and also a quarter of the Tarikat. He who comprehends it will never err from the path of virtue and will never leave the road of truth. Therefore, My son, endeavour to understand this wisdom and rejoice at receiving it for nothing. The second wisdom says: if anyone tells you that the poor man has an easier life than the rich man, do not believe him. But this second wisdom is nothing compared with the third, the shining light of which can only be likened to the blinding radiance of the sun and the depth of which can only be likened to the depth of the Ocean. I shall disclose this third wisdom to you at the gate of my house. Let us hasten, for I am already rested.’
“ ‘Wait, mullah!’ said Khoja Nasreddin. ‘I already know your third wisdom. You are going to tell me at the gate of your house that a clever man can always make a stupid man carry a heavy sackful of pumpkins for nothing.’ The astounded mullah recoiled. Khoja Nasreddin had guessed right.
“ ‘Now, mullah, you listen to my one and only wisdom which is worth all of yours,’ went on Khoja Nasreddin. ‘And my wisdom, I swear by the Prophet, is so blinding and so profound that it contains the entire Islam with the Koran, the Shariat, the Tarikat and all the other books, and also the entire Buddhist creed, and the entire Christian creed, and the entire Jewish creed. There never was and never will be at any time a more irrefutable wisdom than the one which I shall now disclose to you, O mullah, my master and teacher in the true faith! But prepare yourself so that this wisdom does not overcome you, for it may easily cause a man to lose his mind – so amazing is it, so striking and so immeasurable. Steel your mind, mullah, and listen: if anyone tells you that these pumpkins did not smash – spit in the face of that man, call him a liar and turn him out of your house!’
“With these words Khoja Nasreddin lifted the sack and dropped it over the steep precipice. The pumpkins tumbled out of the sack and went bounding and bursting noisily over the stones. ‘Oh woe! Woe!’ wailed the mullah. ‘What a loss! What ruin!’ And he went on yelling and lamenting and scratching his face, and behaving like a madman.
“ ‘You see,’ said Khoja Nasreddin, ‘I warned you! I told you my wisdom might make you go out of your mind!’ ”
The audience rocked with laughter.
Lying in his corner on the dusty, flea-infested felt mat Khoja Nasreddin thought to himself.
“So they have heard this one too? But how? There were only two of us on that path – the mullah and myself, and I never told a soul. Perhaps the mullah told the story when he found out who had been carrying his pumpkins.’
Then the third man started with his tale:
“One day Khoja Nasreddin was returning from the town to the Turkish village where he was then living. Feeling tired, he lay down on the bank of a stream, and, without being aware of it, fell asleep to the pleasant gurgle of the water, fanned by the fragrant breath of the spring breeze. And he dreamt that he had died. ‘If I am dead,’ he decided, ‘then I must neither move, nor open my eyes.’ So he remained lying quite still on the soft grass. He found that being dead was after all not so bad. There you lie without any of the fuss and worry that pursue us relentlessly throughout our mortal earthly existence.
“Some travellers who were passing by caught sight of Khoja Nasreddin. ‘Look!’ said one. ‘It is a Muslim.’ ‘He is dead,’ added another. ‘We must carry him to the nearest village.’
“This was the village that Khoja a Nasreddin was going to. The men cut down several saplings, made a stretcher out of them and laid Khoja Nasreddin upon it. They carried him for a long time, while he lay motionless with closed eyes, as becomes a man who is dead and whose soul is already knocking at the gates of Paradise.
“Suddenly the stretcher came to a halt. The wayfarers were arguing about the ford. One suggested they should go to the right; another to the left; while a third proposed going straight across the river. Khoja Nasreddin peeped out of one eye and saw that the men were standing before the deepest, swiftest and most dangerous part of the river, where many careless people had been drowned. ‘I don’t care about myself,’ thought Khoja Nasreddin, ‘for I am dead and it doesn’t matter whether I lie in a grave or at the bottom of the river. But these travellers must be warned because they might lose their lives through being kind to me. Not to warn them would be sheer ingratitude on my part.’
“He raised himself on the stretcher and pointing towards the ford said in a weak voice: ‘When I was alive, O travellers, I always crossed the river near to those poplars there.’ Then he closed his eyes again. The travellers thanked Khoja Nasreddin and went on carrying the stretcher and loudly reciting prayers for the salvation of his soul.”
While the audience and the storyteller himself were laughing and digging their elbows into each other’s sides, Khoja Nasreddin grumbled:
“They’ve got it all wrong. First of all, I never dreamt I had died. I’m not such a fool as to be unable to distinguish between myself dead and myself alive. Why, I even remember that a flea was biting me at the time and I fervently wished I could scratch myself. Surely that is clear proof that I was alive? Had it been otherwise I would certainly not have felt the fleabites. It was only because I was tired and did not want to walk, while the travellers were strong, and it meant nothing to them to go slightly out of their way and carry me to the village. But when they decided to cross the river where its depth is three times the height of a man, I stopped them, though of course I was thinking of their families, and not of mine, for I do not possess one. And immediately I tasted the bitter fruit of ingratitude; for instead of thanking me for my timely warning, they tumbled me out of the stretcher and beat me with their fists. They would have beaten me severely had it not been for my swift legs. Extraordinary how people manage to distort the truth!”
Meanwhile a fourth man began his tale.
“They also tell this of Khoja Nasreddin. Once he lived for about half a year in a village where he gained much fame by his ready tongue and quick wit—”
Khoja Nasreddin pricked up his cars. Where had he heard this voice – not loud, but distinct and slightly hoarse. And quite recently too … Perhaps this very day … However he tried, he could not remember.
The man went on:
“One day the governor of the province sent one of his elephants to the village where Khoja Nasreddin was living. It was to be fed and cared for by the inhabitants. The elephant was a great eater. In twenty-four hours he ate fifty measures of barley, fifty measures of sorghum, fifty measures of maize and one hundred bundles of hay. Within a fortnight the villagers had given to the elephant all their reserves. They were utterly ruined and were filled with despair. Finally they decided to send Khoja Nasreddin to the governor to beg that the elephant be taken away.
“So they sought out Khoja Nasreddin who agreed to do what they asked. He saddled his ass, which, as the whole world knows, is comparable by its obstinacy, evil temper and laziness to a jackal, a viper and a frog rolled into one, and having saddled it he set off to find the governor, without neglecting to make an agreement with the villagers about payment for his services. Actually he exacted such a large sum that many of them were obliged to sell their houses and became beggars thanks to Khoja Nasreddin.”
“Hm!” came from the corner where Khoja Nasreddin was tossing and turning on his felt mat in an effort to hold back the fury that was choking him.
The man went on:
“And so Khoja Nasreddin arrived at the palace. He stood for a long time among the crowd of servants and dependents waiting for the illustrious governor to deign to turn upon him his luminous gaze, which sheds happiness upon some and destruction upon others. And when the governor deigned to favour Khoja Nasreddin by turning his countenance towards him, such were Khoja Nasreddin’s fear and amazement on beholding this magnificence that his knees trembled like a jackal’s tail and his blood ran slow in his veins. He was bathed in sweat and became paler than chalk.”
“Hm!” came from the corner, but the storyteller went on without paying heed to the interruption.
“ ‘What do you want?’ the governor asked in noble and resounding tones resembling the roar of a lion. Fear rendered Khoja Nasreddin tongue-tied. His voice squeaked like the yap of a stinking hyena. ‘O noble lord!’ said Khoja Nasreddin. ‘O light of our province, its sun and its moon, dispenser of happiness and joy to all who live in our province! Hear this your miserable slave, unworthy to wipe the threshold of your palace with his beard. You have, o most resplendent one, conferred on our village the favour of sending one of your elephants to be fed and cared for by the villagers. So we are a little worried….’
“The governor frowned ominously. Khoja Nasreddin bowed before him like a reed before the storm. ‘What worries you?’ asked the governor. ‘Speak up. Or has your tongue dried up in your filthy and miserable throat?’ ‘A… we … we …’ mumbled the cowardly Khoja Nasreddin. ‘We are worried, o most resplendent lord, that the elephant is feeling lonely by himself. The poor creature is very unhappy, and all the villagers have become woebegone and melancholy at the sight of its misery. So they have sent me to you, o noblest of the noble, whose person adorns the earth, to ask you to confer yet another favour upon us by sending a cow-elephant to keep him company.’ The governor was greatly pleased by this request and ordered it to be immediately carried out. To mark his pleasure he permitted Khoja Nasreddin to kiss his boot, which Khoja Nasreddin did with such assiduity that the governor’s boot lost colour while Khoja Nasreddin’s lips became black—”
Here the storyteller was interrupted by the thundering voice of Khoja Nasreddin in person:
“You lie!” cried Khoja Nasreddin. “It is your lips, you dirty, mangy dog, and your tongue, and all your inside which are black from the licking of the great ones’ boots! Khoja Nasreddin has never and nowhere bowed before the great. You slander Khoja Nasreddin. Do not listen to him, o Muslims! Turn him out!”
He rushed forward to deal with the calumniator, but was suddenly brought to a standstill on recognising the flat, pockmarked face and the yellow shifty eyes. This was the servant who had argued with him in the alley about the length of the rails on the bridge to paradise.
“Aha!” cried Khoja Nasreddin. “I know you, you spy! Tell me, how much do they pay you for informing, how much do they pay you a head for every man whom you betray? I know you, Emir’s spy and informer!”
The spy who until then had remained motionless suddenly clapped his hands and shouted in a high-pitched voice:
Khoja Nasreddin heard the running footsteps of the guard, the rattle of spears and the ringing of shields in the dark. Without losing an instant he jumped to one side and knocked down the pockmarked spy who barred his way.
But now he heard the tramping of guards coming from the other side of the square. In whichever direction he darted, he was brought up against the guards. For a moment he thought escape was impossible.
“Woe is me! I am lost!” he cried loudly. “Farewell, my faithful ass!”
But here there occurred an unexpected and amazing event which to this day is remembered in Bukhara and will never be forgotten, so great were the tumult and destruction.
On hearing the sad cries of his master, the ass started out towards him but in his wake an enormous drum came bumping from under the porch. Khoja Nasreddin had unwittingly tethered his ass in the dark to the iron hook of this drum that the owner of the teahouse used to beat to attract customers to his establishment on great festivals. The drum hit a stone and boomed; the ass looked back and the drum boomed again. Then the ass, imagining that evil spirits, having done away with his master, were now after his own grey hide, brayed in terror, raised his tall and dashed across the square.
At this particular moment the last fifty camels of a caravan bringing a load of crockery and sheet-copper were moving into the square. At sight of the terrible braying, bounding and booming creature that charged at them in the dark, the terrified camels scattered, shedding crockery and clanging copper.
A moment later the entire market place and the adjoining streets were filled with a great panic and unheard of confusion. The thundering, ringing, banging, yelling, barking, howling, crashing and smashing merged into a hellish din. Everyone was bewildered. Hundreds of camels, horses and asses tearing away from their tethers dashed about in the dark, thundering among the scattered sheet-copper, while the drivers shouted and ran about brandishing torches.
People awakened by the unholy noise jumped up and ran half-naked hither and thither, crashing into each other and filling the night with cries of grief and despair, for they thought that the end of the world had come. Cocks crowed and flapped their wings. The tumult grew, and spread all over the great town to its very outskirts. Finally the guns on the city-wall boomed out, for the town-guard imagined that enemies had broken into Bukhara; and the guns in the palace grounds boomed too, for the palace-guard imagined that a revolt had broken out. From all the innumerable minarets came the plaintive, alarmed calls of the muezzins. Confusion in the dark was complete, and none knew whither to run or what to do.
And in the very centre of this dark chaos Khoja Nasreddin ran about, nimbly avoiding, the maddened horses and camels, pursuing his ass by the sound of the drum. He did not catch him until the rope at last broke and the drum rolled aside under the feet of the camels who, in a mad rush to avoid it, tore down with a crash awnings, sheds, tea-houses and booths.
It would have taken Khoja Nasreddin a long time to find his ass had they not accidentally come face to face. The ass was covered with lather and trembling all over
“Come, come quickly, it is a bit too noisy for us here,” said Khoja Nasreddin dragging his ass after him. “It is astonishing how much havoc one little ass can make in a big town if a drum is tied to him. See what you have done! True, you have saved me from the guards, but nevertheless I am sorry for the poor citizens of Bukhara. It will take them till the morning to straighten out the mess. Where can we find a quiet and peaceful spot?”
Khoja Nasreddin decided to spend the night in a cemetery, rightly arguing that whatever the disturbance, the dead would certainly not be rushing about, shouting and yelling, and brandishing torches.
Thus Khoja Nasreddin, the Disturber of the Peace and Sower of Discord, ended the first day of his return to his native town in a manner worthy of his title. He tethered his ass to a tombstone and making himself comfortable on a grave, soon dropped off to sleep. Meanwhile in the town the din, noise, shouting, banging, ringing, booming of guns and general confusion went on for a long time.
(To be continued)