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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.
AT THE break of dawn when the stars dimmed and faint outlines began to stand out of the darkness, many hundreds of sweepers, dustmen, carpenters and clay-treaders came into the market-square and set to work with a will. They straightened out the fallen awnings, mended the bridges, stopped up the gaps in the fences and cleared away all the splinters and broken pots, so that the first rays of the sun found no trace of the night’s disturbance in Bukhara.
The market opened.
After a good night’s rest beside the tombstone, Khoja Nasreddin rode into the square. It was already humming with activity and movement and overflowed with a colourful crowd of many tongues and races. “Make way! Make way!” cried Khoja Nasreddin hardly able to hear himself among the general shouting of merchants, water carriers, barbers, wandering dervishes, beggars and bazaar tooth-drawers who brandished the rusty and terrifying tools of their trade. Multi-coloured khalats, turbans, horse-blankets and carpets; Chinese, Arabic, Mongolian and many other different tongues mingled in a swaying, jostling and buzzing crowd.
Dust rose obscuring the sky, while an endless human stream kept pouring into the square to spread out their wares and add their voices to the general din. Potters beat ringing tattoos with little sticks on their pots, catching passers-by by the skirts of their khalats and begging them to listen to the clearness of the tone and so be tempted to buy. In the coppersmiths’ row the blaze of copper was blinding and the air rang out with the tapping of tiny hammers with which the coppersmiths hammered out patterns on trays and jugs, while they loudly extolled their own skill and decried that of their neighbours. Jewellers melted silver in small crucibles, stretched gold and polished precious Indian gems on leather discs.
At times the light breeze carried a heavy wave of fragrance from the perfumers’ row where attar of roses, ambergris, musk and various spices were being sold. On one side there stretched the endless figured, flowered and motley carpet-row exhibiting Persian, Damascus and Tekke rugs, Kashghar woven carpets, coloured horse blankets, both cheap and high-priced for ordinary mounts or noble steeds. Khoja Nasreddin rode past the silk row, the saddlers’, the armourers’ and dyers’ rows, the slave market and the wool-carders’ yard.
And all this was only the beginning of the bazaar, for hundreds of other different rows stretched ahead. The deeper Khoja Nasreddin on his ass penetrated into the crowd, the more deafening became the shouting, arguing, yelling and bargaining around him. Yes, this was the same bazaar, the famous and unmatched bazaar of Bukhara, such as neither Damascus, nor even Baghdad itself possessed.
At last he came to the end of the rows and saw before him the Emir’s palace surrounded by a high crenellated and embrasured wall. The four corner towers were skillfully faced with coloured mosaic over which Arab and Persian craftsmen had toiled for many years.
Outside the gates of the palace a motley camp was pitched. In the shade of tattered awnings people, exhausted by the heat, sat or lay on reed mats – some alone, others with their families. Women nursed babies, cooked food in pots, and mended torn khalats and quilts. Half-naked children scampered about shouting, fighting and tumbling, and with utter disrespect turning towards the palace that part of their anatomy that is not supposed to be exposed. The men slept or pottered about, or else talked among themselves in groups seated around teapots.
“Oho! These people have been here for more than one day!” thought Khoja Nasreddin.
Two men, one bald, the other bearded, attracted his attention. They lay on the bare ground, each under his awning. A white goat, so thin that its ribs seemed about to burst through its hide, was tethered to a poplar peg between the two. It bleated piteously and nibbled at the peg which was already half eaten away.
Being naturally inquisitive Khoja Nasreddin could not refrain from asking a question.
“Peace be with you, citizens of Noble Bukhara! Tell me, since when have you joined the gypsy community?”
“Do not mock us, o traveller!” replied the bearded man. “We are no gypsies but as good Muslims as yourself.”
“Then why do you not stay at home if you are good Muslims? What are you waiting for at the palace gate?”
“We are waiting for the just and gracious judgment of the Emir, our sovereign Lord and Master, whose radiance eclipses that of the sun.”
“So!” said Khoja Nasreddin with unconcealed irony. “And have you been waiting long for the just and gracious judgment of the Emir, your sovereign Lord and Master, whose radiance eclipses that of the sun?”
“We have been waiting more than five weeks, o traveller,” put in the bald man. “This bearded quibbler, may Allah chastise him, may the devil spread his tail on his bed – this bearded quibbler is my elder brother. Our father died and left us a small property. We have divided everything except this goat. Let the Emir decide to whom it should belong.”
“But where is the rest of the property which you have inherited?”
“We have turned everything into money. One has to pay the public scribes who write the petitions and the clerks who receive them, and the guards, and many others.”
The bald man suddenly jumped up and ran to meet a dirty, bare-footed dervish in a pointed cap with a black hollow gourd at his side.
“Pray for me, holy man! Pray that the judgment be given in my favour!”
The dervish took the money and started to pray. As soon as he had pronounced the concluding words of the prayer the bald man threw another coin into his gourd to make him start all over again.
The bearded man raised himself uneasily and ran his eyes over the crowd. After a lengthy search he saw a second dervish, still more dirty and ragged and therefore more holy. This dervish demanded an exorbitant sum. The bearded man wanted to bargain but the dervish fumbled under his cap and brought out a handful of good-sized lice, at which the bearded man, thus persuaded of his holiness accepted his price. With a triumphant glance at his younger brother, he counted out the money.
The dervish knelt down and started to pray loudly, drowning with his bass the thin tones of the first dervish. The bald man becoming uneasy added a few coins to his dervish, the bearded one did the same with his, and the two dervishes in their efforts to outdo each other set up such a yelling and shouting that Allah must have ordered the angels to shut the windows of his heavenly abode for fear of going deaf. The goat, nibbling at the wooden peg, bleated piteously and continuously.
The bald brother threw it half a bundle of clover, at which the bearded one yelled.
“Take your dirty stinking clover away from my goat!”
He kicked the clover away and set a pot of bran before the animal.
“No!” shouted the bald brother angrily. “My goat shall not eat your bran!”
The pot joined the clover; it broke and the bran mingled with the dust of the road, while the brothers grappled furiously, rolling on the ground and exchanging blows and curses.
“Two fools are fighting, two swindlers are praying and meanwhile the goat has died of hunger,” said Khoja Nasreddin shaking his head. “Hey you, virtuous and loving brothers, look here – Allah has settled your dispute in his own way by taking the goat from you.”
The brothers, coming to their senses, let go of each other and stood with blood-streaked faces gazing for a long time at the dead goat. At last the bald one said:
“It should be skinned.”
“I’ll do that!” quickly replied the bearded brother.
“Why you?” asked the other, his bald pate reddening with fury.
“The goat is mine and so is the hide.”
“No, it is mine!”
Before Khoja Nasreddin could put in a word the brothers were again rolling on the ground in a shapeless grunting tangle. For an instant a heavy fist showed grasping a tuft of black hair from which Khoja Nasreddin concluded that the elder brother had lost a goodly portion of his beard.
With a hopeless gesture he rode on.
Coming towards him was a blacksmith with a pair of pincers thrust into his belt-the same blacksmith who had spoken to Khoja Nasreddin the day before at the pond.
“Good day, blacksmith,” cried Khoja Nasreddin joyfully. “Here we meet again, though I have not had time yet to fulfil my promise. What are you doing here, blacksmith? Have you also come to seek the Emir’s justice?”
“What good can come from such justice?” the smith said gloomily. “I have come with a complaint from the blacksmiths’ row. We have been given fifteen guards whom we were supposed to feed for three months. Now a year has passed and we are still keeping them and suffering much loss in consequence.”
“And I have come from the dyers’ row,” put in a man with stains of dye on his hands and whose face had taken on a greenish hue from the poisonous fumes which he inhaled every day from sunrise till sunset. “I have come with a similar complaint. We have been given twenty-five guards to feed. Our trade is ruined and our profits have dwindled. Perhaps the Emir will take pity on us and deliver us from this unbearable burden.”
“Why have you taken such a dislike to the poor guards?” cried Khoja Nasreddin. “Truly they are not the worst or greediest inhabitants of Bukhara. You keep without complaining the Emir, his viziers and dignitaries. You feed two thousand mullahs and six thousand dervishes. Then why should the unfortunate guards go hungry? Don’t you know the proverb: where one jackal has found food for himself, ten others immediately assemble. I do not understand your dissatisfaction, o blacksmith and dyer!”
“Not so loud,” said the smith looking around.
The dyer threw Khoja Nasreddin a reproachful glance.
“You are a dangerous man, o traveller, and your words are deprived of virtue. But our Emir is wise and generous—”
He broke off for suddenly there was a blaring of trumpets and a rolling of drums. The whole motley camp came into movement, as the brassbound palace gates opened ponderously.
“The Emir! The Emir!” came from all sides and the people crowded towards the palace to gaze at their ruler. Khoja Nasreddin took up a convenient position in the first rows.
First came the heralds who ran out of the gates crying: “Make way for the Emir! Make way for the Most Serene Emir! Make way for the Commander of the Faithful!” These were followed by the guards who hit out with their sticks right and left at the heads and backs of the curious who had crowded in too close. A broad passage opened in the crowd, and out came the musicians with drums and flutes, tambourines and karanay. Next came the suite clad in silk and gold, with curved sabres in velvet sheaths studded with precious stones. Then two elephants with tall plumes on their heads were led out. Finally there appeared a richly ornamented litter in which the great Emir reposed under a heavy baldaquin of cloth of gold.
A subdued roar rose from the crowd at this sight as though a gust of wind had swept the square, and the people prostrated themselves on the ground in conformity with the Emir’s order, which commanded all loyal subjects to regard their ruler with servility and not otherwise than with upturned gaze. In front of the litter ran servants spreading out carpets in its path. To the right of the litter walked the palace fly swatter carrying a fan of horses’ tails on his shoulder, and to the left gravely and importantly strode the Emir’s pipe-bearer carrying a golden Turkish narghile.
The guard in brass helmets armed with shields, spears, crossbows and naked swords made up the rear of the procession. Last of all came two small cannon. The pageant was lit up by the bright noonday sun which sparkled in the jewels, shone on the gold and silver ornaments, hotly mirrored itself in the brass shields and helmets and glistened on the white steel of the bare blades. … But in the enormous prostrated crowd there shone neither jewels, nor gold, nor silver, nor even copper – nothing gladdened the heart by flaming and shining in the sun: there were only rags, poverty and hunger. And when the sumptuous Emir’s procession moved through the sea of dirty, ignorant, downtrodden and ragged people it was as though a thin golden thread was being drawn through a sordid rag.
The high carpeted dais from which the Emir was to dispense his favours to his devoted people was already surrounded on all sides by guards, while below on the execution ground the executioners were busily making ready to carry out the Emir’s will, testing the flexibility of rods and the strength of sticks, soaking in vats many-tailed raw-hide whips, erecting gallows, sharpening axes and fixing pales into the ground. The man in charge was the chief of the palace guard, Arslan-bek, whose ferocity had rendered him notorious far beyond the frontiers of Bukhara. He was handsome, with a thick body and black hair. His beard covered his chest and reached down to his belly, and his voice was like the roar of a camel.
He was generously distributing blows and kicks, when all of a sudden he bent low and quivered with servility.
Slowly swaying, the litter mounted the dais and the Emir, pushing aside the curtains of the baldaquin, showed his countenance to the people.
THE MOST Serene Emir was not so very handsome after all. His face, which the court poets always likened to a silver full moon, looked more like an over-ripe flabby melon. Supported by his viziers he stepped out of the litter to take his seat on the gilded throne, and Khoja Nasreddin saw that, contrary to the assertions of the court poets, the Emir’s figure did not resemble a slender cypress. His body was fat and heavy, his arms were short and his legs were so bowed that not even his khalat could hide their ugliness.
The viziers took up their positions on his right, the mullahs and dignitaries on his left, the scribes settled lower down with their books and ink-horns, while the court poets formed a semicircle behind the throne, fixing their devout gaze on the back of the Emir’s neck. The palace fly swatter waved his fan. The narghile-bearer placed the golden mouthpiece between his master’s lips. The vast crowd surrounding the dais held their breath.
Khoja Nasreddin raised himself in his stirrups, stretched out his neck and became all ears.
The Emir sleepily nodded his head. The guard divided, making way for the two brothers, the bald one and the bearded one, whose turn had at last come. They crawled on their knees up to the dais and kissed the carpet that hung to the ground.
“Get up!” said the Grand Vizier Bakhtiyar.
The brothers rose without daring to shake the dust from their khalats. Fear tied their tongues so that their speech was mumbling and incoherent. But being a vizier of great experience Bakhtiyar understood the situation at a glance.
“Where is your goat?” he interrupted the brothers impatiently.
The bald brother replied:
“It is dead, o high-born Vizier! Allah has taken it to himself. But which of us is to have the hide?”
Bakhtiyar turned to the Emir.
“What is to be the decision, o Wisest of Rulers?”
The Emir yawned and closed his eyes with an air of complete indifference. Bakhtiyar respectfully bowed his head under its heavy white turban.
“O Master! I read the decision on your countenance. Listen,” he said, turning to the brothers.
They sank to their knees ready to thank the Emir for his wisdom, justice and mercy. Bakhtiyar pronounced the verdict and the scribes scratched away with their pens as they wrote down his words in the huge registers.
“The Commander of the Faithful and Sun of the Universe, our Great Emir, may Allah’s blessing rest upon him, has deigned to decide that if the goat has been taken to Allah, then in all justice the hide should belong to Allah’s vice-regent on earth, that is to the Great Emir himself, by reason of which the goat should be skinned, the hide dried and tanned, brought to the palace and delivered to the Royal Treasury.”
The disconcerted brothers exchanged swift glances, a light murmur passed over the crowd. Bakhtiyar went on in a loud and clear voice:
“Besides which, the suitors should be made to pay legal costs to the amount of two hundred and fifty tangas, the tax for the upkeep of the scribes to the amount of fifty tangas and also make a donation for the adornment of the mosques – all this to be exacted immediately in cash, or in clothing, or in any other kind of property.”
Hardly had he finished speaking when on a sign from Arslan-bek, the guards threw themselves upon the two brothers, unwound their sashes, turned their pockets inside out, tore off their khalats, pulled off their boots and sent them away barefoot and half-naked.
The whole affair took barely a minute. As soon as the verdict had been announced the court sages and poets burst into a chorus of panegyrics:
“O wise Emir! O wisest of the wise! O wise with the wisdom of the wise! O Emir wisest above all wise!”
They went on like this for a long time, craning their necks towards the throne, each trying to make his voice reach the Emir above the others. Meanwhile the crowd around the dais kept silent, eyeing the two brothers with compassion.
“Never mind,” said Khoja Nasreddin in pious tomes to the unfortunate brothers who were loudly weeping in each other’s arms. “After all you haven’t been wasting your time sitting in the square for six weeks. You have received a just and merciful verdict, for everybody knows there is none so wise or more merciful in all the world than our Emir, and if anyone doubts it…” here he looked round at his neighbours in the crowd – “it wouldn’t take long to call the guards. And they? Why, they would deliver the impious doubter into the hands of the executioners, who will easily show him the error of his ways. O brothers, go home in peace. If ever you squabble over a fowl, come again to the Emir’s tribunal, only first remember to sell your houses, your vineyards and fields; otherwise you’ll be unable to pay the taxes and that will mean a loss to the Emir’s treasury, the very thought of which ought to be unbearable to a loyal subject.”
“It would have been better for us to have died with our goat,” cried the brothers shedding bitter tears.
“Do you think they haven’t enough fools in heaven?” asked Khoja Nasreddin. Reliable men tell me that nowadays both heaven and hell are brimful of fools and won’t take any more. Brothers, I foresee immortality for you… and be quick in getting away from here, for the guards are beginning to look this way, and unlike yourselves I cannot count upon remaining immortal.”
The brothers went away loudly sobbing, scratching their faces and sprinkling the yellow road dust on to their heads.
Then the blacksmith came before the Emir. He stated his complaint in a hoarse and sullen voice. The Grand Vizier Bakhtiyar turned towards the Emir:
“What is your decision, o Master?”
The Emir was asleep and snoring softly, with his mouth open. Bakhtiyar was quite unabashed.
“O master! I read the decision on your noble countenance.”
He announced solemnly:
“In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate: the Commander of the Faithful and our Master, the Emir, in his incessant concern for his subjects, has manifested his great favour and kindness towards them by giving them the honour of keeping and feeding the faithful guards in his service. By this privilege he has granted the citizens of noble Bukhara the honourable opportunity of showing daily and hourly their gratitude to their Emir. Such an honour is not bestowed upon the inhabitants of other countries neighbouring on ours. Despite this, the blacksmiths have not distinguished themselves by their piety. On the contrary, the blacksmith Yusuf, disregarding the torments of the other world and hair-woven bridge reserved for sinners, has insolently opened his mouth to express ingratitude. Further, he has had the temerity to bring his complaint to the feet of our Lord and Master, the Most Serene Emir, whose radiance eclipses the very sun.
“Because of this our Most Serene Emir has graciously pronounced the following judgment: the smith Yusuf is to receive two hundred lashes of the whip. This will no doubt inspire him with penitence without which he would wait in vain for the gates of paradise to open for him. As for the blacksmith’s row, the Serene Emir manifests anew his favour and condescension by ordering that they be sent another twenty guards to be kept and fed. Thus they will not be deprived of the happy opportunity of extolling daily and hourly the wisdom and mercy of our Emir. Such is his decision and may Allah prolong his days for the good of all his loyal subjects.”
The chorus of court flatterers again came to life and droned praises to the Emir. Meanwhile the guards seized the smith Yusuf and dragged him to the place of execution where the executioners, grinning hideously, were already testing the weight of their heavy whips.
The smith stretched himself face down on the mat. The whip whistles and fell, and the smith’s back was dyed with blood.
The executioners beat him cruelly. They tore his skin in strips and cut his flesh to the bone. But never a cry, never a groan did he utter. When he stood up there was a black froth on his lips: during the punishment he had bitten the earth so as not to scream.
“This smith is not one to forget,” said Khoja Nasreddin. “He will remember to the end of his days the Emir’s kindness. What are you waiting for, dyer? Go, it is your turn now.”
The dyer spat and left the crowd without a backward glance.
The Grand Vizier quickly dispatched other cases, out of each of which he never failed to draw profit for the Emir’s treasury, an aptitude that distinguished him from among the other dignitaries.
The executioners worked without respite. Screams and yells sounded from their direction. The Grand Vizier sent many fresh sinners to the executioners. A long queue waited: old men, women and even a ten-year-old boy who was convicted of insolently and mutinously wetting the ground in front of the Emir’s palace. Khoja Nasreddin’s heart was full of pity and indignation as he gazed at him.
“Truly this boy is a dangerous criminal,” he said aloud. “And one cannot praise sufficiently the Emir’s foresight for guarding his throne against similar enemies. For such are more dangerous since they hide potentially evil thoughts under the tenderness of their years. Only today I saw another criminal, far worse and terrible even than this one. This second criminal – would you believe it! – behaved worse than the first, and what is more, right under the very wall of the palace! Any punishment would have been too light for such impertinence. He ought to have been impaled! I fear, though, that the pale would have passes through him like a spit through a chicken, for he was only four years old. However, as I have said, his age cannot be taken as an excuse. My heart is sorrowful at the thought of the terrible vices that have woven their nests in our Bukhara. Nevertheless, let us trust that with the help of the Emir’s executioners and his guards such vices will soon be uprooted and replaced by virtues.”
Thus he spoke in the manner of a mullah delivering a sermon. Both his tone and his words sounded well meaning, but those who had ears heard and understood, and they smiled secretly and bitterly in their beards.
SUDDENLY KHOJA Nasreddin saw that the crowd had thinned out. Many had hurried away; some even had taken to their heels.
“Are the guards coming after me?” he thought uneasily.
He understood the reason as soon as he saw the approaching usurer. Behind him, surrounded by guards, walked a decrepit grey-bearded old man in an earth-stained khalat, and a veiled woman, or rather a young girl, as Khoja Nasreddin’s practised eye deduced from her gait.
“And where are Zakir, Jura, Said and Sadik?” croaked the usurer surveying the people out of his one good eye. The other eye was dull and motionless and covered with a white film. “They were here just now, I saw them from a distance. Their debts are due soon, and it is useless for them to run away and hide.”
And he limped on under his sump.
People began to talk among themselves:
“Look, the old spider is dragging the potter Niyaz and his daughter before the Emir.”
“He wouldn’t give the potter even a day’s grace.”
“Curse him! My debts fall due in a fortnight.”
“And mine in a week.”
“Look how everybody runs and hides when he comes as though he were bringing leprosy or cholera!”
“The usurer is worse than a leper!”
Khoja Nasreddin’s soul was torn with remorse. He repeated his oath:
I shall drown him in that very same pond!”
Arslan-bek allowed the usurer to some up out of turn. After him came the potter and his daughter. They fell on their knees and kissed the fringe of the carpet.
“Peace be unto you, worthy Jafar,” the Grand Vizier said affably. “What business brings you here? State your business to the Great Emir.”
“O great Sovereign! My Lord!” said Jafar addressing himself to the Emir who nodded somnolently only to resume his snores and snuffles. “I come to crave your justice. This man, Niyaz by name and potter by trade, owes me one hundred tangas and another three hundred tangas of interest on this debt. The debt fell due this morning, but the potter has paid me nothing. Give us your judgment, o wise Emir, Sun of the Universe.”
The scribes entered the usurer’s complaint in their books. Then the Grand Vizier turned to the potter:
“Potter, answer the Grand Emir. Do you recognise this debt? Perhaps you contest the day and hour?”
“No,” replied the potter in a feeble voice. “No, most wise and just Vizier, I contest nothing – neither the debt, nor the day, nor the hour. I ask only for one month’s respite and throw myself upon the mercy and generosity of our Emir.”
“Allow me, o master, to announce the verdict which I have read on your countenance,” said Bakhtiyar. “In the name of Allah the Merciful and Compassionate, according to the law, whoever does not pay his debt in time becomes with his family the slave of his creditor, and remains in slavery until he has paid his debt with interest for the whole time, including the time spent in servitude.”
The potter’s head drooped lower and lower and suddenly began to tremble. Many in the crowd turned away stifling heavy sighs. The girl’s shoulders quivered: she was weeping under her veil. Khoja Nasreddin repeated to himself for the hundredth time:
“He shall drown, this merciless tormentor of the poor!”
“But our Master’s mercy and generosity are boundless,” continued Bakhtiyar raising his voice.
A hush fell over the crowd. The old potter lifted his head and hope lit up his face.
“Though the debt is now due, the Emir grants the potter Niyaz a respite – one hour. If at the end of the hour Niyaz neglects the precepts of the faith and does not pay the entire debt with interest, the law will be fulfilled, as already said. Go potter, and may the Emir’s mercy abide with you henceforth.”
Bakhtiyar finished, and the chorus of flatterers thronging behind the throne took up its drone:
“O just Emir, eclipsing with his justice, justice itself! O merciful and wise Emir! O generous Emir! O adornment of the earth and glory of heaven, our serene Emir!”
This time the flatterers outdid themselves by singing their praises so loudly that the Emir woke up and angrily ordered them to hold their tongues. They fell silent. The people in the square were also silent. Suddenly a powerful, ear-splitting braying broke the general silence.
It was Khoja Nasreddin’s ass. Whether he was tied of standing in one spot, or had caught sight of a long-eared brother whom he wished to greet – the fact was that he brayed, tail uplifted, muzzle stretched out, yellow teeth bared. He brayed deafeningly, uncontrollably, and if he stopped for an instant it was only to take a breath, open his jaws still wider and bray and screech still louder.
The Emir stopped his ears. The guards threw themselves into the crowd. But Khoja Nasreddin was already far away. He pulled and tugged his balking ass and loudly scolded him:
“What makes you so happy, accursed ass? Can’t you praise the mercy and generosity of our Emir without so much noise? Perhaps you hope to become chief court flatterer by such efforts?”
The crows roared with laughter at his words, made way to let him pass through and again closed their ranks before the guards could overtake him. If they had caught Khoja Nasreddin they would have lashed him for this insolent disturbance of the peace and they would have confiscated his ass.
“JUDGMENT HAS been given and my power over you is now unbounded,” said Jafar the Usurer to the potter Niyaz and his daughter Guljan after the three had left the place where justice had been dispensed. “My beauty, ever since I saw you by chalice I have lost all peace of mind. I cannot sleep. Show me your face quickly. Today, in exactly an hour’s time you will enter my house. If you are kind to me, I shall give your father light work and good food. If you are stubborn, then by the light of my eyes, I shall feed him on raw beans, make him carry stones and sell him to the Khivans who, as you well know, treat their slaves cruelly. Do not be stubborn, show me your face, o lovely Guljan!”
His crooked, sensual fingers slightly lifted her veil. She threw off his hand with an angry gesture. Guljan’s face remained uncovered only for an instant but it was enough for Khoja Nasreddin who was passing by on his ass. The beauty of the girl was so breathtaking that Khoja Nasreddin nearly lost his senses. The world grew dim before his eyes, his heart stopped beating; he paled, staggered in the saddle and covered his eyes with his hand in utter confusion.
Love had struck him instantly, like a thunderbolt.
It took him some time to recover.
“And this lame, hunch-backed, one-eyed ape dares aspire to a beauty the like of whom has never yet been seen in this world!” he cried to himself. “Why, o why did I drag him out of the water yesterday? Now my deed has indeed turned against me! But we shall see, we shall see, you dirty usurer! You are not yet master of the potter and his daughter. They have still an hour’s grace, and Khoja Nasreddin can do more in an hour than another man in a whole year.”
Meanwhile the usurer took a wooden sundial from his pocket and marked the hour.
“Wait for me, potter, here under this tree. I shall return ill an hour’s time. And do not try to hide, for I shall find you even at the bottom of the sea and shall deal with you as with a fugitive slave. And you, fair Guljan, think over my words: your father’s fate depends on how you treat me.”
And with a satisfied smile on his hideous face he set off to the jewellers’ row to buy ornaments for his new concubine.
The potter, bowed down with grief, remained with his daughter in the shade of the roadside tree.
Khoja Nasreddin approached them.
“Potter, I have heard the judgment. You are in great trouble, but perhaps I may be able to help you.”
“No, kind man,” replied the potter hopelessly. “I see from your patched clothes that you are not rich, and I have to find four hundred tangas! I have no wealthy friends, they are all poor, ruined by levies and taxes.”
“I, too, have no rich friends in Bukhara,” said Khoja Nasreddin, “but all the same I’ll try to raise the money.”
“Raise four hundred tangas in one hour!” The old man shook his head and smiled bitterly. “Surely you mock me, stranger. Only Khoja Nasreddin could succeed in such an undertaking.”
“O stranger, save us, save us!” cried Guljan throwing her arms round her father.
Khoja Nasreddin looked at her and saw that her hands were perfect. She gave him a long glance and through her veil he could see the liquid radiance of her eyes filled with prayer and hope. His blood raced, running through his veins like a flame, his love grew a thousand fold. He said to the potter:
“Stay here, old man, and wait for me. May I be the most despised and lowest of men if I do not find four hundred tangas before the usurer’s return.”
He jumped on his ass and disappeared among the bazaar crowd.
IT WAS much quieter now and less crowded than in the morning, when during those busiest hours everyone was running, shouting and hurrying for fear of missing his chance. It was close upon noon and the people, seeking to avoid the heat, were going off to the teahouses quietly to take stock of their gains and losses. The sun flooded the square with a hot light; the shadows lay short and sharp, as though etched on the hard earth. Beggars sheltered in all the quiet corners, while sparrows hopped around them picking up crumbs and chirping merrily.
“In Allah’s name, good man, give us something,” droned the beggars showing to Khoja Nasreddin their deformities and ulcers.
He answered crossly:
“Keep your hands off I am as poor as you are and I am looking for someone who will give me four hundred tangas.”
The beggars, thinking he was taunting them, showered curses on his head, but Khoja Nasreddin was too busy with his thoughts to answer them.
In the row of the teahouses his choice fell upon the largest and most crowded of those where there were neither costly carpets, nor silk cushions. He entered and pulled his ass up the steps behind him instead of leaving him at the tie-rail.
An astonished silence greeted him. This did not disturb him in the least. Out of his saddlebag he took the Koran, given him the day before by the old man. He opened the book, and laid it in front of the ass.
He did this without haste and unsmilingly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. The men assembled in the teahouse began to exchange glances.
The ass stamped his hoof resoundingly on the wooden floor.
“Already?” asked Khoja Nasreddin turning over the leaf. “You are making remarkable progress.”
At this point the paunchy, good-humoured owner rose from his seat and came towards Khoja Nasreddin.
“See here, good man, is this the proper place for your ass? And why have you laid the sacred book in front of him?”
“I am teaching this ass theology,” replied Khoja Nasreddin calmly. “We have reached the end of the Koran and will soon pass on to the Shariat.”
Murmurs and whispers ran over the teahouse. Many stood up to see better. The owner’s eyes opened wide, his mouth fell agape. Never in his life had he seen such a wonder. At this moment the ass stamped again.
“Good,” approved Khoja Nasreddin turning over the leaf. “Very good. A little more and you will be able to take the place of the chief doctor of law in the Mir-Arab Madrasa. The only thing he can’t do is to turn over the pages for himself, and one has to help him. Allah has given him a quick intelligence and a remarkable memory. But he forgot to give him fingers,” added Khoja Nasreddin for the benefit of the teahouse owner.
The guests left their teapots and gathered close. In a few moments a crowd had collected around Khoja Nasreddin.
“This is no ordinary ass,” he explained. “He belongs to the Emir in person. One day the Emir called me and asked: ‘Can you teach my favourite ass theology, so that he should know as much as I do?’ They showed me the ass, I tested his abilities and replied: ‘ÍO most Serene Emir! This remarkable ass possesses an intelligence not inferior to that of any of your viziers, or even your own. I undertake to teach him theology and he will know as much as you, and even more, but it will take twenty years.’ The Emir ordered the treasury to pay me five thousand tangas in gold and said: ‘Take the ass and teach him, but I swear by Allah that if at the end of twenty years he does not know theology and cannot recite the Koran by heart, I shall cut off your head.’”
“Then you had better say farewell to your head!” exclaimed the teahouse owner. “Who ever saw an ass learn theology and recite the Koran!”
“There are quite a few such asses in Bukhara,” replied Khoja Nasreddin. “I must add that five thousand tangas in gold and a good ass are not come by every day. And do not deplore the loss of my head, for in twenty years’ time one of us is sure to die – the Emir, the ass, or myself. Then it will be too late to discover which of the three is the best doctor of law!”
The teahouse rocked with a burst of thunderous laughter. The owner fell down convulsed on the felts and laughed until his face streamed with tears. He was a very merry, a very jolly man, and this teahouse owner.
“Did you hear that?” he shouted, wheezing and choking. “Then it will be too late to discover who is the best doctor of law!” And assuredly he would have burst with mirth if a sudden thought had not struck him.
“Wait! Wait!” He waved his arms calling for attention. “Who are you? Where do you come from, you who teach theology? Could you possibly be Khoja Nasreddin in person?”
“Would that be so remarkable? You have guessed right, I am Khoja Nasreddin. I greet you, citizens of Noble Bukhara!”
For a long minute all remained as though spellbound. Suddenly a triumphant voice broke the silence:
“Khoja Nasreddin! Khoja Nasreddin!” the others caught up one by one. The cry spread to the other tea-houses and then to the entire bazaar – all over the place it rang out, boomed and echoed:
“Khoja Nasreddin! Khoja Nasreddin!”
Men came running to the tea-house from all sides – Uzbeks, Tajiks, Persians, Turcomans, Turks, Georgians, Armenians, Tatars – and once there they welcomed with loud cries their well-beloved Khoja Nasreddin, the famous gay-hearted and astute Khoja Nasreddin.
The crowd swelled.
From somewhere there appeared a sack of oats, a bundle of clover and a pail of clean water that were set before the ass.
“Welcome, Khoja Nasreddin!” came from the crowd. “Where have you been wandering? Come, tell us, Khoja Nasreddin!”
He came forward to the edge of the porch and bowed low to the crowd.
“I greet you, citizens of Bukhara! For ten years I have been parted from you, and now my heart rejoices at the reunion. You ask me to tell you something – I had rather sing it!”
He caught up a large earthen pot, threw the water out of it and striking it with his fist like a tambourine, loudly intoned:
Ring earthen pot, sing earthen pot, Give worthy praise to the Emir! And tell the world our happy lot Under our generous Emir. The earthen pot now hums and rings And in an angry voice it sings. It sends a hoarse and angry call On every side to one and all. Hear what the pot has got to tell: “The potter Niyaz here does dwell. He works the clay and pots he turns, But little is it that he earns. He could not save from what he got Enough to fill a tiny pot. “Jafar the Hunchback does not sleep His brimming pots of gold to keep. The Emir’s treasury too has gold Hoarded in quantities untold. The palace guards too do not sleep Those large and brimming pots to keep. “One day to old Niyaz came grief Stealing upon him like a thief. Guards came and seized him to be brought For judgment to the Emir’s court. Dragging his hump behind him came Jafar of evil face and fame.” How long injustice must we bear? Tell, earthen pot, to all who hear! For truthful is your tongue of clay – The potter’s crime, what is it, say? The earthen pot rings loud and high And truthfully it does reply: “It is the poor old potter’s fault That in a net he has been caught. The spider’s web has got him fast, The spider’s slave he’ll be at last.” Before the lord Niyaz appears And to his feet he clings in tears. He says: “ ’Tis known to all mankind That our Emir is great and kind. May he then graciously impart Some solace to my humble heart.” The Emir says: “Weep not, poor man, I grant thee grace – a whole hour’s span! For it is known to all mankind That I am generous and kind.” How long injustice must we bear? Tell, earthen pot, to all who hear! The earthen pot sings loud and high And truthfully it does reply: “Truly a madman he would be Who justice would expect to see From the Emir whose price, we know, Is very low, is very low! He’s but a sack of trash and rot With for a head an earthen pot!” Say, pot, how long have we to bear With the misrule of our Emir? When will the people sorely tried At last in happiness abide? The pot sings loud, the pot rings high, And truthfully it does reply: “The Emir’s power is strong withal, And yet some day he’ll have to fall. Your days of sorrow will depart. The years go by. There’ll come the day When in due time he’ll break apart And crumble like this pot of clay!”
Raising the pot over his head Khoja Nasreddin dashed it to the ground where it shattered into hundreds of fragments. Straining to cover the noise of the crowd Khoja Nasreddin shouted:
“Then let us all help to rescue the potter Niyaz from the usurer and the Emir’s clemency! You know Khoja Nasreddin! Loans are never lost with him! Who will lend me four hundred tangas for a short term?”
A bare-footed water-carrier stepped forward:
“Khoja Nasreddin, how can we have money? We pay heavy taxes. But I have a sash. It’s nearly new. It might bring in something.”
And he threw his sash at Khoja Nasreddin’s feet. The crowd buzzed and seethed. Skull-caps, slippers, sashes, kerchiefs and even khalats came flying to Khoja Nasreddin’s feet. Every man held it as an honour to help Khoja Nasreddin. The fat teahouse owner brought out his two best teapots and a copper tray, eyeing the others proudly, for he had given generously. The pile of gifts kept growing. Khoja Nasreddin shouted at the top of his voice:
“Enough! Enough, o generous citizens of Bukhara! Enough, do you hear me? Saddler, take back your saddle – it is enough, I tell you! What? Are you trying to turn your Khoja Nasreddin into an old clothes man? Now I shall begin the sale. Here is the water-carrier’s sash. He who buys it will never know thirst. Come along, I am selling cheap! Here are some old patched slippers. They have certainly walked at least twice to Mecca. He who wears them will feel as though he were making a pilgrimage! Here are knives, khalats, and slippers! Come on, I am selling cheaply without any bargaining. Time is too precious!”
But the Grand Vizier Bakhtiyar in his incessant care for the loyal subjects had taken great pains to order things in Bukhara so that not a copper should linger in the inhabitants’ pockets, but should find its way immediately into the Emir’s treasury. In vain did Khoja Nasreddin loudly extol the quality of his wares – there were no buyers.
JUST THEN Jafar the Usurer happened to be passing by. His pouch was weighed down with gold and silver trinkets, which he had bought for Guljan in the jewellers’ row.
Although the hour’s grace was nearly gone and the usurer was hurrying along, spurred on by sensual impatience, greed took the upper hand when he heard Khoja Nasreddin advertising a cheap sale.
At the sight of the usurer the crowd rapidly melted away, for out of every three men one was in his debt.
Jafar recognised Khoja Nasreddin.
“So it is you, who pulled me out of the water yesterday? Are you trading here? Where did you get so much stuff to sell?”
“Don’t you remember giving me half a tanga yesterday, worthy Jafar?” replied Khoja Nasreddin. “I made the money work and luck has favoured my trade.”
“And you have managed to get all these goods in one morning?” cried the usurer in astonishment. “My money has benefited you indeed! How much do you want for the whole lot?”
“Six hundred tangas.”
“You are mad! You ought to be ashamed to ask such a sum from your benefactor! Don’t you owe your prosperity to me? Two hundred tangas – that is my price.”
“Five hundred, retorted Khoja Nasreddin. “Out of respect for you, worthy Jafar – five hundred tangas!”
“O ungrateful one! Once again, is it not to me that you owe your prosperity?”
“And you, o usurer, don’t you owe your life to me? “countered Khoja Nasreddin losing patience. “It is true that you gave me only half a tanga for rescuing you, but your life isn’t worth more than that so I am not offended. If you are here to buy, name the proper price.”
Khoja Nasreddin said nothing.
The usurer paused, appraising the goods with an experienced eye, and having satisfied himself that all these khalats, slippers and skullcaps would fetch at least seven hundred tangas, decided to raise his offer.
“Three hundred and fifty.”
“Three hundred and seventy-five.”
Khoja Nasreddin was adamant. Several times the usurer made as though to leave, returning again to add another tanga, until at last he gave in. They struck the bargain. Groaning and complaining, the usurer counted out the money.
“By Allah, I am paying double what the stuff is worth. But such is my nature to incur great losses out of sheer kindness.”
“This coin is counterfeit,” interrupted Khoja Nasreddin returning one of the coins. “And there are not four hundred tangas here. There are only three hundred and eighty. Your sight is poor, worthy Jafar.”
The usurer was obliged to add another twenty tangas and replace the false coin. This done, he hired a porter for a quarter of a tanga, and having loaded him up, ordered him to follow. The unfortunate porter nearly sank down under the weight of the load.
“We are going the same way,” said Khoja Nasreddin.
He could hardly wait for the sight of Guljan and kept hurrying ahead. The usurer’s lameness hindered him and he trailed behind.
“Whither are you hurrying?” asked the usurer wiping the sweat away with his sleeve.
“To the same spot as yourself,” replied Khoja Nasreddin with a sly twinkle in his black eyes. “You and I, worthy Jafar, are going to the same spot on the same business.”
“But you do not know my business,” said the usurer. “If you did, you would envy me.”
The hidden meaning of these words was not lost on Khoja Nasreddin and he answered with a gay laugh:
“But if you, o usurer, knew my business, you would envy me ten times as much.”
Jafar frowned, sensing the impertinence of the reply.
“You make too free with your tongue. Men like you should stand in fear when speaking with one like myself. There are few men in Bukhara whom I could envy. I am rich, and my wishes know no obstacles. I have wished for the most beautiful maiden in Bukhara and today she will be mine.”
Just then a man selling cherries from a flat basket, which he carried on his head, came past them. Khoja Nasreddin picked a long-stalked cherry from the basket and showed it to the usurer.
“Hear me out, worthy Jafar. They say that one day a jackal saw a cherry high up in a tree. And he said to himself. ‘I shall not rest until I have eaten that cherry.’ So he started to climb up the tree, and he climbed for two hours, tearing himself badly on the twigs. Suddenly, just as he was preparing to enjoy himself and had opened his mouth wide, a falcon flew up, seized the cherry and carried it off. After this the jackal climbed back for another two hours, tearing himself still worse. He shed bitter tears and kept saying: ‘Why ever did I climb to get that cherry, for it is well known that cherries do not grow on trees for jackals.’ ’
“You are foolish,” said the usurer scornfully. “I see no sense in your fable.”
“Profound meaning is not realised all at once,” retorted Khoja Nasreddin.
The cherry hung behind his ear, its stalk tucked under his skullcap.
The road turned. Beyond the turning the potter and his daughter sat on the stones.
The potter stood up. His eyes, in which the light of hope had lingered, dulled, for he thought that the stranger had been unable to raise the money. Guljan turned away with a little moan.
“Father, we are lost!” she said with such pain in her voice that even a stone would have been moved to tears. But the usurer’s heart was harder than any stone. Only cruel triumph and lust showed in his face as he said:
“The time is up, potter. Henceforth you are my slave, and your daughter is my slave and concubine.”
Wishing to wound and humiliate Khoja Nasreddin he unveiled the girl’s face with an air of ownership.
“See, is she not beautiful? Today I shall sleep with her. Tell me now who must envy whom?”
“She is beautiful indeed,” said Khoja Nasreddin. “But have you got the potter’s receipt?”
“Of course. How can one do business without receipts? All men are cheats and thieves. Here is the receipt, with a record of the debt and the date of repayment. The potter has printed his thumb at the bottom.”
He showed the receipt to Khoja Nasreddin.
“The receipt is in order,” confirmed the latter. “Now receive your money according to this receipt. Stay awhile, o worthy ones, and be witnesses, he added, turning to some passers-by.
He tore the receipt in two, then again four times across, scattering the pieces to the wind. Then he untied his sash and returned to the usurer all the money that he had just received from him.
The potter and his daughter seemed as though turned to stone with amazement and joy, the usurer – with fury. The witnesses winked at one another, laughing and enjoying the discomfiture of the hated usurer.
Khoja Nasreddin took the cherry from behind his ear, put it in his mouth and winking at the usurer smacked his lips.
A slow shudder passed along the usurer’s ugly body; his hands clawed, his one good eye bulged angrily, his hump trembled.
The potter and Guljan begged:
“O stranger! Tell us your name so that we may know whom to name in our prayers.”
“Yes!” the usurer spluttered. “Tell us your name so that I may know whom to curse!”
Khoja Nasreddin’s face shone. He replied in a clear and strong voice:
“In Baghdad and in Tehran, in Stambul and in Bukhara – everywhere I am known by one name-Khoja Nasreddin!”
The usurer recoiled blanching:
And he darted away in terror hustling his porter before him.
As for the others, they welcomed him crying: “Khoja Nasreddin! Khoja Nasreddin!” Guljan’s eyes shone under her veil. The potter only mumbled and gesticulated, helplessly, still unable to recover himself.
THE EMIR’S court of justice was still busy. The executioners had been replaced several times. The number of unfortunates waiting for the bastinado was still growing. Two victims were squirming on poles; a third lay beheaded on the blood-soaked earth. But the cries and groans did not reach the ears of the dozing Emir for the chorus of court flatterers who had become quite hoarse with their efforts drowned them. In their praises they were careful to include the Grand Vizier, the other ministers and Arslan-bek. They even remembered the fly swatter and the narghile-bearer, for they rightly judged that it is safest to try to please everyone: some because they might be useful, others so that they should not become dangerous.
For some time Arslan-bek had been listening uneasily to a strange hum of noises that came from the distance. He called up two of his most able and experienced spies:
“Go and find out why the people are so excited. Go and report immediately to me.”
The spies left, one disguised as a beggar, the other as a dervish. But before they had time to return the usurer came running. He was pale and his feet stumbled. He kept tripping over the skirts of his khalat.
“What has happened, worthy Jafar?” Arslan-bek inquired anxiously.
“Woe to us!” groaned the usurer through trembling lips. “O much respected Arslan-bek, a great misfortune has befallen us. Khoja Nasreddin is in our town. I have just seen him and spoken to him.”
Arslan-bek’s eyes bulged and stared. The dais steps sagged under his weight as he ran up and bent down to the ear of his somnolent master.
The Emir started up on the throne as though he had been pricked.
“You lie!” he cried. His features contorted with fear and rage. “It isn’t true! The Caliph of Baghdad wrote to me a short while ago that he had beheaded him! The Sultan of Turkey wrote that he had impaled him! The Shah of Persia wrote to me in his own hand that he had hanged him! The Khan of Khiva declared publicly last year that he had skinned him alive! How could this accursed Khoja Nasreddin have escaped unharmed from the hands of four monarchs?”
The viziers and dignitaries paled at the mention of Khoja Nasreddin’s name. The fly swatter started and dropped his swat; the narghile-bearer choked with the smoke and started coughing; the flattering tongues of the poets clove to their palates from fear.
“He is here,” repeated Arslan-bek.
“You lie!” shouted the Emir, heavily striking him on the cheek with his royal hand. “You lie! But if he is really here, how could he have entered Bukhara, and what is the use of your guard and yourself? Then it is he who caused all that uproar in the bazaar last night! He wanted to raise the people against me while you slept and heard nothing!”
And the Emir struck Arslan-bek again. The latter bowed low, kissing the Emir’s hand as it fell.
“O Master, he is here, in Bukhara. Do you not hear?”
The distant rumble grew and spread like an approaching earthquake. And then the crowd surrounding the court of justice, caught up by the general excitement, began to roar in its turn, at first indistinctly and low, then louder and stronger until the Emir felt the dais and his gilded throne shake under him. Suddenly out of the buzz and roar of voices there emerged a name, to be repeated and echoed many times from end to end:
The guards ran to the guns with smoking torches. The Emir’s face worked with emotion.
“Put an end to this!” he screamed. “Back to the palace!”
And gathering up the skirts of his brocaded robe he scuttled back to the palace, followed by the stumbling, running servants with the empty litter. Panic-stricken, jostling in their efforts to get ahead of each other, losing their slippers and not bothering to stop to pick them up, the viziers, executioners, musicians, guards, the fly-swatter and the narghile-carrier ran for their lives. The elephants alone proceeded with their former dignity, for although they too belonged to the Emir’s retinue they had no reason to fear the people.
The ponderous brassbound gates of the palace clanged shut behind the Emir and his court.
In the meantime the market place packed to over-flowing, buzzed, rumbled and seethed, echoing and re-echoing the name of Khoja Nasreddin.
(End of the first tale of Hoja Nasreddin)