“They also relate that a simpleton was walking along holding on to the bridle of his ass which followed behind.”
(Scheherazade’s three hundred and eighty-second night.)Also available from the eBookshelf and Kobo ; Check out other Christiebooks titles HERE
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.
He had spent over ten years in exile, wandering from town to town, from country to country, crossing seas and deserts, and sleeping where night overtook him: on the bare earth by a shepherd’s meagre camp-fire, in a crowded caravanserai, where all night long, in the dusty gloom, camels sigh and scratch themselves with a hollow tinkling of bells, or in a smoky, sooty tea-house among sprawling water-carriers, beggars, drivers and other poor folk, who at the break of dawn fill the bazaars and the narrow streets of the town with their shrill cries.
Many a night he had spent too on the soft silk cushions of some Persian dignitary’s harem, while the master of the house, accompanied by guards, would be scouring the teahouses and caravanserais for that impious vagabond whom he would impale if he caught him.
A light streak appears in the sky through the latticed window, the stars pale, the breeze heralding the dawn rustles gently and damply among the foliage, and on the window-ledge gay turtledoves begin to coo and to preen themselves. Khoja Nasreddin says, kissing the languid beauty:
“It is time. Farewell, my matchless pearl. Do not forget me.”
“Stay,” she pleads, clasping her lovely arms round his neck. “Are you going away for good? Listen, tonight, as soon as it is dark, I shall send the old woman to fetch you again.”
“No. I have long forgotten what it is to spend two nights under the same roof. I must be on my way. I am in a hurry.”
“On your way? Have you pressing business in some other town? Where are you going?”
“I do not know. But it is light already: the city gates are open and the first caravans are moving out. Do you hear the tinkle of camels’ bells? When I hear it jinns seem to possess my feet and I cannot keep still.”
“Go, then!” petulantly exclaims the harem beauty, vainly trying to hide the tears that glisten on her long eyelashes. “But at least tell me your name before you go.”
“My name? Listen then: you have spent the night with Khoja Nasreddin. I am Khoja Nasreddin, the Disturber of the Peace and the Sower of Discord, a man with a high price on his head: every day town criers announce it in public places and bazaars. Yesterday they were offering three thousand tomans, and I was tempted to sell my own head at such a good price. You laugh, my little star? Well, give me your lips for the last time. I wish I could give you an emerald, but as I have no emerald, take this little white pebble to remember me by.”
He pulls on his ragged khalat (long coat), burnt through in many places by the sparks of campfires, and steals away. At the door snores the lazy, stupid eunuch in turban and soft slippers with turned-up toes – negligent guardian of the most precious treasure of the palace. Further on, stretched out on rugs and felts snore the guards, their heads pillowed on naked daggers. Khoja Nasreddin creeps past them on tiptoe, always safely, as though for the time being rendered invisible.
And once more the stony road rings and smokes under the brisk hooves of his ass. The sun shines upon the world out of a blue sky. Khoja Nasreddin can look up at it without blinking. Dewy fields and barren deserts where camels’ bones gleam white among the sand-drifts, green gardens and foaming rivers, bleak hills and smiling pastures hear Khoja Nasreddin’s song. On and on he rides without a backward glance, without regret for what he is leaving behind or fear of what awaits him.
But in the town that he has just left memory of him survives forever. Mullahs and notables pale with rage at the mere mention of his name. Water-carriers, drivers, weavers, coppersmiths and saddlers foregathering at night in the teahouses entertain each other with stories of his adventures, which always end to his advantage. The languorous harem beauty often gazes at the white pebble and hastens to slip it into a mother-of-pearl casket at the sound of her lord’s footsteps.
“Ough!” says the fat dignitary panting and grunting as he struggles out of his brocaded khalat. “This accursed vagabond Khoja Nasreddin has worn us all out. He has stirred up and upset the whole country. Today I received a letter from my old friend, the worthy governor of the province of Khorasan. What do you think? Hardly had this tramp, this Khoja Nasreddin, appeared in his towns than all at once the blacksmiths stopped paying the taxes and the innkeepers refused to feed the guards without payment. To crown all, this thief, this defiler of Islam, this son of sin, dared enter the governor’s harem and seduce his favourite wife! Verily, the world has never yet seen such a miscreant! Pity this worthless beggar did not try to make his way into my harem, for then his head would have been already sticking on a pole in the main square.
The beauty remains silent, smiling wistfully to herself.
Meanwhile the road rings and smokes under the brisk hooves of the ass to the sound of Khoja Nasreddin’s singing.
In these ten years he had been everywhere: in Baghdad, Stambul and Tehran, in Bakhche-saray, Echmiadzin and Tiflis, in Damascus and Trebizond. He knew all these cities and many others besides, and everywhere he left an unforgettable memory.
Now he was on his way back to his native town, Bukhara-i Sherif, Noble Bukhara, where he hoped to rest awhile from his endless wanderings under cover of an assumed name.
HE CROSSED the frontier of Bukhara with a large merchant caravan to which he had attached himself, and on the eighth day of the journey glimpsed far ahead in the dusty haze the familiar minarets of the great and famous city.
The camel-drivers, exhausted by thirst and heat, raised a hoarse shout, and the camels stepped out faster. The sun was setting and there was need to make haste to enter Bukhara before the city gates were shut. Khoja Nasreddin rode at the tail-end of the caravan, wrapped in a thick and heavy cloud of dust: this was his very own, sacred dust which seemed to him to smell better than the dust of other distant lands. Sneezing and coughing he kept saying to his ass:
“Well, here we are. Home at last! By Allah, success and happiness here.”
The caravan reached the town wall just as the guards were shutting the gates.
“Wait for us, for Allah’s sake!” shouted the chief of the caravan exhibiting from afar a gold coin.
But the gates had already closed, the bolts fell with a clang, and the guards took up their posts at the guns on the towers. A fresh breeze sprang up, the pink gleam died away in the misty sky, the slender crescent of the young moon stood out sharply, and in the twilit stillness there floated out from all the innumerable minarets the high, long-drawn, mournful voices of the muezzins, calling the faithful to evening prayer.
As the merchants and drivers sank to their knees, Khoja Nasreddin quietly drew aside with his ass.
“These merchants have something to thank Allah for,” he said they have dined today and now they expect to sup. You and I, my faithful ass, have not dined, nor shall we sup. If Allah desires our thanks let him send me a bowl of pilau and you a bundle of clover.”
He tethered his ass to a roadside tree and lay down by his side on the bare earth with a stone for pillow. Looking up into the dark transparency of the sky he could see the shining network of the stars. Every constellation was familiar to him. How often in these ten years had he world: though the wealthy man may eat off gold dishes, yet he is obliged to spend the night under a roof, and so is unable to savour in the midnight quiet the feeling of the flight of the earth through the cool blue starry mist.
Meanwhile in the caravanserais and teahouses clustering outside the crenellated city wall fires had sprung up under huge cauldrons, and sheep set up a pitiful bleating as they were dragged to the slaughter. Wise in experience, Khoja Nasreddin had selected for his night’s rest a spot windward from the tantalising smell of food so that it should not disturb him. Knowing well the customs of Bukhara he had resolved to save the last of his money to pay the toll at the city gates on the morrow.
For a long time he kept tossing from side to side but sleep would not come. It was not hunger that made him sleepless but the bitter thoughts that beset and tormented him.
He loved his native land; it was his greatest love, this astute and merry fellow with a little black beard on his copper-coloured, sun-tanned face and a roguish twinkle in his clear eyes. And the farther away from Bukhara he wandered in his patched coat, greasy skull-cap, and shabby boots, the more strongly he loved it and missed it. In his exile he cherished the memory of the little streets, so narrow that the araba (native cart) scrapes the mud walls on either side in its passage; of the tall minarets with their patterned glazed-brick tops which catch the fiery reflection of sunrise and sunset; of the ancient sacred plane-trees cradling among their branches the dark masses of storks’ nests.
He remembered the gay tea-houses over the irrigation ditches in the shade of rustling poplars, the smoke and smell of cooking food in the over-heated cook shops, the motley bustle of the bazaars; he remembered the hills and streams of his native land, its villages, fields, pastures and deserts, and when in Baghdad or Damascus he recognised a fellow-countryman by the pattern of his skull-cap or the peculiar cut of his robe, Khoja Nasreddin’s heart missed a beat and his throat contracted.
On his return he found his country still unhappier than when he had left it. The old Emir had been buried long ago. Within the last eight years the new Emir had managed to bring Bukhara to the verge of ruin. Khoja Nasreddin saw broken-down bridges, meagre, sun parched roughly cultivated crops of wheat and barley, dry beds of irrigation ditches cracked by the heat. Fields were going to waste overgrown with weeds and thorns, gardens withered for lack of water; the peasants had neither bread nor cattle; beggars lined the roads clamouring for alms from others as needy as themselves.
The new Emir had posted detachments of guards in every village with orders to the villagers to feed them at their own expense. He founded many mosques and then ordered the people to finish building them. The new Emir was very pious and never failed to perform a pilgrimage twice a year to the relics of the most holy and peerless Sheikh Baha ed-din, whose tomb was situated in the neighbourhood of Bukhara. To the existing four taxes he had added three more; he introduced tolls at every bridge, raised the taxes on trade and legal dues, and had minted a quantity of debased coin. Crafts were falling into decay, trade was on the decline.
It was a sorry homecoming for Khoja Nasreddin.
… Early in the morning the muezzins again sounded their call from all the minarets. The gates opened and the caravan slowly entered the city with a hollow tinkling of bells.
Once through the gates the caravan came to a standstill: the guards barred the road. They were very numerous; some were shod and well dressed, others who had not had time yet to fatten in the Emir’s service were bare-footed and half-naked. They shouted and pushed each other, quarrelling over the loot that was going to be theirs. At last the tax-collector emerged from a tea-house, obese and sleepy-looking, clothed in a silk khalat with greasy sleeves, bare feet thrust into slippers, and his bloated face bearing all the marks of self-indulgence and vice. He inspected the merchants with a greedy eye and said:
“Welcome, o merchants! May you be successful in your business! And know you that the Emir has ordered that any man who conceals the tiniest portion of his wares shall die under the bastinado.”
The merchants, perplexed and alarmed, silently stroked their dyed beards. The tax collector turned to the guards who were prancing with impatience, and wiggled his thick fingers. At this signal the men threw themselves with whoops and yells upon the camels, jostling each other in their frantic haste, they slashed the hair-ropes with their swords and noisily ripped open the bales, spilling on to the roadway brocades, silks and velvets, cases of pepper, tea and amber, phials of precious attar of roses and Tibetan drugs.
Horror kept the merchants tongue-tied.
Two minutes later the inspection was over. The guards lined up behind their chief, their coats bulging and swelling. Then began the collection of taxes on the wares and on the right of entry into the city. Khoja Nasreddin had no merchandise and was liable to pay only the entrance tax.
“Where do you come from and for what purpose?” asked the tax collector.
The scribe dipped a reed-pen into his inkhorn and prepared to take down Khoja Nasreddin’s statement in a thick ledger.
“I come from Iran, Your Excellency. Here in Bukhara live some relatives of mine.”
“So,” said the tax-collector, “You have come to visit your relations. In this case you must pay the visitor’s tax.”
“But I have not come to visit them”, retorted Khoja Nasreddin. “I have come on important business.”
“On business!” cried the tax collector, and his eyes lit up. “Then you have come both on a visit and on business. Pay the visitor’s tax, the business tax and make a donation towards the adornment of the mosques to the glory of Allah who has preserved you from robbers on the way.”
“I had rather he preserved me now, for I would have found means to avoid the robbers myself,” thought Khoja Nasreddin. But he held his tongue, having calculated that every word of this conversation was costing him more than ten tangas. He undid his sash, and under the greedily intent stare of the guards counted out the tax for entry into the city, the guest-tax, the trade-tax and the donation towards the adornment of the mosques. The tax collector sternly eyed the guards who turned away. The scribe, his nose in his ledger, scratched away with his reed-pen.
Having paid up, Khoja Nasreddin was on the point of leaving, when the tax collector noticed that he still had some coins left in his sash.
“Stay!” he ordered. “And who is going to pay the tax for your ass? If you are going to visit your relations, it means that your ass is also going to visit his relations.”
“You are right, o wise Master,” blandly retorted Khoja Nasreddin, undoing his sash once more. “Indeed, must have a great number of relations Bukhara. Otherwise, by the way things are run here, your Emir would long since have been pushed off his throne, while you, o worthy one, would have been impaled for greed.”
Before the tax collector could collect his wits, Khoja Nasreddin jumped on his ass, set off at a gallop and disappeared down the nearest lane.
“Faster! Faster!” he kept saying. “Hurry, my faithful ass, hurry, or your master will have to pay another tax with his head!”
Khoja Nasreddin’s ass was very, intelligent. He understood everything. His long ears had caught the noise and outcry at the city gates and the shouting of the guards, so he sped on, heedless of the road, and at such a pace that his master had to cling to the saddle, his arms hugging the animal’s neck and his feet tucked up high. Dogs raced after them barking hoarsely, chickens scurried away in all directions, and passers-by pressed against the walls, shaking their heads and staring after them.
In the meantime, at the city gates the guards searched among the crowd looking for the bold freethinker. The merchants smiled and whispered to each other:
“That was an answer worthy of Khoja Nasreddin himself.”
Towards noon the whole town had heard the story. Traders in the bazaar whispered it to their customers who passed it on, and all laughed, never failing to remark:
“These words are worthy of Khoja Nasreddin himself.”
NEITHER RELATIVES nor friends did he find in Bukhara. He did not even find his father’s house where he had been born and grown to manhood, nor its shady garden where in the clear autumn days yellowing leaves rustled in the wind and ripe fruit thudded to the ground; where birds whistles in high pitched song and sun-flecks trembled upon the fragrant grass; where busy bees hummed as they gathered the last tribute of the fading flowers and the stream in the irrigation ditch murmured mysteriously telling the boy its endless intelligible stories. … The site was now a plot of waste land pitted and covered with mounds of rubble, thorny thistles, fire-stained bricks, crumbling remnants of walls and scraps of rotting matting. Not a bird, not a bee did Khoja Nasreddin glimpse. Only from under a heap of stones over which he stumbled there suddenly oozed out a long oily streak that glistened dully in the sunlight and disappeared again under the stones – a snake, lonely and fearsome dweller in deserted places forever abandoned by man.
Khoja Nasreddin stood for a long time silent, with downcast eyes. Grief clutched at his heart.
The sound of a racking cough made him wheel round.
An old man bowed down by poverty and cares was coming along the path across the waste ground. Khoja Nasreddin stopped him.
“Peace be with you, old man, and may Allah send you many years of health and prosperity. Tell me, whose house stood here on this waste land?”
“It was the house of Shir-Mamed the saddler,” replied the old man. “I knew him well once. This Shir-Mamed was the father of the famous Khoja Nasreddin, of whom, you must have surely heard a good deal.”
“Yes, I have heard something about him. But tell me, where has this saddler Shir-Mamed, father of the famous Khoja Nasreddin, gone to, and where is his family?”
‘Not so loud, my son. There are thousands and thousands of spies in Bukhara. If they were to hear us, we would have no end of trouble. You must have come from afar not to know that in our town it is strictly forbidden to mention Khoja Nasreddin’s name. It is enough to get one sent to prison. Come closer and I shall tell you. ”
Concealing his agitation Khoja Nasreddin bent close.
“It happened in the old Emir’s time,” began the old man, coughing as he spoke. “Eighteen months after Khoja Nasreddin had been sent into exile a rumour spread in the bazaar that he had illegally and secretly returned and was staying in Bukhara composing mocking songs about the Emir. This rumour reached the Emir’s palace. The guards started a search for Khoja Nasreddin but could not find him. Then the Emir ordered the seizure of his father, his two brothers, his uncle and all his distant relatives and friends. They were to be tortured until they revealed the whereabouts of Khoja Nasreddin. Allah be praised for giving them the courage and fortitude to keep silent, so that our Khoja Nasreddin did not fall into the Emir’s hands. But his father, the saddler Shir-Mamed, sickened from the torture and soon died. His relatives and friends left Bukhara, fleeing the Emir’s wrath, and no one knows where they are. Then the Emir ordered the destruction of their homes, and their gardens were uprooted so that the very memory of Khoja Nasreddin should be blotted out.”
“But why were they tortured?” cried Khoja Nasreddin. Tears ran down his face, but the old man did not see that for his sight was dim. “Why were they tortured? Khoja Nasreddin was not in Bukhara at the time. I know it full well!”
“None can tell,” replied the old man. “Khoja Nasreddin comes and goes when and how he pleases. He is everywhere and nowhere, our incomparable Khoja Nasreddin!”
With these words the old man trudged off groaning and coughing. Khoja Nasreddin buried his face in his hands, and went off to his ass.
He threw his arms round the ass, pressing his wet face against the warm, smelly neck.
“Ah, my good, my true friend,” said Khoja Nasreddin. “You see, I have nobody left of my near and dear ones, only you, constant and faithful companion of my wanderings.”
As though aware of his masters grief the ass stood still and even stopped chewing a thistle, which remained suspended from his lip.
An hour later Khoja Nasreddin had mastered his grief and the tears had dried on his face.
“Never mind!” he cried with a hearty slap on the ass’s back. “Never mind! I have not been forgotten yet in Bukhara. They still know and remember me. We’ll manage to find some friends! And we’ll compose such a song about the Emir that he’ll burst with rage on his throne, and his filthy guts will spatter those finely decorated walls of his palace! Come, my faithful ass, forward!”
IT WAS a quiet hour of the afternoon, and very close. A lazy heat came up from the dusty road, the stones, the mud walls and fences, and the perspiration on Khoja Nasreddin’s face dried before he had time to wipe it off.
He recognised with emotion the familiar streets, the teahouses and minarets. In ten years nothing had changed in Bukhara. Just as always some mangy dogs were asleep by the water-tanks, and a woman, bending gracefully and holding back her veil with a dark-skinned hand tipped with painted nails, plunged a narrow, ringing jug into the dark water.
Where and how to get a meal was the problem. Khoja Nasreddin tightened his sash for the third time since yesterday.
“I must find a way,” he said. “Let’s stop, my faithful ass, and think. And here, most opportunely, is a tea-house.”
Unbridling his ass he let him loose to feed on wisps of clover dropped beside the tie-rail. Then, gathering up the skirts of his khalat he squatted down by the irrigation ditch where the water, thick with clay, bubbled and foamed at the turnings.
“Whither, what for and whence does this water flow? It does not know and does not think about it,” Khoja Nasreddin wistfully reflected. “I, too, know neither rest nor home, nor whither I am going. Why did I come to Bukhara? Where shall 1 go tomorrow? And where am I to get the half-tanga for my dinner? Am I still to be hungry? That accursed tax collector! He’s cleaned me out. What impudence to mention robbers to me!”
At that very moment he caught sight of the man who was the cause of his misfortunes. The tax collector was riding up to the teahouse. Two guards were leading by the bridle his Arab stallion, a handsome bay with a noble and flashing fire in its dark eyes. Its neck was arched, and as it trod daintily and impatiently on its slender legs it seemed loath to be carrying the bloated carcass of its master.
The guards respectfully helped their chief to dismount. He went into the teahouse. The flustered and obsequious owner showed him to some silk cushions on which he seated himself. Then he brewed a special pot of his finest tea and offered his guest a delicate tea-glass of Chinese workmanship.
“He’s getting a grand welcome and at my expense!” thought Khoja Nasreddin.
The tax collector filled himself with tea and soon fell into a doze on the cushions. The sound of his gurglings, snores and smacking of lips filled the teahouse. The other guests lowered their conversation to a whisper for fear of disturbing his slumbers. The guards sat on either side of him and chased away the pestering flies with leafy twigs. When they were sure that he was fast asleep they exchanged a wink, unbridled the stallion, threw a bundle of clover before it, and picking up a narghile, retired into the dark interior of the teahouse. A moment later Khoja Nasreddin smelt the sweetish scent of hashish. The guards were freely indulging in their favourite vice.
“Well, it is time I was off,” decided Khoja Nasreddin, recalling his morning adventure at the city gates and fearing that the guards might recognise him. “But still, where am I to get half a tanga? O almighty Fate, you who have so often come to Khoja Nasreddin’s rescue, cast a benevolent eye upon him!”
Just then someone hailed him. “Hey, you there!”
Khoja Nasreddin wheeled round and saw a covered, richly decked wagon drawn up in the road. A man in a large turban and expensive khalat was peering out from between the curtains. Even before this stranger – a wealthy merchant or a dignitary-had uttered his next words, Khoja Nasreddin knew that his prayer had not remained unanswered: as usual, Fate had cast a benevolent eye upon him in his difficulty.
“I like this stallion,” said the rich stranger haughtily, looking over Khoja Nasreddin’s head to admire the handsome Arab bay. “Tell me, is this stallion for sale?”
“There is no horse in the world which could not be sold,” Khoja Nasreddin replied evasively.
“You have probably got a pretty empty pocket,” the stranger went on. “Listen to me carefully. I do not know to whom this stallion belongs, from whence it comes nor who was its former master. I am not asking you. Judging by the dust on your clothes you must have come to Bukhara from afar. That is enough for me. Do you understand?”
Khoja Nasreddin nodded. He had understood immediately what the rich stranger was driving at, and even more. What he hoped for now was that some silly fly should not crawl into the tax collector’s nostril or throat and so wake him up. He was less concerned about the guards, for the clouds of thick green smoke which issued from the dark interior showed that they were wholeheartedly indulging in their vice.
“You must realise,” the rich stranger continued patronisingly and importantly, “that it is not for you in your tattered khalat to be riding such a horse. It would even be dangerous, for everyone would wonder: ‘Where did this beggar get such a fine stallion?’ You might easily land in prison.”
“You are right, noble master,” humbly agreed Khoja Nasreddin. “The horse is certainly far too fine for me. In my tattered khalat I have been riding an ass all my life and dare not even think of mounting such a steed.”
His answer met with the rich stranger’s approval.
“It is well that, poor as you are, you should not be blinded by pride. The poor man must be humble and modest, for beautiful flowers are natural to the noble almond-tree and not to the miserable thorn-bush of the steppe. Now answer me: do you want this purse? It contains exactly three hundred tangas in silver.”
“Do I want it?” cried Khoja Nasreddin, now on tenterhooks because a stupid fly had managed to crawl into the tax collector’s nostril making him sneeze and stir. I should think so! Who would refuse three hundred tangas in silver? Why, it is just like finding a purse on the road!”
“It looks as though you had found something quite different on the road,” said the rich stranger with a knowing smile, “but I am prepared to exchange this silver for what you found on the road. Here are your three hundred tangas.”
He handed the heavy purse to Khoja Nasreddin and made a sign to his servant, who stood scratching his back with his whip and silently taking in the conversation. As the servant went up to the stallion Khoja Nasreddin noted from the grin on his flat pockmarked face and his shifty eyes that he must be as thorough a rascal as his master.
“Three rogues on one road are at least one too many. It is time I made myself scarce,” he decided.
Extolling the piety and generosity of the rich stranger, he jumped on his ass and gave him such a thump with his heels that the animal, for all its natural indolence, started off at a gallop.
When Khoja Nasreddin looked back he saw the servant tying the bay Arab to the wagon. When he looked again, the rich stranger and the tax collector were clawing at each other’s beards while the guards made vain efforts to separate them.
The wise man takes no part in other men’s quarrels. Khoja Nasreddin wove his way in and out of by-streets until he felt safe from pursuit. He pulled in his ass to a slower gait.
“Wait, wait,” he began, “there is no hurry now…”
Suddenly he heard quite close the rapid and alarming beat of hooves. “Oho! Forward, my faithful ass! Forward! Get me out of here!” he shouted, but too late: from behind a corner a horseman sprang out into the road.
It was the pockmarked servant. He was riding a horse unharnessed from the wagon. Swinging his legs he dashed past Khoja Nasreddin and brought his mount to a sudden halt, setting it across the road.
“Let me pass, good fellow,” meekly pleaded Khoja Nasreddin. “On such narrow roads one should ride lengthwise, not crosswise.”
“Aha!” replied the servant with malicious glee. “Now there will be no escaping the dungeon for you! Do you know that this dignitary, the stallion’s owner, has pulled out half my master’s beard and that my master has made his nose bleed? Tomorrow you will be taken before the Emir’s tribunal. Truly, fellow, your lot is a bitter one!”
“What’s that you are saying?” exclaimed Khoja Nasreddin. “What has made these respectable persons quarrel so bitterly? And why have you stopped me? I can be no judge in their dispute. Let them settle it between themselves as best they can.”
“Hold your tongue!” said the servant. “Turn back. You will have to answer for that stallion.”
“You dare to ask, Why, the one for which you received a purse of silver from my master.”
“By Allah, you are mistaken,” replied Khoja Nasreddin. “The stallion does not enter into this business. Judge for yourself. You heard the whole conversation. Your master, a pious and generous man, wishing to help a poor fellow, asked me whether I would like three hundred silver tangas, and I said that of course I would. Then he gave me three hundred tangas, may Allah prolong the days of his life. But before he gave me the money, he tested my modesty and humility in order to ascertain whether I deserved the reward. He said: ‘I do not ask whose stallion this is nor where it comes from.’
“You see, he wished to know whether out of false pride I would claim to be its owner. I kept silent, and the generous, pious man was pleased. Then he said that such a stallion would be too good for me and I agreed with him, at which he was also pleased. Then he said that I had found on the road that which could be exchanged for silver, thus hinting at my zeal and firmness in Islam, which I have acquired in my travels to the Holy Places. And after all this he rewarded me, intending by this pious deed to facilitate his future entrance into paradise over the bridge which is lighter than a hair and narrower than the edge of a sword, as the holy Koran tells us. In my very first prayer I shall tell Allah of your master’s pious deed so that he may put up railings for him on this bridge.”
The servant listened thoughtfully to this long speech, scratching his back with his whip. At the end he said with a sly grin that disturbed Khoja Nasreddin:
“You are right, o traveller! How is it that I did not realise at once that your conversation with my master had such a virtuous meaning? But as you have decided to help my master to cross the bridge to the other world, it would be safer if it had railings on both sides. I, too, would gladly pray for my master so that Allah should put up railings on the other side.”
“Then pray!” cried Khoja Nasreddin. “Who hinders you? You are even bound in duty to do so. Does not the Koran instruct slaves and servants to pray daily for their masters without asking for any special reward?”
“Turn back your ass!” the servant shouted roughly, kneeing his mount and pressing Khoja Nasreddin against the wall. “Now then, hurry up, do not make me lose any more time.” “Wait,” Khoja Nasreddin interrupted hastily. “I have not finished. I was going to recite a prayer of three hundred words according to the number of tangas received. But now I think that a prayer of two hundred and fifty words might suffice. The railings on my side will be only slightly thinner and shorter. As for you, you will recite a prayer of fifty words, and the all-wise Allah will know how to make a railing for your side out of the same wood.”
“What?” said the servant. “Why should my railing be five times shorter than yours?”
“But it will be in the most dangerous part,” Khoja Nasreddin hastened to add.
“No,” the servant said firmly. “I don’t agree to such short railings. It would mean that part of the bridge would be without railings. I tremble at the very thought of the danger that would threaten my master. In my opinion we must each say a prayer of one hundred and fifty words each so that the railings on both sides shall be of the same length. Let them be thin, but at least both sides will be guarded. And if you do not agree, then it means that you have evil designs upon my master and wish him to fall off the bridge. Then I shall summon help and you will take the shortest cut to the dungeon.”
“Thin railings!” cried Khoja Nasreddin enraged and feeling as though the purse was stirring in his sash. “From what you say it would be good enough to have railings made of twigs! Don’t you understand that the railings must be thicker and stronger on one side so that your master will have something to clutch if he loses his footing and starts to fall?”
“Verily truth falls from your mouth!” cried the servant gleefully. “Let the railing be thicker on my side and I shall not spare myself and will recite a prayer of two hundred words.”
“Perhaps you would like to make it three hundred?” Khoja Nasreddin said with venom.
When they finally parted Khoja Nasreddin’s purse was lighter by a half. They had agreed at last that the bridge leading into paradise should be guarded for the man’s master by railings of equal strength and thickness on both sides.
“Farewell, traveller,” said the servant. “You and I have indeed performed a pious deed today.”
“Farewell, most kind, loyal and virtuous servant, so full of anxiety for the salvation of your master’s soul. I should like to add that you will soon be a match for Khoja Nasreddin himself.”
“What makes you mention him?” asked the servant, pricking up his ears.
“Nothing. … It just occurred to me,” replied Khoja Nasreddin, thinking to himself: “Oho, this fellow is no simpleton.”
“Maybe you are a distant relative of his?” asked the servant. “Or perhaps you know a member of his family?”
“No, I have never met him. And I do not know any of Khoja Nasreddin’s relations.”
“Listen, I will tell you a secret.” The servant bent down from his saddle. “I am a relation of his. His cousin, in fact. We spent our childhood together.”
Khoja Nasreddin’s suspicions became a certitude and he held his tongue. The servant leaned still closer.
“His father, two brothers and an uncle have died. You have probably heard that, eh, traveller?”
But Khoja Nasreddin still remained silent.
“Such cruelty on the part of the Emir!” hypocritically exclaimed the servant.
But Khoja Nasreddin still kept silent.
“All the viziers of Bukhara, are fools!” said the servant unexpectedly. He was agog with impatience and greed, for the Treasury paid handsome rewards for the apprehension of freethinkers. But Khoja Nasreddin remained stubbornly silent.
“And our illustrious Emir is also a fool!” said the man. “And it is not at all certain that Allah even exists!”
But Khoja a Nasreddin did not open his mouth, although a stinging answer was on the tip of his tongue. The servant, bitterly disappointed, shouted out an oath, struck his horse and in two bounds disappeared round the corner. All grew quiet. Only the dust raised by the horse’s hooves hung like a golden mist in the still air pierced by hot, slanting rays.
“Well, so I have found myself a relative,” Khoja Nasreddin thought and smiled to himself. “The old man did not lie to me. Spies are as thick as flies in Bukhara, and it will pay to be careful. As the old proverb says: ‘the guilty tongue is chopped off with the head’.”
Thus he rode on for a long time, alternately brooding over the loss of half the contents of his purse, and grinning over the memory of the fight between the tax collector and the haughty stranger.
(To be continued)