Posts Tagged ‘Nasruddin’

Once again I was approaching the Canadian Customs and Immigration station on the Klondike Highway. Looking ahead I could see that the wait would be at least 15 minutes if not longer.  We  had just crossed the summit of the White Pass, and images-8I’d been telling the guests on my tour bus about the “one ton rule.”  During the 1898 Gold Rush, the Mounties required the Argonauts as the gold seekers were called, to carry an estimated one year supply of food with them as a condition for entering the country.  Now as we waited at the border I considered what story I might tell to pass the time as we sat there waiting to show our passports before proceeding into British Columbia and then into the Yukon Territory.

Then it occurred to me.  The border!  Why not give the Gold Rush a rest and tell a smuggling story!  “Folks,” I confided in a mock conspiratorial tone, “let me tell you…”

I introduced them to  Mullah Nasruddin, or the Hodja as he is also known, the often foolish but somehow wise hero of hundreds of tales told in coffee houses across the middle east and beyond.

Once a week Nasruddin crossed the border pushing a wheelbarrow heavily laden with merchandise.  One week the wheelbarrow was full of melons, the next week it might have been dates, or bottles of rosewater.  Come each Tuesday morning, Nasruddin would faithfully arrive at the crossing, produce the necessary  paperwork, the border agent would examine his cargo  then wave the Mullah through.  But the agent always suspected that Nasruddin was pulling the wool over his eyes and engaged in some kind of smuggling racket.  Try as hard as he could though to catch him in the act, the agent couldn’t catch him in the act.  Week after week, month after month, and then year after year, a wheelbarrow full of this, that or the other thing  and  the agent growing increasingly frustrated, sure that Nasruddin was having a great laugh at his expense.

Now it was many years later.  Both men had retired and one day they encountered each other sitting at adjacent tables at a coffee house.images-12

“Nasruddin,” you old rascal.  “You can tell me now.  I have no authority, You’re beyond the reach of the law.  All those many years when I would see question you each week, I suspected that you’d been smuggling something .  Admit it! Admit it now and ease my mind.

“Oh yes, indeed my friend.  It is true. Your suspicions were well founded and I profited greatly each week with my clandestine cargo.”

“Tell me, tell me,!  must know or it will drive me crazy!  Just what was it that you were smuggling?” the agent fairly begged.

With a great sly grin, Nasruddin replied, “ Wasn’t it obvious?  I was smuggling… wheelbarrows!”images-9

I would have occasion to tell it dozen’s of times over the course of the summer while waiting either to cross into Canada or back into Alaska. Once, I even told it to one of the U.S customs officials as we sat at a cafe at adjacent tables in Skagway.

“ That story is truer than you even think,” he told me, and then related that when he was working at the U.S and Mexican border, there was a guy who came across often with a bicycle heavily laden with merchandise.  Eventually the agent figured out that he was crossing into the U.S. with a new bike and returning with a beaten up one, and that he was smuggling… bicycles!

Sometimes it takes a long time to catch on to something ‘hiding in plain sight.’

In one venue or another, I’ve been telling the Nasruddin wheelbarrow story for years, but it was just the other day on the way to the Taos storytelling festival when I saw this story in a way that I’d never thought about it before.  This is not uncommon for storytellers.  .  Another layer of the onion peels off to reveal  a previously unrecognized  dimension of a tale. Here I am thinking that I’m bringing people to a wading pool, and unknown to me someone in the audience is off in the deep end of meanings and associations.

Storyteller as “Smuggler!”   Wittingly or unwittingly, we carry messages across borders and boundaries, stealthily slipping in meaning that is reveals later when the time or conditions are right.   I thought I was telling a story about smuggling wheelbarrows and lo and behold, I finally figure out that it can be construed as story about smuggling stories!

When they could afford it, the Klondike gold seekers would hire Tlingit packers to haul their good up the passes.  Their strength and endurance was legendary.
Still, all who watched one day were astonished when one Tlingit man strapped a cast iron stove on his back and without faltering proceeded to make the long ascent the summit.  As a crowd at the top looked on in astonishment, he put the stove down, then opened it’s door, and took out a 50 pound sack of flour!

Storyteller!  You approach your listeners with a story. You’re at a border. ( of the storyteller/story/listener)  Here’s the agent waiting for you with a question.  Just what are you packing in that story bag?

images-11(Fellow storytellers… what story have you discovered hiding in your stories?)


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Listen!  Do you hear it? Nasruddin, the holy fool of so many Middle-Eastern stories is playing his Kemenche again.

One day Nasruddin’s wife entered the house to find him playing the ancient instrument, drawing his bow over one of the strings…  playing the same string, and the same note, over and over and over again.  He went on for hours, until finally his wife could no longer take it.  Still, she tried to be diplomatic.  “My dear husband,” she said, “Do you know that when some musicians play the Kemenche, they sometimes play notes that are higher, and sometimes play notes that are lower than the one you have been playing over and over and over all these many hours?”

“Of course I know,” he replied, “That’s because they are trying to find this note… the one I am playing.”

A world away and quoting now from Frank Water’s World of the Hopi, here is a fragment of the Hopi creation story…

“Palongawhoya, traveling throughout the earth, sounded out his call as he was bidden.  All the vibratory centers along the earth’s axis from pole to pole resounded his call,  the whole earth trembled, the universe quivered in time.  Thus he made the whole world an instrument of sound and sound an instrument for carrying messages, resounding praise to the creator of all.
“This is you voice, Uncle, Sotuknang said to Taiowa,( Creator) ”Everything is tuned to your sound.”

Listen!  Do you hear it? The sound of all creation?  Nasruddin’s one note? Today, I’ll be playing and living notes higher and lower, but I’ll be listening and perhaps by effort, with the help of grace, find a moment to be in tune.

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The unfolding events in Egypt are fueling hopes, fears, and a large dose of uncertainty.  When (or will) Mubarak bow out for instance?  How long will it take to make a transition to a truly democratic state?

The other day storyteller and colleague Fran Stallings asked an intriguing question.  Was there a story from the wisdom tradition of the Egypt or the Middle East that might speak to the current situation?  Today as I was rearranging my books I found a collection I’d forgotten was there. Watermelons, Walnuts and the Wisdom of Allah (And Other Tales of the Hoca) by Barbara Walker. (Available through Amazon) Here’s my retelling of one of the Nasruddin Tales that almost jumped off the page for me.

Nasruddin was working in his vineyard when down the road approach a traveler.
“Excuse me sir, but how long will it take me to walk to the next village?” he asked.
Nasruddin, looked at the man, nodded a silent greeting,  but did not offer an answer.
Thinking that Nasruddin might be hard of hearing, the traveler, asked again,
“How long a walk to the next village please?”
Again, his question was greeted with silence.
Now the traveler saw Nasruddin turn in the direction of a bird that was singing on a fence post.
“Ah, so you CAN hear?  I’ll ask you one more time, how long is it going to take me to walk to the village?”
When there was still no response, the traveler departed in a state of great irritation.
Nasruddin watched him closely as he walked off with long determined strides then shouted after him,
“Dear traveler, it will take you less than 15 minutes.”
Surprised and angry, the traveler turned and asked, “Well why didn’t you tell me that before?
Nasruddin calmly replied, “How could I possibly tell before I could see how fast you would walk?”

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