Nassreddin Hodja and His Donkey: Ten Stories Retold by the Brotherhood of the Dancing Camel

Nassreddin Hodja and His Donkey: Ten Stories Retold by the Brotherhood of the Dancing Camel
Illustrations by Dean Wynveen, designed by Knowle Hanson. Dancing Camel Editions, 2017. PP. 42. $17.95 (Order from gurdjieffbooksandmusic.com)
Reviewed by Bob Scher

Nassreddin Hodja was a real person, a Turkish Sufi, who died in the thirteenth century. There are many books that contain wonderful gems of Nassreddin Hodja’s wisdom, but no other book that I know of conveys such a well-rounded understanding of this man’s remarkable being, by giving us ten well-chosen tales that seem to encompass the essence of his complex character. (The book supplies no information as to who is “The Brotherhood of the Dancing Camel” who selected the stories.)

Most of the tales are centered around Hodja’s donkey. Aside from what the donkey represents, this approach presents both a unity and diversity that clarifies the many aspects of his nature.  Each of these tales perceives the Hodja from a slightly different angle. In some he dispenses his own kind of wisdom unexpectedly after acting so foolishly that neighbors and onlookers are laughing at him—yet all respect him and his honesty and trustworthiness.

From the short introduction: “Hodja is a word meaning teacher. Sometimes the Hodja behaved cleverly,  and sometimes acted like a bumbling fool.” In some of these tales his brand of wisdom is almost conventional, yet usually contains some aspect of the ridiculous.

For example, a group of students want some kind of lesson, so the Hodja immediately mounts his donkey but sits on it backwards with the students trailing behind him.

“Seeing the Hodja riding in this strange way…the students wondered if the person who said that Nassreddin Hodja was wise had played a trick on them. ‘Only a fool would ride a donkey like that,’ whispered a boy.  Another asked boldly, ‘Hodja, Why are your riding your donkey backwards? It makes no  sense.’

“The Hodja replied, ‘Well, if I were to ride in the usual way, facing forward, with you walking behind me, we couldn’t carry on a conversation, could we? And if you walked in front of me, you would have your backs to me, and we wouldn’t be able to speak with each other in that case, either. As I ride now, we are facing each other—a much nicer way to converse. Don’t you agree?’”

But instead of the expected ending where the students are “enlightened,” we have: “The students looked at each other in confusion. Moments before, they had known that only a fool would ride a donkey backwards. Suddenly, they were not so sure.” The boys are in question. And that is the real lesson here.

This combination of the wise and the ridiculous runs throughout the book and throughout most of the tales about Nassreddin. One story ends with the Hodja realizing his foolishness. The wisdom here is that he accepts it without any excuse. He feels it, which turns out be quite moving, although we  cannot help but smile.

He lives the way we live. He makes stupid mistakes and painfully recognizes them. In one story he is rebuked by the way he is using his donkey. He is ashamed and changes his behavior to conform. But the next person who rebukes him has the opposite opinion. He is embarrassed and changes his behavior again to try to satisfy both critics. However, the next person also complains at his new attempt and the Hodja is so stung by the remark that he manages to find a solution that is so absurd that everyone laughs and is happy.

He often complains; he is downcast when he fails; he rejoices when he succeeds. He is fully immersed in his life. He has, for example, a difficult neighbor. He treats the man humanely, but never gives in to his faults, a feat that often requires some of the Hodja’s famous cleverness.

Yet throughout there is another level of Nassreddin’s nature that comes through—often suddenly, and often when everything seems to be going downhill. These two aspects of his nature are, I believe, the major reason that Nassreddin is such a legendary and enlightened human being, with an enlightenment that arises out of his total acceptance of himself and his  capacity to respond to whatever happens, even if events are out of his control.

These natures are clarified in the book by the judicious choice of stories and the exemplary narrative—and by the stunning and lively illustrations that will surely appeal to both children and adults. This book could also introduce to children an Islamic culture that is full of life, that appreciates wisdom, and is imbued with good feeling. ♦

From Parabola Volume 42, No. 3, “The Sacred,” Fall 2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing