Mullah Nasreddin: Persian parables for our times



BlaiseP is the pseudonym of a peripatetic software contractor whose worldly goods can fit into an elderly Isuzu Rodeo. Bitter and recondite, he favors the long view of life, the chords of Steely Dan and Umphrey's McGee, the writings of William Vollman and Thomas Pynchon, the taste of red ale and his own gumbo. Having escaped after serving seven years of a lifetime sentence to confinement in hotel rooms, he currently resides in the wilds of Eau Claire County and contemplates the intersection of mixed SRID geometries in PostGIS.

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30 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    This was really great, BP. I loved what you did with this.Report

  2. Avatar zic says:

    So Mullah Nasreddin is a trickster.

    How wonderful, a great way to lay these issues out.

    And your choice of graphics, as always, superb. I’m curios about the, a statue of (I presume) Mullah Nasreddin riding backward on his donkey. First, such images of people are not, in my limited understanding, common. Secondly, the stories of someone riding backward on a mule typically entertaining. More, please. Tell another.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to zic says:

      Heh. Mullah Nasreddin rides his donkey backwards — there are several variants on this story.

      “Why are you riding your donkey backwards, Mullah Nasruddin?”

      “I’m having a fight with the donkey. He wants to go that way, I want to go the other way. This way, at least, I get to face the direction I want to go.”Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to BlaiseP says:

        That sounds like the world in a nutshell.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Here’s a site with 200 Nasreddin stories.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Some hits nicely close to home:
        Mulla Nasrudin had been to the state legislature. After he had spent thirty days with his fellow legislators at the state capital, he came home for a weekend. In telling his wife about it, he said: “I HAVE DISCOVERED ONE THING — IT’S THE FIRST INSANE ASYLUM I HAVE EVER SEEN THAT’S RUN BY THE INMATES.” Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        That site is terrible. Seems to be mostly recycled Andy Capp jokes. Let me see if I can find a collection of the historical fables.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Ah, this looks much better, a few I actually recognise.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Much better. He’s not begging for martini’s here.

        I liked Doomsday
        It has been a long time since the peasants of Aksehir had a good feast. Neighbours of Nasreddin Hodja came up with a ploy to make him treat them to a big meal.
        `Hodja Effendi,’ they said, `tomorrow it is the doomsday. Why don’t we all go for a picnic, roast your lamb and have one final great meal?’
        `But, my lamb!’ Hodja objected. `It is the apple of my eye. I can’t kill my lamb.’ The neighbours weren’t about to give up so easily.
        `Hodja Effendi, it is the doomsday. We are all going to die anyway. What’s wrong with a final feast?’ At the end they convinced Nasreddin Hodja to give up his lamb. They all packed up and headed to the river bank for a joyful picnic. First they put the lamb over the fire to roast. Then they took off their over clothes and got into the river for a good swim. While everyone was splashing in the water, having fun and working up an appetite, Nasreddin Hodja took all the clothes lying on the ground and threw them into the fire. By the time others got out of the water, the lamb was deliciously roasted and all the over clothes were burnt. Hodja’s friends were shocked.
        `What happened to our clothes?’ they questioned the Hodja.
        `Ah, the clothes,’ Hodja started to explain serenely, `I used them to fortify the fire. Since tomorrow is the doomsday, you won’t be needing them any more.’

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    1. The stories about Mullah Nasreddin are delightful, timeless, and timely.

    2. Is Mullah Nasreddin always depicted with an oversized turban, as in these illustrations? Is that his artistic “signature,” the way a skull signifies St. Jerome in European art?

    3. Hassan Rouhani is to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Barack Obama is to George W. Bush: one is media-savvy and charismatic where his predecessor was blustery and aggressive. The nations led by each respective set of Presidents and predecessors remain the same, and their strategic interests remain the same. Is there a Mullah Nasreddin story to analogue that?Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’ve always seen Mullah Nasreddin as a plump man with a beard and a turban. He is as traditional a character as Santa Claus. This, from the Nasreddin storytelling festival

      This post was mostly written, especially the first parable of the sermon, as a warning against anyone who thinks they understand President Rouhani. Nobody does. He’s still under the authority of Ayatollah Khameini. I hear rumours about the election: the Revolutionary Guards wanted their own guy, Muhammad Ghalibaf and were ready to stuff the ballot boxes. Ayatollah Khameini is said to have forbidden this bit of chicanery.

      The Nasreddin story most appropriate to this one:

      Mullah Nasreddin had run for office and lost. He sat under a tree and wept bitterly, saying he was a victim, nothing but a victim.

      “Victim of what?” — one of his parishioners asked.

      “A victim of accurate ballot counting!”Report

  4. Avatar jwthomas says:

    I’ve known the Nasreddin stories for many years through versions found in a number of collections by Idries Shah. Here’s a version of one of my favorites:

    Lost Coin ~
    On a summer evening, the front garden of the coffee house was well lit by the gas lamps placed on the few wooden tables. Men of Aksehir were playing tavla. Nasreddin Hodja was, however, troubled. He was searching something beside the tables of the tavla players.

    `What are you looking for, Hodja Effendi?’ they asked.

    `I lost a gold coin.’ The Hodja said.

    `Hodja Effendi, did you lose your coin here?’

    `No, I lost it in that back alley over there.’

    `Then why are you looking for it here? You should search the alley where you lost it!’

    `But it is dark in there and I can’t see anything. Here it is nice and illuminated, so I search here, where I can see better.’Report

    • Avatar Glyph in reply to jwthomas says:

      It’s amazing how the classics persist. There are many versions of this joke/parable still told today, as the drunk who seeks his lost car keys under the streetlamp.

      BP – this was really great. I used to discuss Iran with a Persian-American colleague of mine, both fiercely proud of her heritage and embarrassed at some of what her countrymen get up to sometimes. She took her husband there for the first time a couple years ago to visit her family; while she and he were out sightseeing together in the city, she got snatched up by the religious police, for dressing too Western/immodestly. (She accepts some responsibility for not paying close enough attention to where they were; apparently some parts of the city are more liberal than others).

      Her husband did not see her get hustled into the van (they had separated for a moment to get a photo across a crowded square), and had to find his way alone back to her (non-English-speaking) grandmothers’ house and explain to her family what had happened (which he didn’t know); all without speaking any Farsi, nor they any English.

      Meanwhile, her captors in the van are driving around and picking up other “miscreants” and discussing what to do with her, unaware that she speaks Farsi (a fact she chose to keep to herself until it would be most advantageous to her).

      After several hours, they eventually let her off with a warning.

      As kidnappings by religious fanatics go, it was a pretty good experience.

      Still, sort of a scary thing, even more for her husband than for her, since she figured out early on that they would probably just try to scare her a bit; but he had no idea where she was or what had happened.Report

  5. Avatar daveNYC says:

    If Iran weren’t seeking a bomb, why, since 2010, has it been refining uranium to 20% purity, far higher than the 3 to 5 percent required for reactor fuel?

    Medical isotopes and research reactors? Getting to 20% enrichment isn’t all fluffy bunnies, but the stuff does have legit uses beyond bomb material precursor.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to daveNYC says:

      Iran has a research reactor, built and fuelled by the USA and Argentina. They used it to produce weapons-grade plutonium, we now know. Iran lied about the whole thing to the IAEA — I am no Moocher Hassan, shocked that Iran would lie about this. All the players are liars: we should only be surprised if they tell the truth.

      First a toy, then a tool, then a weapon. That’s always the route to progress with any technology. It’s not a matter of trust: Iran will act in its own best interests. That statement can be trusted. Rouhani would rather behave himself like a gentleman than a barking idiot. That’s clearly in Iran’s best interests. Anything the world might have to say to Iran in future should be couched in those terms.

      Iran’s lunatics are running the asylum. The same is true, sadly enough, in the good ol’ US of A.Report

      • Avatar daveNYC in reply to BlaiseP says:

        They separated out plutonium, but there’s no indication as to whether they attempted to break out the 239 from the 240.

        Anyway, my point was that enriching uranium up to 20% does have uses other than in weapons. Your article treats 20% enrichment as a sure sign of weapons research, when that’s not necessarily the case.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Insofar as Iran has lied about it, there’s no particularly good reason to believe anything but the worst case about their intentions. They’ve demonstrated sufficient Mens Rea for any intelligent person to be suspicious. Neither Iran nor Israel have submitted to full IAEA inspections. Israel did go down the Bomb Route at Dimona. Iran will do the same, if it can.Report

      • Avatar daveNYC in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Or they could go the Japanese route and develop their technology to a point where they could put together a crash enrichment program to get a bomb in a few months, should the need arise, but not actually build one right off the bat.

        Plenty of reasons for Iran to want a nuclear weapon, but they’re already hurting from sanctions and the idea of ending up like North Korea can’t be a very happy one.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Japan has enough experience with nuclear bombs to have a domestic constituency firmly against any push for a nuclear weapon. That is changing: Shinzo Abe is an ardent nationalist, elected in troubled times in Japan. What with the DPRK making so many stupid noises these days, Japan may overcome their natural revulsion against nuclear weapons.

        Japan is heavily dependent upon nuclear power. Still they’re trying to shut down the nuclear plants they already have — again, a domestic constituency angered and frightened by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, troubles at the Rokkasho reprocessing plant and other such sites and incidents.

        I really should just write another post on the subject.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to BlaiseP says:

        The whole nuclear issues in Japan thing is relevant, and also somewhat amusing with a new remake of Godzilla coming out which evidently features much of the same themes as the original movie.Report

  6. Avatar North says:

    Awesome post BP, just stellar, also a pertinent admonition to not try and view entire countries or polities as caricatures.Report

  7. Avatar James K says:

    This is very good BlaisePReport

  8. I’ll add my voice to the chorus in awe of this post.

    A very fundamental question – why are you so insistent that it is in Iran’s national interests to obtain a nuclear weapon? But the why is obviously a pretty important question. Are Khamenei & Co. really interested in having a nuclear weapon in order to threaten their neighbors and Israel, as conservatives insist? Or is it purely intended as a deterrent against external attempts to impose regime change, which is surely not an unreasonable fear? Or is it a combination of both? How do sanctions affect the relative weight of those interests?Report

  9. Avatar Don Zeko says:

    My parents, for reasons that never became clear to me, own a short book of Mullah Nasruddin stories that resides in the bathroom. This is the story from the book that I remember best:

    Hearing that a man wanted to learn the Kurdish language, Mullah Nasruddin offered to teach him even though Nasruddin’s own knowlege of Kurdish was limited to a few words. “We shall start with the word for ‘Hot Soup’,” said Nasrudin. “In Kurdish, this is Aash.” “I don’t quite understand, Nasruddin. How would you say ‘Cold Soup’?” “You never say ‘Cold Soup’. The Kurds like their soup hot.”Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Don Zeko says:

      Mullah Nasreddin and the Turban of Knowledge:

      Mullah Nasreddin was from Turkey. An illiterate Persian man came to him with a letter, written in Persian. Mullah Nasreddin took a look at the letter, and handed it back, saying “I can’t read this. It’s in Persian.”

      “But you wear a big turban, the sign of an educated man!”

      Mullah Nasreddin takes his turban off and puts it on the man’s head. “There, see if the turban can help you read the letter.”Report