Tales from long ago and far away ... 

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*Folk Tales, Fables, Stories
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Nasreddin -- Everyman's Philosopher* 

Nasreddin is a clever old rascal, known  throughout the Arabic speaking world. In Turkey they call him Hoja (priest). The  tales attaching to Nasreddin are endless,  reaching back into the mists of village time. Nowadays he is just as likely to have a mobile phone. For Nasreddin is everyman's philosopher. He the agent of  village good sense and sharp wit who puts the powerful, the pompous and the sententious firmly in their place. My students from the Middle East (I teach ESL) invariably have a Nasreddin story, but I have been unable to locate a good published collection in English translation. If anyone knows of such a volume, please let me know.


** E-mail your favourite Nasreddin story to The Passionate Skeptic in a sharp, witty style and I will post it on this page.** 
The little story below is quoted from L.A.  Hill (1965), "Advanced Stories for Reproduction", pub. OUP, P.41. 
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Justice *

One day, Nasreddin was walking quietly along the road when somebody gave him a  violent blow on the back of the neck. He looked behind him, and saw a young man whom he had never seen before. 

`How dare you hit me like that!' shouted Nasreddin. The young man said he had mistaken Nasreddin for a friend of his and that he thought Nasreddin was making a lot of  noise about nothing. This insult made Nasreddin even angrier, of course, and he at once arranged for the young man to be brought before a judge. There was nothing for the young man to do but to appear before the court. 

Now, the judge who heard the case was a  friend of the young man's father, and, although he pretended to be quite fair, he was thinking how he could avoid punishing the young man while at the same time not appearing unjust. Finally he said to Nasreddin, `I  understand your feelings in this matter very well. Would you be satisfied if I let  you hit the young man as he hit you?' 

Nasreddin said he would not be. The young man had insulted him and should be properly punished. `Well, then,' said the judge to the young  man, `I order you to pay ten liras to Nasreddin.' Ten liras was very little for such a crime, but the young man did not have it with him, so the judge allowed him to go and get it. 

Nasreddin waited for him to return with the money. He waited an hour, he waited two hours, while the judge attended to other business. When it was nearly time for the court to close, Nasreddin chose a moment when the judge was especially busy, came up quietly behind him and hit him hard on the back of  the neck. Then he said to him, `I am sorry, but I can't wait any longer. When the young man comes back, tell him that I  have passed my right to the ten liras on to you.' 

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The Horse That Learned to Sing

I came across the following tale in one of  Ursula Le Guin's science fiction novels years ago. Somehow it has stuck, and surprisingly often seemed an apt parable for tough times. 

The Horse That Learned to Sing 

Once long ago there was a thief, who was caught and brought before the king. the king, a law & order enthusiast, ordered that the thief be put to death immediately. This thief however had style. He immediately came back with a proposition. 

"Your majesty", he said, "most mighty and wise ruler. You have spoken. Before I depart I would like to offer you a gift. If your eminence can spare me for a year and a day, I will teach your horse to sing." 

The king roared with laughter. It was a preposterous bargain from a thief with nothing to sell. Yet, thought the king (who liked a punt when the race was rigged), this is costing me nothing. Why not? 

Back in the dungeons, the assembled felons were agog. "How the hell", they asked the thief, "are you going to teach a horse to sing?" The thief flicked a cigarette ash off his frayed cuff, and winked. "Brothers", he said, "now I have a year and a day. In a year and a day the king might die; there might be a palace coup. The horse might die. Or, who knows, that damned horse might learn to sing hymns." 

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The Chinese Woodcutter and the Bear
or  Why You Should Choose Your Friends Wisely 
This tale was told to me by a friend,  Guo Ping. 

Once upon a time, deep in a far forest, there lived a woodcutter. He was a kindly man, but very lonely. No wife kept his house, and the sound of children never echoed where he trod in the forest. 

One day he came across a bear cub abandoned in a thicket of bushes. The cub was badly injured, but the woodcutter took it up and carried it back to his hut. He nursed the cub back to health,  tenderly, returning often from his work to  check and feed the infant. The two became inseparable. Years passed. The cub grew into a mighty bear. Yet it still lived in the woodcutter's hut, and as the man grew old, the bear increasingly became an aide and protector. 

One day, as the old man dozed on his bed, a fly began to buzz around his face. The bear, concerned that the woodcutter not be disturbed, try to brush to fly away. Again and again the fly returned. At last, enraged, the bear seized a large stone and smashed it down upon the fly.  Of course, he also crushed the woodcutter's head. The bear was inconsolable at the loss of his friend, the woodcutter. He cursed the fly, he cursed his own temper, he could not bring himself to look upon the crushed head of his patron. But it was all too late. Too late... 

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The Chinese Song Bird

by Thor May, 1997
Once in a modest house in the centre of China there lived a little song bird. People around about knew the call of this song bird; it was a part of their lives, and they cared for it well enough after their fashion. However, in her heart the bird was restless. She had heard of a wider world, where the sky was egg-shell blue and the fresh green grass was always dotted with flowers of many colours. In the long damp winters she thought of this other world, with its gentle breezes and delicious aromas. She dreamed of singing on summer evenings as lovers sat hand in hand, and imagined that poets would catch her beauty forever in wonderful verse. 

One day an old man came to her province. He was a traveller from distant lands, with dress and customs that amused, even frightened the local folk a little. He spoke a barbarous tongue, but with much effort they translated some of his meaning. He had come, he said, to invite one of the best, the brightest in this city to be a guest in his place, far away across the sea. The people spoke amongst themselves and were perplexed. None wanted to offend the stranger, for none knew what price an offence might cost, yet none felt willing to venture into such a risky enterprise. 

The song bird watched her neighbours debate, and knew that they had no dream of a wider world where the sky was egg-shell blue. At last, when the mayor was about to toast the visitor with six kampais, and send him off a little drunk into the night, she suddenly knew what she must do. With a single graceful dive she left her perch in the corner of the Great Hall of the People, and landed on the shoulder of the old man. Then she sang, an ancient beautiful melody, so that all were charmed, and the visitor in thrall to beauty declared that this Chinese song bird would certainly span the rainbow arc between their distant cultures. 

Much later, when the moon had turned her face four times to the east and four times to the west, the little song bird awoke under a sky that was grey, and egg-shell blue, and black and white four times in a day. A sharp wind ranged in from the south, ruffling feathers, while cats hurried to find comfort in front of warm hearths. The song bird warbled her ancient melody from the branch of a strange tree. Three lizards looked worried, a boy delivering newspapers paused to scratch his head, and the mischievous wind brought a sudden roar of engines from the eight lane motorway nearby. The song bird shuddered to the core of her being, that cold lonely shudder with which every creature leaves the promise of eternal spring, and knows that one day it must die. 

So all winter the little song bird sat on a shelf in the corner of the old man's kitchen. People came and went. They were strange people who spoke a barbarous tongue, but they were kind enough after their fashion. One or two asked about the land from whence she had come, but could scarcely understand the answers that she fashioned in a sad song. Sometimes they asked her to come out to new parts of their city, but she shivered and sat silent, with no dream to fly to. Then she thought back to a modest house in the centre of China where the people were kind enough after their fashion, and knew her songs in their bones. And she wondered where she should die some day, if their were no meadow where the grass was always green and dotted with flowers of many colours. 

When the days had passed their shortest hour, and some sunny mornings hinted that better things were coming, the little song bird seemed to lose a bit of her sadness. There was a quieter, slightly fearful, but determined look in her eye. So it was no surprise to the old man, who was wise in his way, that one morning at breakfast she flew onto his shoulder. "We are going to China", he said softly, "you are going home." 

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