Across the Muslim world, stories and anecdotes attributed to or about Nasreddin Hodja are as much a part of the collective consciousness as the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in Europe and North America.
Nasreddin was probably a real man who lived in Turkey in the 13th century. Some sources say he was born in Turkey, others that he moved there from Iran. In any case, it seems agreed that he lived and worked as a judge and teacher in Aksehir, near the city of Konya in central Turkey. He is known for his sly wit, appreciation of the absurd, optimism and genial nature. The honorific Hodja refers to a wise teacher.
One day a traveling scholar came through Aksehir. He approached a group of men sitting at the coffee shop and asked them to introduce him to the wisest man in town. Everyone agreed that Nasreddin Hodja fit this description so they sent a boy to fetch him. Moments later, Hodja was introduced to the visitor, with bows all around, and a small crowd gathered to watch their exchange. The scholar began by drawing a circle in the dusty road with his walking stick. Then he silently looked to the Hodja for his reply. Hodja gestured for the walking stick, drew a line right down the middle of the circle and handed the stick back. The scholar, clearly very pleased with this remark, nodded vigorously and drew another line, perpendicular to the first. Now the circle was divided into four parts. In response, Hodja seemed to gather 3 parts of the circle toward himself and push the remaining quarter toward the scholar. All of this took place in total silence, save some low grumbles coming from the Hodja, who appeared increasingly annoyed. The scholar, on the contrary, could barely contain his delight. The crowd was baffled. Now the scholar’s turn, he held his hand above the circle and wiggled his fingers.
To this, the Hodja threw his hands towards the sky, gave a peremptory bow and took his leave. Everyone watched in silence as walked away and disappeared around a bend. Then the crowd turned to the beaming scholar for some elaboration on what just happened. “This was indeed a very wise man,” he said. “With the circle, I stated that the earth is round. Your Hodja agreed and showed with his line that the earth is divided in two by the equator. In response to my line, he told me that three-quarters of the earth is covered in water and one-quarter in land. This is true! When I asked him where the rains come from, he explained that water evaporates from the earth into the sky and then falls as rain! Such a learned man is rare. Among my many encounters all across Europe and Asia, those who are his equal can be counted on one hand. You are truly fortunate to have him as your neighbor. Thoroughly satisfied, the scholar went on his way. The next day at the coffee shop Hodja’s friends congratulated him on his impressive discussion with the scholar. “He’s a greedy fool if you ask me,” he said. “How so?” they asked. “Well, he drew a plate of baklava in the dirt and asked what I would do with it. Since he was a guest and I am a well-bred man, I divided it in two and offered him half. He proceeded to cut it into four pieces and asked what I would do then. Well, the only reason he would divide it again is if he wanted more than half. So I told him I would take 3 pieces and leave him 1. Then the fool suggested we sprinkle nuts on the whole pan. I could only throw up my hands in disgust. Everyone knows you don’t put nuts on top of hot baklava.”