Turkish Folktales: The Contest & The Candle

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 or 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.

With a respectful good riddance to the historically harsh winter much of the US has endured this year, here’s a winter tale from Nasreddin Hodja.

One very cold winter night, Nasreddin Hodja and twelve of his neighbors were enjoying good company in the village teahouse. As they sipped their hot tea, the men took turns voicing their astonishment at the severe weather, each striving to outdo the last in the extent of their suffering. Nasreddin Hodja listened without comment to the tales of winter woe. When all eyes turned to him for his contribution on the topic, Nasreddin made a dismissive gesture and said, “My friends, what a bunch of whiners you are. Is it cold outside? I hadn’t noticed. In fact, this morning I remarked to my wife what a refreshing day it was, and left my coat at home.”

Nasreddin’s boastful contradiction was no surprise to his companions. He rarely let any statement go unchallenged. Life in the teahouse was never dull. “I find this weather so mild, I’m sure I could stay out in it all night long with no coat at all,” he said. “Let’s see about that,” replied one of the friends. “If you can spend the entire night outside without a coat, or any means of warmth beyond your own hot air, each of us will host you for dinner. If you cannot, you will host all of us.” It was a deal.

For the next eight hours, the village men watched from their windows as Nasreddin paced around the town square stomping his feet, blowing on his hands and hugging himself against the bitter night. His wife also kept watch and left a candle burning in the window as a sign of her support. When the faint sun finally peeped over the horizon, Nasreddin went inside, feeling tired but triumphant, and not a little numb.

Later that day, when all the men were gathered in the teahouse, Nasreddin asked who would be the first to invite him for dinner. Altogether they responded, “It is you who owe us dinner!” “How do you figure that?” he said. “I know you saw me outside all night.” “Oh, we saw you outside; this is true. But we also saw the candle burning in your window. Surely that provided you some warmth.” Nasreddin’s expression told his friends what he thought of their implausible argument, but he agreed to feed them dinner anyway.

A few days later Nasreddin welcomed his friends to his home. As dinner was not yet ready, he made them comfortable in the sitting room and they chatted about the weather and politics and local gossip, just as they did whenever and wherever they gathered. After more than an hour, they were getting pretty hungry and asked Nasreddin if he meant to feed them anytime soon. Rising from his chair, he asked them to join him in the kitchen to check the progress of their dinner.

In the kitchen, they found a cast iron pot filled with rice, chicken and vegetables hanging from a beam over a burning candle. “What are you thinking?” they exclaimed. “This small candle will never provide enough heat to cook a pot full of food!” “Huh,” said Nasreddin, cocking his head and knitting his brow in mock wonderment. “You say this candle, mere inches from the pot, is not hot enough to cook the food, but the very same candle was hot enough to warm me all the way across the square?” The friends had no rebuttal and all repaired in good humor to the teahouse for some food that had been thoroughly cooked on a blazing fire.

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