Special Guest Post by Michael Shelton
Our first months in Turkey were difficult. I can hardly blame the Turks for this as our neighbors were warm and hospitable and even complete strangers were often surprisingly gracious and helpful towards this helpless foreigner. Nevertheless, I dreamed about the day when I would be able to speak passable Turkish and (I assumed) finally be able to understand what was going on around me.
I dutifully signed up for Turkish language classes, read grammar books, memorized vocabulary cards, and diligently practiced Turkish dialogues with local helpers. Within a couple years, I had achieved my basic language goals – I could carry on a conversation and stop carrying a pocket Turkish-English dictionary. It was only then that I discovered that understanding what someone is saying and what they intend by it can be quite different.
What did it mean when my neighbor warmly invited me inside while mentioning an urgent appointment? I understood his words but not his intended meaning (ie. our friendship demanded an open door but he was hoping I would take the hint that it wasn’t a good time for a visit.) Language fluency and cultural fluency are cousins not twins – related in some ways, separate in others.
Unfortunately, there are no TOMER classes on cultural literacy for expatriates. Turkish friends can be a help but are likely not aware of where your home culture and Turkish culture are at variance (from their perspective Turkish culture is simply “the way things are”). Most often an expat will simply have to learn through experience – yours or someone else’s. Blogs like this one are gold because they allow you to grow your cultural fluency through someone else’s (mis)adventures.
There is another cultural resource that I have found to be extremely helpful but is often overlooked by expats and visitors alike: stories. In oral cultures like Turkey, stories are the primary means of communicating cultural values. When I started searching for insight into Turkish culture, I noticed that stories about the folk hero Nasrettin Hodja are universally popular here and both young farm laborers and elderly bankers will often quote the same stories!
I started collecting some of my favorite tales, in particular, the ones that shed some light on Turkish values. These stories are not only entertaining but also illustrate cultural practices and offer a useful perspective, for example:
THE WELL OF WISDOM
“Husband! Husband!” Ayten cried as she burst through the front door. “Wall up your heart to protect it from my bad news for disaster is falling on our heads!”
“Allah Korusun, may Allah protect us!” Hodja answered as he tugged on his ear and rapped on the wall to ward off his wife’s dire prediction. “What is this calamity?”
“Your nephew Halil wishes to go into trade,” Ayten answered with dark eyes.
“Trade?” Hodja snorted. “That would be folly. Money flows through the boy’s fingers like water through a sieve, and his head is as empty as his purse. What fool would sponsor him as a merchant?”
“That is what I am trying to tell you husband,” Ayten said. “I have just come from the marketplace where everyone is saying that Halil is coming here to ask YOU for the money.”
Hodja’s eyes widened in alarm. “What can he mean by coming to me? Does he think my turban is stuffed with gold liras to squander on his schemes?”
“Halil has always been spoiled,” Ayten answered. “You know his mother gives him whatever he asks for.”
“And now he is asking us,” Hodja said, thoughtfully stroking his beard. “If I refuse Halil, the town gossips will call me a miser. But if I give him the money and his business fails, their wagging tongues will call me a fool for supporting him.”
“Misfortune has fallen on our heads,” Ayten wailed, wringing her hands. “Better to throw our few coins down the well rather than give them to that wastrel Halil. But what choice do we have? He knows we cannot refuse such a close relative.”
Hodja’s face cleared at her words. “Ah Ayten! You are as wise as you are beautiful,” he said with a grin. “Fear not, I know just what to do inshallah.”
A few hours later, Nasreddin Hodja answered a knock at his door and found a smiling Halil waiting at the doorstep. Hodja welcomed him inside and greeted him cordially. “Hosh geldin, your visit brings us joy nephew.”
Halil kissed the back of Hodja’s hand and pressed it to his forehead in respect. “Hosh bulduk, I have found joy in coming Uncle.”
Ayten served glasses of steaming tea while Hodja waited patiently for his nephew to bring the conversation around to the desired loan. By the time Halil had explained his business plans, Hodja was ready with his answer.
“Of course, my son. I will be glad to help you with the necessary funds as soon as I see that you are ready,” Hodja said. Halil’s confident grin faltered.
“But Uncle,” he asked, “How will you know when I’m ready?”
“I have devised a test,” Hodja answered. “Every day without fail, you will throw a gold lira into my well. When you have done this to my satisfaction, I will give you the money you need to start your business.”
This seemed a simple request and Halil quickly agreed to Nasreddin Hodja’s condition in exchange for the promised loan. The next morning he returned and tossed a coin into the well under Hodja’s watchful eye.
“Am I ready yet Uncle?” Halil asked hopefully.
“Not today,” Hodja answered.
Day after day Halil came to throw coins in the well and request the promised loan. Day after day Hodja would answer, “Not today.” Soon Halil had used up his few coins and had to borrow money from his mother. And still Hodja answered, “Not today.” After a week of this, his mother snapped, “I have no more coins to waste in wells.”
Then Halil was forced to beg money from his friends, but they likewise soon tired of giving coins to Halil to throw away. And still Hodja answered, “Not today.”
Finally, when he could neither beg nor borrow even one more coin, a desperate Halil hired himself out as a day laborer just to earn money to throw into the well. Every evening he would arrive at Hodja’s house sweaty, dirty and exhausted to drop his days pay into the well and ask, “Am I ready YET Uncle?”
And each time Hodja would answer, “Not today.”
Then one day, Halil lifted his daily coin over the mouth of the well and hesitated. He stared at the coin for some time before putting it back in his pocket. Then he said to Hodja, “Forgive me Uncle but I can no longer throw away what I have earned with such effort.”
“Then at last you are ready,” Hodja answered with a smile. Hodja reached down into the well and hauled up the fishing net he had hung below the water. It was filled with gold liras. “And here,” Hodja said, “is the money I promised. Use it wisely now that you understand its true value.”
Although Halil never became rich as a merchant, it is said that he was successful enough to both marry and provide for his mother in her old age, and that is sufficient wealth for any man. May we all share in his good fortune.
One of the ways that stories teach is through what they take for granted. In this story, it is assumed that Hodja cannot simply refuse to loan money to his nephew no matter how unwise such a loan may appear. If you have Turkish friends, you have doubtless seen this dynamic in practice. Family obligations always trump practicality.
It is also helpful to note the qualities displayed by our hero. Nasrettin Hodja demonstrates admirable loyalty to his relative. Rather than applying his ingenuity to escape his obligation to his nephew, he instead finds a way to fulfill that obligation in a way that also empowers his nephew to become successful (and thereby protect his own reputation in the process.)
Nasrettin Hodja is a hero for finding a creative solution to a common Turkish difficulty (ie. family asking for a loan vs fear of being shamed by a lost investment.) The story helped me understand why my Turkish friends often seem to make such foolish (to my way of thinking) loans to family members. It also prepared me to think creatively when a close friend asked ME for a loan (but thats another story.) This is just one of many Hodja tales that have stretched my cultural fluency.
Sadly, I was never able to find a good English translation of my favorite Nasrettin Hodja folktales so I eventually decided to write and self-publish my own. The result is:
Once There Was, Twice There Wasn’t: Fifty Turkish Folktales of Nasreddin Hodja
Fifty colorful Turkish folktales celebrating the exploits of the wise fool Nasreddin Hodja as he rescues friends, humiliates enemies, and transforms folly into fortune with his quick wit and clever tongue.
It is my hope that these stories will entertain and guide the next generation of Turkey lovers on their journey into this amazing culture.
Michael Shelton grew up in Massachusetts. In 2001, Mike and his wife Joann took a surprising leap of faith and relocated to Turkey where they found wonderful neighbors, adopted six beautiful Turkish daughters, and uncovered a treasure trove of folktales waiting to be retold.Mike is a freelance writer, translator and occasional editor. This is his first folktale collection.
Once There Was, Twice There Wasn’t: Fifty Turkish Folktales of Nasreddin Hodja is available on Amazon, iBookstore and other major ebook retailers for $2.99.Google+