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The Funny, but Fictional, Mullah

The New York Times
August 21, 2000

CAIRO -- I N the classic Iranian children's tale, the fictional Mullah Nasreddin rode his donkey facing backwards but arrived at his destination all the same. He delighted in taking advantage of the villagers who, in their turn, poked fun at him. He ate a lot. He paid for nothing. The world, through his myopic and literal eyes, was a puzzlement.

"If I survive this life without dying," the wise fool of a clergyman once sighed, "I'd be surprised."

In these days of bitter confrontation between hard-line clerics and liberal writers in Iran, even a figure as beloved as the Mullah Nasreddin might feel threatened.

Each week brings the imprisonment or trial of another group of writers, journalists and editors, and the conservative courts have closed 24 reformist publications since late April. A magazine called Tavana was banned after publishing a caricature of President Mohammad Khatami, who is himself a reformer. But it showed him without his clerical turban and robe. That, the court said, amounted to defamation.

Just this past week, another well-known writer, Ibrahim Nabavi, was sent to prison without a trial after critics filed 75 complaints against him in Press Court.

Mr. Nabavi was recently honored by his peers as the country's best political satirist, but he had another credit to his name. Four months ago, he published a new edition of the stories of Mullah Nasreddin, the first time anyone dared to revive the old jokes in print since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The book was a hit, in Iranian terms, selling more than 10,000 copies.

Like other jailed writers, Mr. Nabavi is accused by his critics of ridiculing and tarnishing the image of Islamic clerics in his newspaper columns.

But, as the enduring popularity of Mullah Nasreddin jokes demonstrates, Iranians have been doing the same for generations. And the mullah himself, sometimes a miserly bumbler and sometimes a clever rascal, satirizes Muslim clerics better than anyone.

Mullah Nasreddin stories are sometimes said to have originated in Turkey and spread from there, along with the mystical and joyful Islamic sect of Sufism, to neighboring Muslim lands. But he is a universal figure. Jokes about country priests, for example, have long been a staple in Catholic countries like France or Spain, where men of religion involved themselves in politics or exercised daily authority over ordinary people. Tales of foolish, even venal, village sheiks or mullahs are also staple fare in Egyptian and Iraqi humor.

Mullah Nasreddin -- mullah means a learned man -- is their Iranian cousin.

Often the jokes ridicule the mullah's pretensions to cleverness. In one, he takes off his shoes and falls asleep under a tree, only to find upon waking that someone has made off with the shoes. He decides to trick the thief into coming back so he removes his clothes and puts them where his shoes had been. Unfortunately, he falls asleep again. When he awakes, his clothes are gone.

Another shows the mullah as a sneak. He goes on a trip with three men. At lunchtime, each brings out the piece of bread he has brought with him. Mullah Nasreddin says he is not hungry and will show his generosity by giving his bread to his friends. "In return," he tells them, "each of you can give me half of your bread."

O FTEN the mullah takes advantage of his neighbors. He borrows a pot from one and returns two pots. Explaining his beneficence, he says that the first pot gave birth to the second. Later, he borrows another pot. This time he never returns it. When his neighbor complains, the mullah says the pot died.

The neighbor is incensed. "How can a pot die?" he demands.

"You believed it when a pot gave birth," Mullah Nasreddin replies. "Why should you not believe that a pot died?"

In his introduction to his retelling of the folk tales, Mr. Nabavi wrote that he regarded Mullah Nasreddin as a somewhat noble figure. The stories emanated from countries that were under foreign occupation, he wrote, and the mullah was an example of someone who decided to confront an oppressive system by being "ridiculous."

"I do not want to be optimistic," Mr. Nabavi said, "but I see him as the rational reaction of people against tyranny."

When the book came out earlier this year, Mr. Nabavi and his publishers tried to take precautions. The title mullah was excised from all the stories: Mullah Nasreddin, as he was called in older editions of the jokes, became simply Nasreddin. Ahmad Beheshti, an executive of the Rezaneh publishing house, said the honorific was removed to head off any problems with the government, which licenses each book in Iran before it is published.

But Mr. Nabavi also took a bit of license with the old stories. In the traditional tales, these days found only in the homes of older Iranians who kept their childhood books, the cleric complained that one neighbor never invited him for a meal. The neighbor told him it was because the mullah never stopped eating when he went to someone's house.

"I promise to tell you a story between each bite," the mullah promised him.

In Mr. Nabavi's modern version, the mullah slyly played on his neighbor's religious feelings. "I promise," he said, "to pray for you between each bite."

In the hostile atmosphere of Iranian political life these days, when Muslim clerics seem to be striking out at anyone who questions their authority, such a revision might well cause offense.

Mr. Nabavi may have anticipated as much. In his book, he noted, "Mullah Nasreddin has different faces: he can be a wise man or a stupid man. Both images can be educational."


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