The Project Gutenberg ebook of Flowers from a Persian Garden and Other



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ORIENTAL WIT AND HUMOUR.




Sport that wrinkled Care derides,

And Laughter shaking both his sides.—L’ Allegro.


I




MAN A LAUGHING ANIMAL—ANTIQUITY OF POPULAR JESTS—“NIGHT AND DAY”—THE PLAIN-FEATURED BRIDE—THE HOUSE OF CONDOLENCE—THE BLIND MAN’S WIFE—TWO WITTY PERSIAN LADIES—WOMAN’S COUNSEL—THE TURKISH JESTER: IN THE PULPIT; THE CAULDRON; THE BEGGAR; THE DRUNKEN GOVERNOR; THE ROBBER; THE HOT BROTH—MUSLIM PREACHERS AND MUSLIM MISERS.
Certain philosophers have described man as a cooking animal, others as a tool-making animal, others, again, as a laughing animal. No creature save man, say the advocates of the last definition, seems to have any “sense of humour.” However this may be, there can be little doubt that man in all ages of which we have any knowledge has possessed that faculty which perceives ridiculous incongruities in the relative positions of certain objects, and in the actions and sayings of individuals, which we term the “sense of the ludicrous.” It is not to be supposed that a dog or a cat—albeit intelligent creatures, in their own ways—would see anything funny or laughable in a man whose sole attire consisted in a general’s hat and sash and a pair of spurs! Yet that should be enough to “make even a cat laugh”! Certainly laughter is peculiar to our species; and gravity is as certainly not always a token of profound wisdom; for

The gravest beast’s an ass;

The gravest bird’s an owl;

The gravest fish’s an oyster;

And the gravest man’s a fool.

Many of the great sages of antiquity were also great humorists, and laughed long and heartily at a good jest. And, indeed, as the Sage of Chelsea affirms, “no man who has once heartily and wholly laughed can be altogether, irreclaimably bad. How much lies in laughter!—the cipher key wherewith we decipher the whole man!… The man who cannot laugh is not only fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils, but his whole life is already a treason and a stratagem.” Let us, then, laugh at what is laughable while we are yet clothed in “this muddy vesture of decay,” for, as delightful Elia asks, “Can a ghost laugh? Can he shake his gaunt sides if we be merry with him?”

It is a remarkable fact that a considerable proportion of the familiar jests of almost any country, which are by its natives fondly believed to be “racy of the soil,” are in reality common to other peoples widely differing in language and customs. Not a few of these jests had their origin ages upon ages since—in Greece, in Persia, in India. Yet they must have set out upon their travels westward at a comparatively early period, for they have been long domiciled in almost every country of Europe. Nevertheless, as we ourselves possess a goodly number of droll witticisms, repartees, and jests, which are most undoubtedly and beyond cavil our own—such as many of those which are ascribed to Sam Foote, Harry Erskine, Douglas Jerrold, and Sydney Smith; though they have been credited with some that are as old as the jests of Hierokles—so there exist in what may be termed the lower strata of Oriental fiction, humorous and witty stories, characteristic of the different peoples amongst whom they originated, which, for the most part, have not yet been appropriated by the European compilers of books of facetiæ, and a selection of such jests—choice specimens of Oriental Wit and Humour—gleaned from a great variety of sources, will, I trust, amuse readers in general, and lovers of funny anecdotes in particular.

To begin, then—place aux dames! In most Asiatic countries the ladies are at a sad discount in the estimation of their lords and masters, however much the latter may expatiate on their personal charms, and in Eastern jests this is abundantly shown. For instance, a Persian poet, through the importunity of his friends, had married an old and very ugly woman, who turned out also of a very bad temper, and they had constant quarrels. Once, in a dispute, the poet made some comparisons between his aged wife and himself and between Night and Day. “Cease your nonsense,” said she; “night and day were created long before us.” “Hold a little,” said the husband. “I know they were created long before me, but whether before you, admits of great doubt!” Again, a Persian married, and, as is customary with Muslims, on the marriage night saw his bride’s face for the first time, when she proved to be very ugly—perhaps “plain-looking” were the more respectful expression. A few days after the nuptials, she said to him: “My life! as you have many relatives, I wish you would inform me before which of them I may unveil.” (Women of rank in Muslim countries appear unveiled only before very near relations.) “My soul!” responded the husband, “if thou wilt but conceal thy face from me, I care not to whom thou showest it.” And there is a grim sort of humour in the story of the poor Arab whose wife was going on a visit of condolence, when he said to her: “My dear, if you go, who is to take care of the children, and what have you left for them to eat?” She replied: “As I have neither flour, nor milk, nor butter, nor oil, nor anything else, what can I leave?” “You had better stay at home, then,” said the poor man; “for assuredly this is the true house of condolence.” And also in the following: A citizen of Tawris, in comfortable circumstances, had a daughter so very ugly that nothing could induce any one to marry her. At length he resolved to bestow her on a blind man, hoping that, not seeing her personal defects, he would be kind to her. His plan succeeded, and the blind man lived very happily with his wife. By-and-by, there arrived in the city a doctor who was celebrated for restoring sight to many people, and the girl’s father was urged by his friends to engage this skilled man to operate upon his son-in-law, but he replied: “I will take care to do nothing of the kind; for if this doctor should restore my son-in-law’s eyesight, he would very soon restore my daughter to me!”

But occasionally ladies are represented as giving witty retorts, as in the story of the Persian lady who, walking in the street, observed a man following her, and turning round enquired of him: “Why do you follow me, sir?” He answered: “Because I am in love with you.” “Why are you in love with me?” said the lady. “My sister is much handsomer than I; she is coming after me—go and make love to her.” The fellow went back and saw a woman with an exceedingly ugly face, upon which he at once went after the lady, and said to her: “Why did you tell me what was not true?” “Neither did you speak the truth,” answered she; “for if you were really in love with me, you would not have turned to see another woman.” And the Persian poet Jámí, in his Baháristán, relates that a man with a very long nose asked a woman in marriage, saying: “I am no way given to sloth, or long sleeping, and I am very patient in bearing vexations.” To which she replied: “Yes, truly: hadst thou not been patient in bearing vexations thou hadst not carried that nose of thine these forty years.”

The low estimation in which women are so unjustly held among Muhammedans is perhaps to be ascribed partly to the teachings of the Kurán in one or two passages, and to the traditional sayings of the Apostle Muhammad, who has been credited (or rather discredited) with many things which he probably never said. But this is not peculiar to the followers of the Prophet of Mecca: a very considerable proportion of the Indian fictions represent women in an unfavourable light—fictions, too, which were composed long before the Hindús came in contact with the Muhammedans. Even in Europe, during mediæval times, maugre the “lady fair” of chivalric romance, it was quite as much the custom to decry women, and to relate stories of their profligacy, levity, and perversity, as ever it has been in the East. But we have changed all that in modern times: it is only to be hoped that we have not gone to the other extreme!—According to an Arabian writer, cited by Lane, “it is desirable, before a man enters upon any important undertaking, to consult ten intelligent persons among his particular friends; or if he have not more than five such friends let him consult each twice; or if he have not more than one friend he should consult him ten times, at ten different visits [he would be ‘a friend indeed,’ to submit to so many consultations on the same subject]; if he have not one to consult let him return to his wife and consult her, and whatever she advises him to do let him do the contrary, so shall he proceed rightly in his affair and attain his object.”25 We may suppose this Turkish story, from the History of the Forty Vezírs, to be illustrative of the wisdom of such teaching: A man went on the roof of his house to repair it, and when he was about to come down he called to his wife, “How should I come down?” The woman answered, “The roof is free; what would happen? You are a young man—jump down.” The man jumped down, and his ankle was dislocated, and for a whole year he was bedridden, and his ankle came not back to its place. Next year the man again went on the roof of his house and repaired it. Then he called to his wife, “Ho! wife, how shall I come down?” The woman said, “Jump not; thine ankle has not yet come to its place—come down gently.” The man replied, “The other time, for that I followed thy words, and not those of the Apostle [i.e., Muhammed], was my ankle dislocated, and it is not yet come to its place; now shall I follow the words of the Apostle, and do the contrary of what thou sayest [Kurán, iii, 29.]” And he jumped down, and straightway his ankle came to its place.

In the Turkish collection of jests ascribed to Khoja Nasrú ’d-Dín Efendi26 is the following, which has been reproduced amongst ourselves within comparatively recent years, and credited to an Irish priest:

One day the Khoja went into the pulpit of a mosque to preach to the people. “O men!” said he, “do you know what I should say unto you?” They answered: “We know not, Efendi.” “When you do know,” said the Khoja, “I shall take the trouble of addressing you.” The next day he again ascended into the pulpit, and said, as before: “O men! do you know what I should say unto you?” “We do know,” exclaimed they all with one voice. “Then,” said he, “what is the use of my addressing you, since you already know?” The third day he once more went into the pulpit, and asked the same question. The people, having consulted together as to the answer they should make, said: “O Khoja, some of us know, and some of us do not know.” “If that be the case, let those who know tell those who do not know,” said the Khoja, coming down. A poor Arab preacher was once, however, not quite so successful. Having “given out,” as we say, for his text, these words, from the Kurán, “I have called Noah,” and being unable to collect his thoughts, he repeated, over and over again, “I have called Noah,” and finally came to a dead stop; when one of those present shouted, “If Noah will not come, call some one else.” Akin to this is our English jest of the deacon of a dissenting chapel in Yorkshire, who undertook, in the vanity of his heart, to preach on the Sunday, in place of the pastor, who was ill, or from home. He conducted the devotional exercises fairly well, but when he came to deliver his sermon, on the text, “I am the Light of the world,” he had forgot what he intended to say, and continued to repeat these words, until an old man called out, “If thou be the light o’ the world, I think thou needs snuffin’ badly.”

To return to the Turkish jest-book. One day the Khoja borrowed a cauldron from a brazier, and returned it with a little saucepan inside. The owner, seeing the saucepan, asked: “What is this?” Quoth the Khoja: “Why, the cauldron has had a young one”; whereupon the brazier, well pleased, took possession of the saucepan. Some time after this the Khoja again borrowed the cauldron and took it home. At the end of a week the brazier called at the Khoja’s house and asked for his cauldron. “O set your mind at rest,” said the Khoja; “the cauldron is dead.” “O Khoja,” quoth the brazier, “can a cauldron die?” Responded the Khoja: “Since you believed it could have a young one, why should you not also believe that it could die?”

The Khoja had a pleasant way of treating beggars. One day a man knocked at his door. “What do you want?” cried the Khoja from above. “Come down,” said the man. The Khoja accordingly came down, and again said: “What do you want?” “I want charity,” said the man. “Come up stairs,” said the Khoja. When the beggar had come up, the Khoja said: “God help you”—the customary reply to a beggar when one will not or cannot give him anything. “O master,” cried the man, “why did you not say so below?” Quoth the Khoja: “When I was above stairs, why did you bring me down?”

Drunkenness is punished (or punishable) by the infliction of eighty strokes of the bastinado in Muslim countries, but it is only flagrant cases that are thus treated, and there is said to be not a little private drinking of spirits as well as of wine among the higher classes, especially Turks and Persians. It happened that the governor of Súricastle lay in a state of profound intoxication in a garden one day, and was thus discovered by the Khoja, who was taking a walk in the same garden with his friend Ahmed. The Khoja instantly stripped him of his ferage, or upper garment, and, putting it on his own back, walked away. When the governor awoke and saw that his ferage had been stolen, he told his officers to bring before him whomsoever they found wearing it. The officers, seeing the ferage on the Khoja, seized and brought him before the governor, who said to him: “Ho! Khoja, where did you obtain that ferage?” The Khoja responded “As I was taking a walk with my friend Ahmed we saw a fellow lying drunk, whereupon I took off his ferage and went away with it. If it be yours, pray take it.” “O no,” said the governor, “it does not belong to me.”

Even being robbed could not disturb the Khoja’s good humour. When he was lying in bed one night a loud noise was heard in the street before his house. Said he to his wife: “Get up and light a candle, and I will go and see what is the matter.” “You had much better stay where you are,” advised his wife. But the Khoja, without heeding her words, put the counterpane on his shoulders and went out. A fellow, on perceiving him, immediately snatched the counterpane from off the Khoja’s shoulders and ran away. Shivering with cold, the Khoja returned into the house, and when his wife asked him the cause of the noise, he said: “It was on account of our counterpane; when they got that, the noise ceased at once.”

But in the following story we have a very old acquaintance in a new dress: One day the Khoja’s wife, in order to plague him, served up some exceedingly hot broth, and, forgetting what she had done, put a spoonful of it in her mouth, which so scalded her that the tears came into her eyes. “O wife,” said the Khoja, “what is the matter with you—is the broth hot?” “Dear Efendi,” said she, “my mother, who is now dead, loved broth very much; I thought of that, and wept on her account.” The Khoja, thinking that what she said was truth, took a spoonful of the broth, and, it burning his mouth, he began to bellow. “What is the matter with you?” said his wife. “Why do you cry?” Quoth the Khoja: “You cry because your mother is gone, but I cry because her daughter is here.”27

Many of the Muslim jests, like some our of own, are at the expense of poor preachers. Thus: there was in Baghdád a preacher whom no one attended after hearing him but once. One Friday when he came down from the pulpit he discovered that the only one who remained in the mosque was the muezzin—all his hearers had left him to finish his discourse as, and when, he pleased—and, still worse, his slippers had also disappeared. Accusing the muezzin of having stolen them, “I am rightly served by your suspicion,” retorted he, “for being the only one that remained to hear you.”—In Gladwin’s Persian Moonshee we read that whenever a certain learned man preached in the mosque, one of the congregation wept constantly, and the preacher, observing this, concluded that his words made a great impression on the man’s heart. One day some of the people said to the man: “That learned man makes no impression on our minds;—what kind of a heart have you, to be thus always in tears?” He answered: “I do not weep at his discourse, O Muslims. But I had a goat of which I was very fond, and when he grew old he died. Now, whenever the learned man speaks and wags his beard I am reminded of my goat, for he had just such a voice and beard.”28 But they are not always represented as mere dullards; for example: A miserly old fellow once sent a Muslim preacher a gold ring without a stone, requesting him to put up a prayer for him from the pulpit. The holy man prayed that he should have in Paradise a golden palace without a roof. When he descended from the pulpit, the man went to him, and, taking him by the hand, said: “O preacher, what manner of prayer is that thou hast made for me?” “If thy ring had had a stone,” replied the preacher, “thy palace should also have had a roof.”



Apropos of misers, our English facetiæ books furnish many examples of their ingenuity in excusing themselves from granting favours asked of them by their acquaintances; and, human nature being much the same everywhere, the misers in the East are represented as being equally adroit, as well as witty, in parrying such objectionable requests. A Persian who had a very miserly friend went to him one day, and said: “I am going on a journey; give me your ring, which I will constantly wear, and whenever I look on it, I shall remember you.” The other answered: “If you wish to remember me, whenever you see your finger without my ring upon it, always think of me, that I did not give you my ring.” And quite as good is the story of the dervish who said to the miser that he wanted something of him; to which he replied: “If you will consent to a request of mine, I will consent to whatever else you may require”; and when the dervish desired to know what it was, he said: “Never ask me for anything and whatever else you say I will perform.”


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