The following is published in TexasTechSan, March/April 2002, Volume 55, No. 2. Pp. 15.
Benjamin Franklin and Nasreddin of Asia Minor
H.B. Paksoy, D. Phil.
[The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to the book entitled The Bald Boy and the Most Beautiful Girl in the World, currently being prepared for publication]
All folk archetypes are created by people from the intellectual wealth of their environment and the process may be akin to crystals forming in nature. Upon a seed character, structurally kindred layers may be deposited, over time, to enlarge the entity until it reaches the heights of international renown. Two examples are Benjamin Franklin (d. 1790) of Philadelphia, and Nasreddin (c. 13th century?) of Asia Minor. These archetypes transmit their teaching to future generations through didactic stories. One such story may serve us for instructional purposes:
"Nasreddin and his son were traveling towards a market town, with an ass which they had to sell. The road was bad, and the old man therefore rode, but the son went afoot. The first passenger they met asked Nasreddin if he was not ashamed to ride by himself and suffer the poor lad to wade along through the mire; this induced him to take up his son behind him. He had not traveled far when he met others, who said they were two unmerciful lubbers to get both on the back of that poor ass, in such a deep road. Upon this the old man gets off and let his son ride alone. The next they met called the lad a graceless, rascally young jacka-naphs to ride in that manner through the dirt while his aged father trudged along on foot. And they said, the old man was a fool for suffering it. He then bid his son come down and walk with him, and they traveled on leading the ass by the halter; till they met another company, who called them a couple of senseless blockheads for going both on foot in such a dirty way when they had an empty ass with them, which they might ride upon. The old man could bear no longer. My son, it grieves me such that we cannot please all these people. Let us throw the ass over the next bridge, and be no further troubled with him."
This is the story I collected some years before sitting down to compose this Introduction. Except the narration above belongs to Benjamin Franklin, and he does not use Nasreddin's name (he calls the primary character, 'Old Man'). The story appears here as Franklin published it in his Pennsylvania Gazette (c. 1731), in his own defense that a man cannot possibly appease everyone. Now, how did Franklin know about this Nasreddin story? Or, is it not a Nasreddin story at all, created by Franklin, translated from English, crossed the Atlantic, arrived in Asia Minor and shouldered Nasreddin's mantle? Or, can there be other possibilities?
In June 1731, Franklin published the well-known "Apology for Printers" in his Pennsylvania Gazette:
"....Hence arises the peculiar unhappiness of that business, which other callings are no way liable to; they who follow printing very scarce able to do only thing in their way of getting a living which shall not probably give offence to some, and perhaps to many, whereas the smith, the shoemaker, the carpenter, or the man of any other trade may work indifferently for people of all persuasions without offending them, any of them; and the merchant may buy and sell with Jews, Turks, heretics and infidels of all sorts, and get money by every one of them, without giving offence to the most orthodox...."
Apparently, Franklin knew more than he disclosed. For example, on another occasion, when Franklin was working to establish the "New House" in Philadelphia for the purpose of taking care of disenfranchised, itinerant or newly arrived preachers, he is said to have stated:
"If the mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach
Mahometanism (sic) to us he would find a pulpit at his service..." (After recording this quotation, Brands adds: 'for all the uproar the Great Awakening caused among Protestants, they retained sufficient composure to band together against such irretrievably lost souls as Moslems, Catholics and Jews')
So, Franklin was acquainted with the lay of the land in Asia Minor. Did his stay in London, a city in close commercial and diplomatic relations with the Ottoman port cities, especially Istanbul and Izmir, help him acquire his information? Franklin must have either had amassed quite a bit of information, or had easy access to it, both from the books he personally owned, and through the Library Company he pioneered in Philadelphia. Franklin began drawing on all that accumulated information when he began the Poor Richard's Almanack. Brands again observes:
"Every Almanack offered pearls of wisdom on personal conduct and related matters of daily life, that the pearls had been retrieved from other oysters bothered no one except perhaps the owners of those other oysters, who in any event had no recourse in the absence of applicable copyright laws. The trick for writers like Franklin was to polish the pearls and set them distinctively." The reader may decide.
Nasreddin's didactic messages, in the disguise of tales, moved far and wide over time and space. In fact, his name and teachings are familiar bright spots in many geographic and cultural terrains, stretching from the Mediterranean into the Eastern reaches of the Asian Continent. Even Mark Twain was moved to include an episode from Nasreddin in one of his volumes, which he encountered on one of his own peregrinations.
Until rather recently, Nasreddin has been treated solely as an oral literature archetype, a creation of the collective minds of the Turkish heritage. On the other hand, information harvested from the 13th century literary sources for the past couple of decades, it is said, tell a different kind of tale, that Nasreddin may have been a real person.
Perhaps we have much more to learn about the world and ourselves.