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Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος
(Greek Linguistics)

2009-10-06

The Authority of Nasrudin

I've just posted at The Other Place on Nasrudin, the Muslim comic hero whose stories also pervade Greece and Cyprus. I finished my post there with a Nasrudin joke from Wikipedia, which I chose to render in Ancient Greek (and in the process forget the declension of "this".) Here's the joke again:

A neighbour comes to the gate of Mulla Nasrudin's yard. The Mulla goes out to meet him outside.
"Would you mind, Mulla," the neighbour asks, "lending me your donkey today? I have some goods to transport to the next town."
The Mulla doesn't feel inclined to lend out the animal to that particular man, however; so, not to seem rude, he answers:
"I'm sorry, but I've already lent him to somebody else."
Suddenly the donkey can be heard braying loudly behind the wall of the yard.
"You lied to me, Mulla!" the neighbour exclaims. "There it is behind that wall!"
"What do you mean?" the Mulla replies indignantly. "Whom would you rather believe, a donkey or your Mulla?"

I smirked.

Then I shared some of the jokes with a colleague, and he didn't smirk as much. Which led me to wonder whether there was a particular culture dependency on this humour that I was missing, because I had an overlapping culture with it and my Anglo colleagues did not.

That evening, I was invited over to some friends' for an evening of dinner and Settlers of Catan. Well, dinner without me eating, as has been the norm with my dietary regime for the past six months, that has seen me lose 13 kg in 3 months, and then remain static for another 3 months. My friends have a seven–year-old and a six–year-old. Since seven–year-olds make excellent developmental testbeds, and I was informed the kids had recently discovered humour, I took it upon myself to try the joke out on said seven–year-old (let's call her Mary), and see what happened.

NICK: [Joke]

MARY: ...

MOM: OK, let's try translating this to her context now.

NICK: [You mean the context isn't universal?]

MOM: So, we're going to translate this to [Region of Eastern Melbourne, Mainstream Protestant Denomination] Church context.

Let's pretend you go over to Dave's house. And Dave has a big dog. (In fact... he does have a dog.)

NICK: [The pastor's name is "Dave". I think I see a problem...]

MOM: ... and you say to Dave, "I want to play with your dog." And Dave says, "I haven't got a dog!" And then you hear the dog. Woof. WOOF WOOF. WOOF WOOF WOOF.

MARY: *giggle*

MOM: And then you say to Dave, "But I can hear the dog!" And then he says, "Who ya gonna believe. Me, or the dog."

MARY: ... The dog. Coz I can hear the dog.

MOM: *Looks at me triumphantly*

And Mom (er, my friend) then gave me the key to unlock why the joke wouldn't work in a [Mainstream Protestant Denomination] Church context. Which I was halfway there with already, when I registered the pastor was Dave and not The Right Revd. David Davidson.

A mullah, and even more so an Orthodox priest, can summon a lot of intellectual authority over their community. The Nasrudin joke is parodying how far that claim to authority can go. A pastor, on the other hand, doesn't get to do that; because Protestantism is about noone getting in between the parishioner and their interpretation of Scripture.

That's something I knew intellectually, but I doubt I had quite clicked on. As I've hinted before, I'm not entire as fluent in my host culture as I think I am.

Of course, even if Protestantism doesn't afford the pastor that kind of authority, being called "The Right Revd." does somewhat. And with a society radically changed enough that authority figures ask to go by first names, pastors accommodate to the World, and ask to go by first names, and surrender a little more of their authority. Which fits the Protestant ideal.

I think it's going to be a fair while before any Orthodox clergyman in Greece says "Call me Lefteris". (Not Papa-Lefteris, mind you, where the title, however familiarly, is still doing the work of "The Right Revd.")

There is another way of viewing the interaction between Mary and Nasrudin, too. Big Media Matt was a philosophy major before he was a political pundit, and he occasionally lapses into philosophy on his blog. One such recent instance had him disapprove of the simplism of prefacing a cartoon by They Might Be Giants, encouraging kids to get into science, with a Cartoon-Rudolf Carnap: the crude reduction that Science is only about direct experience, and not noting how much of a social process it is.

I don't know my Carnap, though I have been warned by another friend not to assume the Cartoon version. And the thread at Matt Yglesias' went to and fro, but a couple of commenters did point out that after all, the audience was just kids. Get them started early with differentiating between unicorns and horses; you can talk them through the social situatedness of that differentiation by I dunno, their undergraduate History & Philosophy of Science.

And as another friend pointed out, when I retold the previous evening's events (yes, the anecdotes have done the rounds): there are contexts in which you really do have to overrule your sensory evidence, as Nasrudin suggests. Not perhaps for the reasons Nasrudin suggests—but Nasrudin is supposed to get you thinking, not just guffawing. Still, seven is still a little too early for that.

Though not too early for Mary to know a word I didn't. Subitise, quotha. I just knew it as Gestalt perception.

*That* made me feel old...

3 comments:

Pierre A said...

here are some very specific cultural reasons why the Nasruddin Hoca story is fully appreciated only by Muslims.

In Islamic (Sharia) courts, concrete evidence, no matter how apparently material and relevant, carries no significant authority independent of the social and religious standing of the witness who offers it. Jews, Christians and even Muslim women have little authority; pagans and draft animals, such as the Hoca's donkey, have none. All Muslims are deeply aware of this criterion for evidence. One classic story is of a Muslim who was offered what seemed to him to be wine but, when he was told that it was prepared by a Christian and sold by a Jew, reassured himself that with a chain of authority as weak as that, he had nothing to worry about.

The Koran actually tried in a desultory way to ameliorate this view but, “in matters of law, hadith (oral tradition validated by the standing of those who related it) is always decisive against the Koran; the Koran is never decisive against hadith.” The weight given to a Muslim male witness is the reason that a 13-year old female victim of forcible rape will almost certainly be stoned to death by the Taliban, while her assailant, even if it is acknowledged that he may have behaved badly, will get off with a slap on the wrist.

Pierre MacKay said...

here are some very specific cultural reasons why the Nasruddin Hoca story is fully appreciated only by Muslims.

In Islamic (Sharia) courts, concrete evidence, no matter how apparently material and relevant, carries no significant authority independent of the social and religious standing of the witness who offers it. Jews, Christians and even Muslim women have little authority; pagans and draft animals, such as the Hoca's donkey, have none. All Muslims are deeply aware of this criterion for evidence. One classic story is of a Muslim who was offered what seemed to him to be wine but, when he was told that it was prepared by a Christian and sold by a Jew, reassured himself that with a chain of authority as weak as that, he had nothing to worry about.

The Koran actually tried in a desultory way to ameliorate this view but, “in matters of law, hadith (oral tradition validated by the standing of those who related it) is always decisive against the Koran; the Koran is never decisive against hadith.” The weight given to a Muslim male witness is the reason that a 13-year old female victim of forcible rape will almost certainly be stoned to death by the Taliban, while her assailant, even if it is acknowledged that he may have behaved badly, will get off with a slap on the wrist.

Diana Wright said...

Then there is the WC Field's {or somebody's] retort when found in the arms of another woman: "Who are you going to believe? Me or your own lying eyes?"

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