The informant admitted immediately that he was not precisely sure of when or why his family began telling the stories of Nazrudin; he understood them to be largely grounded in Jewish culture and no one is his family identifies as Jewish. However, the informant then explained that tales of Nazrudin had spread throughout the Persian empire as well as geographically across the Middle East, which could explain how the story filtered through his Indian and Iraqi sides of the family.
He always thought the tales of Nazrudin to have a highly comedic value, but even at a young age he noticed the twists at the end of each tale, when Nazrudin would exact a unique kind of justice on those who had wronged him or had taken advantage of him. He also stated that all of his Jewish friends from childhood had heard at least a few tales of Nazrudin each, although details within the tales would vary from child to child.
The stories that I’m telling revolve around this one character, Nazrudin. A lot of times you’ll hear different stories and the hero is someone who is. . .strong, bold and courageous, and goes out and does heroic things. Nazrudin is a character that comes up in Jewish tales but also has to do with tales in the Middle East; he’s kind of a wide-spread character. But, every single those stories are told he’s described in the same way: a forty-year old, slight, pudgy, balding man. Not someone to be feared or intimidated by―basically not a Hercules. So Nazrudin would go around and his role in a lot of these stories is as a trickster. He goes around and he dispenses wisdom to people who otherwise wouldn’t get it kind of by being almost like that, that thorn in the side, you know?
One story that highlights this is. . . Nazrudin is in Persia and in Persia he gets really hot, and this is a time when there’s no plumbing, there’s no bathtub in your house. So he’s in Persia and he’s not someone who would make a lot of money, and so he has a small house with no bathtub and no running water. He visits a bathhouse once every week in order to clean himself off. Those were the customs (laughs), hygiene was not a big thing back in the day.
Nazrudin takes his towel and walks from his house many, many miles to the bathhouse. By this time, he looks almost like a beggar. He looks dirty, his clothes are covered in dust, he’s covered in dust―and he didn’t have very nice things to begin with. So, he walks up to the attendant at the desk and he says, “I’d like to take a bath.” The attendant, standing at the desk (as I’m sure we’ve all had this experience with customer service representatives) looks down his nose at Nazrudin and says in a very snooty voice, “I think we can find a bath for you.” The attendant takes Nazrudin down the hall to the farthest bath away from the entrance. Nazrudin opens it, and it’s a bathroom that has obviously not been cleaned. It’s dirty, it’s unkempt, there are flies, it smells. When he turns on the water to get in the bath, only cold water comes out. He tries to call for the attendant but the attendant doesn’t come. So Nazrudin takes it for what it is, takes the bath, and leaves.
On his way out, he takes a gold coin (basically the wealthiest piece of currency that they have) and puts it on the attendant’s desk. The attendant’s like, “What this?” And Nazrudin says, “This is for the bath.” And the attendant, still in shock, sits there staring at the gold coin as Nazrudin walks out.
The next week, Nazrudin comes in. This time, Nazrudin still not looking very good―he’s gone a week without bathing, remember. This time, though, the attendant is all smiles. He remembers that gold coin and thinks that Nazrudin is someone who’s wealthy and has status. He says, “Please sir, come this way! Can I get you anything?” He’s very accommodating this time. He brings Nazrudin to their best bathhouse and Nazrudin takes a long, hot bath. The attendant is on beck and call for anything he needs; he has extra towels, extra silks, things like that. Nazrudin enjoys himself, and on the way out, the attendant comes out, basically there waiting for his tip. Nazrudin reaches into his purse and pulls out a tiny, tiny copper coin and gives it to the attendant. The attendant looks at it, looks at Nazrudin, looks back at the coin, and says, “What’s this?” Nazrudin says, “This. . .was for last week. That. . .was for this week.”
The description of Nazrudin as a nondescript middle-aged man is significant because the tales of Nazrudin shows that Herculean strength or beauty is not required to triumph over others. Cunning and quick wit are just as valuable, and these characteristics are not evident in appearances. Moreover, the attendant’s snootiness and condescendence toward Nazrudin reinforces the old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover;” the attendant could not reconcile his perception of the beggarly Nazrudin with the large gold coin he deposited at the end of the bath. The legend encourages individuals to look beyond superficial divisions like those of appearance and class and to treat everyone fairly.
Additionally, the fact that tales of Nazrudin have traveled geographically are likely due to migration as well as imperial influence (especially when considering the breadth of the Persian and Ottoman Empires). It is unsurprising that the informant’s childhood friends had learned variants of the same tale because of the high likelihood that varying ociotypes had surfaced from different regions. Clearly, the tales of Nazrudin had a wide appeal if they were adopted by a broad range of cultures.