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Photo: The Economist
A statue of Juha, the wise old fool of Arab folklore.

It’s interesting to me that all cultures seem to have something like a wonton as part of their cuisine. Jewish cooks make kreplach, Italians make ravioli, Polish cooks make pierogis, and so on. We have more in common than we often realize.

The same goes for folktales. For example, most cultures have a wise fool, like the old court jesters or Don Quixote. I just learned about an Arab example.

The Economist comments, “Western audiences have grown used to the marauding heroes of Arabic folklore. Characters like Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba instantly conjure images of hidden treasure and desperate sword fights. But in the Middle East itself, many people prefer a more down-to-earth figure: Juha, a wise old fool, and his long-suffering donkey. …

“Juha first appeared in an Arabic book of the ninth century, though this was likely adapted from an older oral tradition. From there, Juha quickly splintered to the far ends of the Mediterranean world. He followed the Arabs to Sicily, where he became known as Giufà. In Turkey, his legend merged with a Sufi mystic called Nasruddin, while the Ottomans exported him to the Balkans. Some even claim that Juha inspired Cervantes’s ‘Don Quixote.’ …

“In some tales, Juha is accompanied by his faithful donkey and much amusement springs from it getting lost. One story begins with Juha looking for the animal around town; everywhere he goes, he thanks God. People are confused. ‘Why are you praising God?’ they ask. ‘Surely this is nothing to be thankful for?’ Juha smiles. ‘If I were riding the donkey right now, I’d be lost too!’

“Not all Juha’s tales are so innocent. Like court jesters in medieval Europe, his everyman style has proved an ideal vehicle for social criticism. In one fable, Juha is approached by a proud king. ‘All the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them,’ he proclaims. ‘There was God-gifted, and God-accepted. Can you think of a name for me?’ Juha pauses. “God-forbid,’ comes his retort. …

“Ali Ahmed Bakathir, an Egyptian nationalist, reimagined the fable of ‘Juha’s nail’ in 1951 to mock Britain’s obsession with the Suez Canal (just as Juha keeps ownership of a single nail at his old house so he always has an excuse to visit, Bakathir suggested that the British used Suez to justify their occupation of Egypt generally). …

“Amid the confusion of the modern Middle East, Juha is one way people find common ground. Last year, storytellers from around the Gulf met in the United Arab Emirates to celebrate Juha. The internet provides another space for communal appreciation. A popular Reddit page features dozens of volunteers reading a classic Juha story in their native Arabic dialect.”

More at the Economist, including sightings of Juha in unlikely parts of the world, here.

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