Juha, Donkeys, and Thieves: Wit and Wisdom of Folk Tradition

Pamela Nice

The Garden of Joys: An Anthology of Oriental Anecdotes, Fables and Proverbs
Translated and related by Henry Cattan
Saqi Books, 2000                                              
Henry Cattan (1906-1992) was a renowned international jurist and author. Born in Jerusalem, he authored several books on Palestine and issues of international law. A side interest of his was Arab and Persian folklore, which he collected and translated for Western (English) readers. This recently published collection has three parts: folk tales, most of which have not been previously translated; a selection of Juha stories; and almost 200 Arabic proverbs. At slightly over 150 pages, it serves as an entertaining introduction to the wit and wisdom of the Arab folk tradition. It is not meant for the serious scholar, but rather for the lay reader newly interested in Arab and Persian folk culture.
Taken in this light, I find that the greatest joy in this garden of "Oriental" folk literature is the appearance of Juha in his many escapades. (Cattan uses the term "Oriental" to refer to Arab, Indo-Persian and some Greek and Turkish sources.) Juha is a folk character of arguable origin, most likely Persian, from around the eighth century; he has since been claimed by both the Arabs and the Turks. His stories - which number in the hundreds - are a mainstay of Arab popular humor and are widespread all over the Middle East. He also has cousins in other folk traditions, including the seemingly naive but sly peasant whose predicaments have an entertaining logic.
The Juha stories come from oral tradition, and take on a different color depending on the teller and the circumstances in which they are told. The basic plot remains the same, but the teller may embellish the circumstances with local details and references to make them more topical. Of course, as oral literature, the stories lose some of their flavor in written form, as well as in English translation. But you can still get a taste of the possibilities.  An example:
"A neighbor came to Juha and said, 'Lend me your donkey, for suddenly I find I have to go on a journey.' Juha, who did not wish to lend the man his donkey, replied, 'I would willingly lend it to you, but alas, I sold it yesterday'
 "Just then, the donkey, which was in the stable, began to bray in a deafening manner. The neighbor jumped. 'But your donkey is in the stable,' he remonstrated.
"Juha replied angrily, 'You fool, would you take the word of an ass against mine?'"
In the section on folktales and fables, the widely-known stories from the "A Thousand and One Nights" and "Kalilah and Dimna"- which originated in Persia and India, respectively - have been left out in favor of lesser-known stories, which have not previously been translated. These come from Arabic or Indo-Persian sources, or may be derived from "Aesop's Fables." The guiding principle for a story's inclusion, according to Cattan's foreword, was that it not focus on jinns, which already dominated this folklore, and that it illustrate Cattan's sense of Oriental humor and wit.
These stories and anecdotes describe hot-headed caliphs, bumbling thieves, and crafty wives who seek to outwit the arbitrary power of their husbands. Some of them illustrate moral or social lessons concerning decisions of kings and caliphs, how one treats one's neighbors, or the importance of generosity and hospitality.  Others have humor as their aim, such as this anecdote:
A man claimed that he was God.  He was led to the caliph to be tried and punished for his abominable crime. The caliph said to him, "Last year a man claimed he was a prophet and he was hanged.  What dost thou say to that?"  The man answered, "Thou didst well to have him hanged for I did not send him!"
The proverbs in the third section of the book may be reflective of Arab culture:   "He who leads the donkey to the top of the minaret will have to bring it down." But the wisdom contained in these proverbs is universal:  "We opened the door for him, and he came in with his donkey."  (Again, the donkeys!)
Many of the stories, fables and proverbs would be a welcome addition to the curriculum of elementary education in the United States, which presently uses very little Arab or Persian literature. Teachers, as well as anyone intrigued by the folk wisdom and humor of Arab and Persian tradition, would enjoy this entertaining book.
This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 29, Fall 1999.
Copyright © 1999 AL JADID MAGAZINE