Once upon a time Nasreddin Hodja, the famous trickster, was walking toward the border between his country and another. He led a donkey by a rope, and the donkey was laden with straw. When the border inspector spied Hodja, he smiled and rubbed his hands gleefully. ‘Ah, this man is a trickster, and surely he is smuggling something. Watch this,’ he whispered to his fellow inspectors. ‘I shall find his smuggled goods.’
The inspector stopped Hodja. ‘Sir, you must allow me to search your donkey. I am certain you are attempting to smuggle valuable goods across the border, into Persia.’ Hodja nodded solemnly. ‘Search away, good fellow,’ he said, ‘but I’m afraid you’ll find nothing but straw.’
The inspector frowned. ‘Everyone knows you’re a trickster,’ he said. ‘And that you always have a trick up your sleeve.’ Hodja nodded again, and the inspector began his search. He pulled at the bundles of straw, scattering straw here, there and everywhere. He reached inside each bundle. He called to his assistants, and they examined the straw bundles carefully. But search as they would, the inspectors found nothing hidden in Hodja’s straw, and so they sent him on his way across the border.
A week later Hodja returned, once again leading a donkey laden with straw. ‘Ah ha,’ the inspector said to him, ‘you likely think we won’t search you this time, but you are wrong.’ The inspector called to every assistant, and 10 men plucked and pulled and yanked at the straw, tossing it everywhere and making quite a mess. But the men found nothing at all, and the inspector had no choice but to let Hodja pass the border.
The next week the same thing happened, and the same happened the next. Every week for many months Hodja led his donkey to the border, and every week for many months the inspector eyed him with the greatest suspicion. As time passed, the inspector’s determination to expose Hodja as a smuggler grew fiercer, and every week his searches took longer. Still Hodja never lost his temper nor grew upset. He simply stood and waited while the search went on, and every single time the inspectors found no hidden treasure.
A year passed this way. Word spread far and wide. ‘The border patrol believe Hodja’s a smuggler,’ people said, but no one could prove this was true.
However, the rumors persisted. People wondered what he might be smuggling. Did he carry valuable coins across borders? Was he hiding gold, perhaps? Or maybe he transformed the straw itself into gold, as some said magicians could do. Could Hodja be more than a trickster? Perhaps he was a magician, too. In this way, Hodja’s reputation as a clever smuggler spread far and wide, across every nearby border.
Still the inspector was determined to undo the plump little man with the unfailingly serene expression. ‘No one will outwit me,’ he promised, and so each time Hodja appeared, the inspector searched his donkey and straw.
This went on for years. The inspector grew old, and soon it was time for him to retire. “I cannot stop working until I have discovered Hodja’s secret,” he swore, and so he worked on, well past retirement age, deep into old age. At long last he was far too tired to go to work, and his eyesight was failing. Finally, he left his post.But he never stopped thinking of Hodja. Had he smuggled treasures in the donkey’s tail? Perhaps they should have searched the donkey’s mouth. He sent word to the border men, and so they continued to search. And then one day Hodja simply stopped crossing the border.
Still the inspector could not stop thinking of him. He decided to visit Hodja in his hometown of Aksehir, for he realized that he would never be satisfied until he had gotten the truth out of him. So he traveled across the border. He found Hodja sitting idly in the marketplace, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the sweetness of his coffee.
‘Sir,’ said the inspector, ‘excuse me, but I have to know. I cannot rest. All those years you crossed the border and we searched you — surely you were smuggling something?’ Hodja looked at the inspector and smiled his warmest smile. Slowly he nodded. ‘Please, you must tell me. What was it? Gold? Silver? Were you smuggling food or spirits? Cloth, perhaps? Where did you hide it?’With each guess Hodja just shook his head. ‘Won’t you tell an old man, sir? I’ll never rest in peace unless I know.’
And because Hodja was a kind man and did not wish the inspector to spend the rest of his days worrying, he nodded, ‘Yes. I’ll tell you now. I was smuggling donkeys.’