Meanwhile, the moneylender took a wooden sundial from his bag, and marked the time.
“Wait for me here, potter, beneath this tree. I will return in one hour, and do not attempt to escape, for I will find you even at the bottom of the sea and treat you like any other escaped slave. And as for you, beautiful Guljan, think on my words: your father’s fate now depends on your kindness.”
And, with a triumphant smile on his filthy snout, he headed for the jewelers’ row to buy decorations for his new concubine.
The potter, doubled over in grief, remained with his daughter in the shade of the roadside tree. Hodja Nasreddin approached:
“Potter, I have heard the sentence. You are in trouble, but perhaps I can help?”
“No, kind man,” the potter replied with desperation in his voice. “I see by the patches in your clothing that you are not rich. I would need four hundred tanga! I have no friends that wealthy, all my friends are poor, ruined by requisitions and taxes.”
“I also have no rich friends in Bukhara, but nevertheless I will attempt to get the money,” Hodja Nasreddin interrupted.
“Get four hundred tanga in one hour!” The old man shook his gray head with a bitter smirk. “You must be mocking me, passerby! Only Hodja Nasreddin himself could possibly succeed in such an endeavor!”
“O passerby, save us, save us!” Guljan exclaimed, hugging her father. Hodja Nasreddin glanced at her and saw that her hands were perfect; she met his glance with a prolonged look, and he saw the glistening of her eyes, full of pleading and hope, through the veil. His blood began to boil and ran down his veins with searing fire; his love increased many fold. He said to the potter:
“Sit here, old man, and wait for me. May I be the lowest and most contemptible of all men if I do not obtain four hundred tanga before the moneylender arrives!”
Jumping on his donkey, he vanished in the bazaar crowd…
The square was a lot less noisy and crowded than in the morning, during the peak hours of trading, when everyone was running, shouting, and hurrying, afraid to miss out on a lucky deal. Noon was approaching, and people had left for the chaikhanas to escape the heat and find a quiet moment to tally their profits and losses. The sun flooded the square with a hot glow, and the shadows were short and well-defined, as if they had been carved out in the firm ground. Beggars huddled in shaded spots, and sparrows hopped beside them, picking at crumbs and chirping happily.
“Spare some money, kind man, in the name of Allah!” the beggars twanged, showing Hodja Nasreddin their deformities and ulcers.
He replied crossly:
“Get your hands away. I am no richer than you, I need four hundred tanga myself.”
The beggars took his words for mockery and showered Hodja Nasreddin with curses. Deep in thought, he did not reply.
He found the biggest and most crowded chaikhana, one that did not have any expensive rugs or silken pillows. He entered, dragging the donkey along instead of leaving him down at the tethering post.
Hodja Nasreddin was met by a surprised silence, but he was not the tiniest bit embarrassed. He reached into his saddlebag, pulled out the Koran that the old man had given him the previous day, and placed it, open, before the donkey.
He did all this calmly and unhurriedly, without a hint of smile on his face, as if it was perfectly normal.
The people in the chaikhana began to exchange glances. The donkey tapped his hoof on the hollow wooden flooring.
“Already?” Hodja Nasreddin asked, turning the page. “You are showing noticeable improvement.”
Then the paunchy, good-natured chaikhana keeper got up from his spot and approached Hodja Nasreddin.
“Listen, my good man, is this really the place for your donkey? And why have you placed a holy book in front of him?”
“I am teaching this donkey theology,” Hodja Nasreddin said calmly. “We have almost finished the Koran and will soon move on to Sharia.”
The buzz of voices and whispers filled the chaikhana. Many got up so they could see better.
The chaikhana keeper’s eyes became round and his mouth opened slightly. He had never seen such wonders before in his life. Just then, the donkey tapped his hoof again.
“Good,” Hodja Nasreddin praised him, turning the page. “Very good! A bit more effort, and you could become the chief theologian in the Mir-Arab madrassa.” Turning to the chaikhana keeper, Hodja Nasreddin added: “Only he cannot turn the pages himself, so I have to help him… Allah gave him a sharp mind and a phenomenal memory, but forgot to provide him with fingers.”
The people in the chaikhana abandoned their kettles and came closer; in less than a minute, a crowd had formed around Hodja Nasreddin.
“This donkey is no ordinary donkey!” Nasreddin announced. “He belongs to the emir himself. One day, the emir summoned me and asked: ‘Can you teach theology to my favorite donkey, so that he knows as much as I do?’ I was shown the donkey, I tested his abilities, and I said: ‘O illustrious emir! In terms of the sharpness of his mind, this phenomenal ass yields to none of your ministers, nor to you. I will undertake to teach him theology, and he will know all that you know and more, but this will take me twenty years.’ The emir gave me five thousand tanga in gold from his treasury and said: ‘Take this donkey and teach him, but, by Allah, if in twenty years he does not know theology and cannot recite the Koran from memory, I will have you beheaded!’”
“Well, that means you can kiss your head goodbye!” the chaikhana keeper exclaimed. “Who has ever heard of donkeys studying theology and reciting the Koran from memory?”
“There are many such donkeys in Bukhara alone,” Hodja Nasreddin replied. “Let me say, also, that it’s not every day that a man can get five thousand tanga in gold and a good donkey. As for my head, do not cry for it, because in twenty years, one of us will surely die – either myself, or the emir, or this donkey. And after that, good luck finding out which of us three knew more theology!”
The chaikhana nearly collapsed from the explosion of thunderous laughter, while the chaikhana keeper himself tumbled on a mat in convulsions, laughing so hard that his face became drenched with tears. He was a very cheerful and easily amused man, that chaikhana keeper!
“Did you hear?” he shouted, hoarse and gasping for breath. “Good luck finding out which of them knew more theology!” He probably would have burst from laughter, if something had not dawned on him.
“Wait! Wait!” He waved his hands, calling for everyone’s attention. “Who are you and where do you come from, o one who teaches theology to his donkey? Are you, perchance, Hodja Nasreddin himself?”
“And why are you so surprised? You have guessed correctly, chaikhana keeper! I am Hodja Nasreddin. Greetings to you, people of Noble Bukhara!”
Everyone froze on the spot for a long time, and then someone’s joyous voice broke the silence:
“Hodja Nasreddin!” another took up, and then a third and a fourth; and so it went through the chaikhana, through other chaikhanas, and through the entire bazaar – repeating and reverberating everywhere:
“Hodja Nasreddin! Hodja Nasreddin!”
People ran towards the chaikhana from every corner – Uzbeks, Tajiks, Iranians, Turkmens, Arabs, Turks, Georgians, Armenians, Tatars – and when they reached it, they shouted loud greetings to their favorite, the famous trickster and joker Hodja Nasreddin.