Editor’s note: In the Summer 2022 issue of ArabLit Quarterly: THE JOKE, Hacı Osman Gündüz (Ozzy) has brought us translations from the manuscript of Solace for the Traveler and Entertainment for the Conversationalist. However, we were unable to publish the Arabic originals. Here, we share a few of the translations and all the originals, which Ozzy has transcribed.
Selected and edited by Hacı Osman Gündüz (Ozzy)
Some time ago I came across a manuscript titled Kitab salwat al-musafir wa-nuzhat al-muhadir (Solace for the Traveler and Entertainment for the Conversationalist) at Harvard University’s Houghton Library (MS Arab SM276). This anonymous work is a compilation of humorous anecdotes divided into thirteen chapters—though the tenth chapter is missing. It includes jokes and funny stories about Bedouins, judges, teachers, grammarians, and poets, among others. The manuscript is undated, but it appears to be from the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and most of the stories can be found in other sources. Such compilations were common. At a time when people could not entertain themselves with TV and thumb-wrecking scrolling on myriad social media platforms, compilations kept them company. These works tended to be written in small notebooks easy to carry in one’s pocket or satchel. An educated person was expected to have memorized hundreds of lines of poetry, and to be a gifted storyteller, and compilations played a pivotal role in educating oneself on becoming a good adib. People also created their own compilations by copying poems, recipes for food and medicine, stories, historical narratives, and important events into their notebooks, alongside their own writings. Such compilations are generally known as kashkul or majmuʿah.
The concern of Kitab salwat al-musāair wa-nuzhat al-muhadir is entertaining the reader and the listener with funny stories and jokes, and I have translated thirteen stories from different chapters. Jokes are not always easy to translate. As a philologist and teacher of classical Arabic, my favorite section was the chapter about pedantic grammarians who drive everyone nuts obsessing over this declension and that alternative irregular plural. In one of these stories, a father in his death throes questions whether he wants to see his son, an unbearable grammarian, knowing well that his son could kill him with his pedantry before the angel of death arrives. Ultimately, I did not translate a story from this chapter.
This is an edited transcription of selected stories from Kitab salwat al-musafir wa-nuzhat al-muhadir (Solace for the Traveler and Entertainment for the Conversationalist; [MS Arab SM276], Houghton Library, Harvard University). My translation of these stories with an introduction was published in ArabLit Quarterly 5:2 (Summer 2022), 70-85. I have transcribed the selections with minimal editing, and the reader will note that our work can be classified as a Middle Arabic text, as it has colloquial features in lexical usage and grammar. To facilitate easy reading, I have added punctuation and edited only a few words. I hope this will be helpful for those interested in reading the Arabic original of the stories.
نوادر مختارة من كتاب سلوة المسافر ونزهة المسافر
الباب الأول: في نوادر العرب الكرام
AL-MAHDI AND THE HOSPITABLE BEDOUIN
One day, al-Mahdi went out hunting, and his horse wandered until it led him to a bedouin’s tent. Al-Mahdi asked the bedouin: Do you have any food for us? The bedouin said: Yes. The bedouin then brought out a barley bread, which al-Mahdi ate. He also served his guest some milk, and then he brought him wine in a waterskin and gave him a cup, which the guest drank.
“Do you know who I am?” al-Mahdi asked.
“No, by God, I don’t know who you are,” the bedouin said.
“I am one of al-Mahdi’s intimate servants.”
Then the bedouin served him another cup of wine, which al-Mahdi chugged down.
“Do you know who I am, my bedouin friend?”
“No, not at all.”
“I am one of the boon companions of al-Mahdi.”
And the bedouin served him a third cup, which, again, al-Mahdi chugged down.
“Do you know who I am, my dear bedouin?”
“No, but you first said that you were one of al-Mahdi’s intimate servants, and then you said that you were one of his boon companions.”
“I am, in reality, al-Mahdi himself.”
The bedouin tied up the mouth of the waterskin and threw it inside the tent and said to him: By God, you shall drink no more.
“Why is that?” al-Mahdi asked.
And the bedouin answered, “Because when you had the first goblet, you claimed to be an intimate servant, and when you had the second one, you claimed to be one of al-Mahdi’s boon companions, and after the third one you claimed to be al-Mahdi himself. If you have a fourth drink, I don’t doubt that you will claim to be the Messenger of God, peace be upon him, and if you have a fifth you will claim to be the Almighty.”
Al-Mahdi fell down laughing. Then one of al-Mahdi soldiers came asking for the caliph, and the bedouin realized that the man was indeed al-Mahdi and fled. Al-Mahdi commanded that he be brought back, and he bestowed upon him twenty thousand dinars as a gift. When the bedouin took the gift, he said to al-Mahdi: I bear witness that you are a truthful man. If you had claimed to be the fourth [messenger of God] and the fifth [the Almighty], I would have believed you. Al-Mahdi laughed again and gave him much more than what he had first given him.
CHAPTERS OF THE COW AND THE ELEPHANT
A bedouin partook in a prayer led by an imam who recited Surat al-Fatihah and then half of Surat al-Baqarah (The Chapter of the Cow). The bedouin was actually in a hurry. The following day, after reciting Surat al-Fatihah, the imam started reciting Surat al-Fil (The Chapter of the Elephant) and the bedouin cut his prayer short and started to make a run for it while saying: “Last night, he recited the Cow and the prayer lasted for three hours, and tonight he is reciting the Elephant. It will no doubt last for half of the night, because an elephant is larger than a cow.” Everyone who was in the mosque started laughing and the prayer was interrupted.
الباب الثاني: في نوادر المغفلين
HOW TO COUNT THE DONKEYS?
One day, an ignoramus was herding ten donkeys. He decided to ride one of them, and when he counted the donkeys, there were nine in front of him. He then dismounted from the donkey he was riding and counted them again, only to discover they were ten. He said to himself: “I walk, and I gain one donkey. I’d rather not ride and lose one donkey.” He then walked all the way back to his village and almost died of exhaustion.
YOU CRAPPED YOUR PANTS AND YOU DON’T KNOW IT!
الباب الثالث: في نوادر القضاة:
WHAT IS THE ‘TOOL’ OF YOUR CRIME?
A JUST PUNISHMENT
الباب الرابع: في نوادر المعلمين
A SELF-RIGHTEOUS TEACHER AND A BITTERSWEET DREAM
الباب الخامس: في نوادر المتنبين
A BILLY GOAT PROPHET
HOW ABOUT A PROPHETESS?
الباب الثامن: في نوادر الشعراء
ABU NUWAS’ SHENANIGANS
الباب الثاني عشر: في نوادر النسا والجواري والمغنيات
AS UGLY AS THE DEVIL
الباب الثالث عشر: في نوادر الصبيان والخدّام
A LIAR LIKE NO ONE ELSE
 في الأصل: صورة.
 في الأصل صورة.
 في الأصل: قَرَّ.
 في الأصل: يبلل.
 في الأصل: كلما.
 في الأصل: ثلة.
 في الأصل: ارفاقهُ.
Hacı Osman Gündüz (Ozzy) is a PhD candidate at Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization (NELC). His dissertation research focuses on Arabic literature of 16th-century Bilad al-Sham. His main interest is the literary milieu of Damascus during the first century of Ottoman rule (1516-1600). He also teaches classical Arabic at Harvard University.