In My Own Write: Speaking truth to power

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Nasreddin 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nasreddin 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's interesting how a quite ordinary conversation with a friend - this one was about the (dubious) merits of parties in our recent elections - can, in a flash, produce the most exotic association. In this case, the association was with Nasreddin, the "wise fool" of Turkish folklore. It came about as my friend was dismissing all the campaign gimmickry and slogans with a shrug, shaking her head over how so many people seem to be swayed by appearances, valuing gloss over substance. Yes, I said excitedly, just like in the story of "Nasreddin and the Coat" - with which I proceeded to regale her: Once Nasreddin was invited to a feast. Not wanting to be ostentatious, he wore his everyday clothes, only to discover that everyone ignored him. He didn't even have a place at the table. So he went home and changed into his fanciest coat, then returned to the banquet. Now he was greeted on all sides and invited to sit down and eat and drink. When the soup was served, he was observed dunking the sleeve of his coat into the bowl and urging, "Eat, coat, eat!" "What are you doing?" his startled host asked. "Well," answered Nasreddin, "when I arrived in my ordinary clothes, no one took any notice of me. But when I returned wearing this fine coat, I was immediately offered the best of everything. "So I must conclude that it was the coat, and not myself, that was invited to your banquet." WISE, eh? But Nasreddin could be a trickster, too, as in the tale of "The Pot That Died," and foolish, as in the amusing story of the six donkeys he was taking to market (read them on the Internet). Who was this "wise fool"? It is thought that the some 350 well-loved anecdotes about Nasreddin may be based on the actual words and exploits of a historical imam, born in 1208 in the province of Eskisehir in central Turkey and often referred to as "Hodja," meaning teacher or scholar. Nasreddin was well aware that humor, wit and irony have an unparalleled ability to draw attention to the most weighty issues and drive home even unpalatable truths. He also knew that a fool may rush in, with impunity, where even angels fear to tread. IN ENGLAND, courtly fools, or jesters, made their appearance among the medieval aristocracy during the 12th century. By the time of Queen Elizabeth's reign (1533-1603), these singular individuals were a common feature of English society, and fell into two categories. "Natural" fools included those unfortunate individuals who were misshapen, mentally deficient or afflicted with dwarfism. Often considered household pets by their masters, they were treated quite well by contemporary standards, though dwarf-throwing contests were not unheard of. But what concerns us here are the "unnatural" or "artificial" fools - individuals of considerable verbal resources who had a talent for intellectual repartee and, most significantly, the liberty to engage in it. The artificial fool was the exception to the rule: In his society, he alone enjoyed freedom of speech vis-a-vis his betters. More than that, he was actually expected to make witty and sarcastic comments about rulers and courtiers alike. He had no political ambitions, no agenda - his honesty, wit and verbal skill were what earned him his keep. SHAKESPEARE was quite at home with the idea of the wise fool. Even his simple fools, the clownish "mechanicals" of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Trinculo in The Tempest and Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice - rustic or uneducated characters there to evoke laughter - are thought by some critics to possess a degree of wisdom. As for his wise fools - such as Twelfth Night's shrewd Feste and the unnamed Fool of King Lear - they emerge as the most astute of the characters in their respective plays. A wise king pays close attention to his fool, and woe betide the ruler - like Richard II - who does not keep an honest fool; or who, like King Lear, pays him insufficient heed. In a society where sycophantic advisers flattered the high and mighty, the fool could speak truth to power and find his words laughed at, but, at the same time, appreciated and not censured. WISDOM imparted in the guise of folly. Entertainment that enlightens and (hopefully) engenders introspection. Truth spoken to power, while those who wield that power can't help but laugh, and might even pay attention when it's critical. Where are the wise fools of Israeli society, present and past, holding a glaring mirror to our political elite, and yet not alienating it? It's in the entertainment field that they are to be found. Perhaps the first was the irrepressible Ephraim Kishon, who arrived in Israel in 1949 and, at the start of a long and productive career writing humor, created Sallah Shabati, a biting 1950s film comedy about a North African immigrant to Israel that focused on the anti-heroic aspects of an overly bureaucratized state. With TV, which arrived here in the '70s, came the daring Nikui Rosh (Cleaning the Head) - the country's first sophisticated, in-your-face political satire, shaking viewers with its attacks on the Labor establishment following the Yom Kippur War. "Some of its depictions," wrote Talya Halkin in this newspaper a few years ago, "like the portrayal of the famously powerful Golda Meir as a self-styled grandmother who claims to find herself accidentally in the company of generals and to have no power over them, are etched in the minds of several generations of Israelis." "'We used to sit on edge all week waiting for the next show,'" Halkin quoted cultural critic Tami Katz-Freiman as recalling. But this satire was merciless. "'The program's radicalism was real,'" Katz-Freiman recalled. "'At the end of the evening, there was, figuratively speaking, blood on the ground.'" ONE would have to mention the venerable Tuvia Tsafir, who has poked fun at more of our high and mighty than most, notably in the '80s, and the much younger, very versatile Eli Yatzpan. Currently most watched is the modern echo of Nikui Rosh - the satirical Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country), which recently featured a skit of post-election speeches ridiculing the three major party leaders. Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman was portrayed as a Mussolini-like fascist pushing his coalition partners aside to take full control of the government. Standing at a podium - surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards dressed in black and dogs on leashes - he told the audience when and how loud they should clap, and made a number of promulgations about what citizens could now expect, including: "On airplanes, [the choice of] chicken or beef - it's beef." When the anchor in the studio asked if he could pose a question, "Lieberman" retorted: "Lo marsheh" (I forbid it). Satire should, like a polish'd razor keen Wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen. - Mme. de Sevigne (1626-1696) ONE THING our modern wise fools have to watch is that they are wielding the polish'd razor of their satire against all political figures alike. A satirical attack that is based on a satirist's personal distaste for his subject inevitably veers away from the reality that parallels real comedy, and becomes crude nonsense. "Genuine satire is compressed truth, truth peeled of its hypocrisy," Kishon once told the Post. "The moment reality disappears from behind satire, it's just plain vulgarity." The modern wise fool, then, must switch on an internal GPS from time to time, and ask himself: Am I allowing myself to be overly influenced by political bias? If the answer is yes, he needs to adjust course. Like Nasreddin on a runaway donkey.