A penniless man passes a street vendor. All he has to eat is a crust of bread he has picked up from the street. From the vendor’s cooking pots wafts a delicious aroma. The man stops to soften his bread in the steam, only to find the vendor’s hand on his shoulder. As far as the vendor is concerned, the poor man should be paying to let the steam add flavour his bread.

The two men present their case before the local judge. He listens carefully to the street vendor’s complaint.

‘What would you consider to be a fair price for your steam?’ he asks the vendor.

‘I am not a greedy man’, says the street vendor. ‘Two piastres will be enough’.

The judge fishes into his pocket and pulls out two coins. He holds them up and jangles them loudly. The street vendor smiles expectantly. ‘Listen well, my friend’, says the judge. ‘Listen very well; because the sound of these coins is ample payment for the steam from your food. That is a fair exchange, I believe, for a miser like you.’

This story, ‘The Price of Steam’, is many centuries old. Reading it puts me in mind of the furore over current banking practices. I am no good at remembering jokes, but stories like this one stay with me. The local judge is of course Mullah Nasruddin, the ‘wise fool’ who has been known and loved across the Muslim world time out of mind. Legend has it that there was once a real Mullah Nasruddin. He lived in Turkey in the thirteenth century, and an international festival is still held in his honour every year.

Outspoken and fearless, Mullah Nasruddin acts as the social and spiritual conscience of his community in ways that have lost none of their relevance. Like a jester, he often turns himself into a figure of fun to make his point. He travels widely, usually with his donkey, in foreshadowing the adventures of another wise fool, Don Quixote. If you’re not familiar with his antics, treat yourself and your family to Shahrukh Husain’s account of some of them in The Wise Fool. If you are anything like me, you will want to add these stories to your own travelling pack. And now, where’s that donkey?

Learn more about The Wise Fool: US Shoppers



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