On Exploring Masculinities in the Middle East

Nasreddin Hodja miniature at the Topkapı Palace Museum Library in İstanbul.
Nasreddin Hodja miniature at the Topkapı Palace Museum Library in İstanbul. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“Eat, eat my fur coat,” said Nasreddin Hodja to criticize societal attitudes that valued outward appearances of success rather than character traits such as trustworthiness and integrity. Largely disappointed by the cordial welcome he received at a dinner party organized by the beys (male leaders of tribal groups or rulers of principalities/beylik) of his town when he wore a lavish fur coat, Hodja was quick to deliver his negative sentiments in a playful manner. To the dismay of the beys sitting at the dinner table, he addressed his fur coat in a high-spirited manner and instructed it to ‘eat’. After all, he was receiving respect and attention thanks to his fur coat. As a sage, a populist philosopher, a folk character, and a religious scholar who lived in Anatolia in the 13th century, Hodja captivated the minds and hearts of people for centuries not only in the Turkic world but in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. For example, in Iran, he is known as Mulla Nasruddin while in the Maghreb as Juha.

The survival of Hodja’s persona as a historical and cultural figure not only articulates a long-standing fascination with his teachings but also alludes to models of masculinities and manhood that he valorizes through his wit and wisdom. The Hodja always finds ways to incorporate references to masculine forms of authoritative power and successfully challenges them by posing critical questions on broader themes regarding societal norms. While his humor addresses society at large, he finds ways to contemplate masculine institutions which elicit deeper thinking in his audiences.

At the heart of the Hodja’s philosophy lies the qualities of compassion, tolerance, and honesty which he consistently commits to and fundamentally considers as a prerequisite in the social structure of society. And, it is also these qualities that he strictly attributes to manhood in his teachings. For the Hodja, compassion and tolerance largely constitute the foundation of manhood which he relentlessly works towards instilling as manly values in society. Hence, the witty and urbane tone that he adopts at the dinner party consistently extends to other platforms and alternates into additional intelligent and artistic strategies to instruct men to stand apart from socially idealized and standardized masculinities. Hodja’s way of riding his donkey is the hallmark of this subversive attitude which essentially pushes manhood away from conventional masculinities. At a time when masculinities and male heroic identities were strictly associated with men’s abilities at riding their horses, Hodja made a habit of riding his donkey by sitting backwards on it. The Hodja has countless different explanations for why he prefers to sit on the saddle backwards. One of his justifications is, “I am more interested in where I am coming from than where I am going to”; a decisive departure from the assertive, ambitious, and goal-oriented conventional models of masculinity.

As in all parts of the world, ways of being a man in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) largely constitute the social and historical frameworks societies live by. Hodja’s unconventional wisdom and humor bring into view characteristics attributed to manhood in the region. This is not to say that all individuals in the region uphold Hodja’s values. However, his philosophies do speak to models of manhood and masculinities that societies in the region valorize. Therefore, the teachings of Hodja continue to maintain their popularity in the region.

What we observe and learn about Hodja can be an intellectual avenue to consider new concepts regarding manhood and masculinities in the MENA region. His philosophy can also allow us to explore the many ways in which conventional masculinities and masculine powers and privileges are challenged. Individuals have held on to his teachings for centuries and their values and hopes are interwoven in his wit. Hodja’s humor always takes a philosophical turn to create spaces whereby alternative and subversive male identities are envisioned to dissipate conventional forms of masculinities. Hence, the substance and depth of his humor is a constant invitation to reflect upon manhood in the MENA region and to conceptualize masculinities as adaptable and fluid in relation to the political, historical, and economic circumstances. The merging of the ethos of solidarity and understanding is a core tenet of Hodja’s teachings and can be traced through his humor in the masculinities of the MENA region.

Iklim Goksel is an ethnographer specializing in rhetorical theory/criticism, gender and sexuality studies, Turkey, and the Middle East and North Africa. She earned her Ph.D. in Language, Literacy, and Rhetoric from the U of Illinois at Chicago.

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