First appearing in the ninth century, tales of the wise old fool and his donkey are still beloved across the region
RN audiences have grown used to the marauding heroes of Arabic folklore. Characters like Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba instantly conjure images of hidden treasure and desperate sword fights. But in the Middle East itself, many people prefer a more down-to-earth figure: Juha, a wise old fool, and his long-suffering donkey.
He may not carry a scimitar, but Juha has been a part of local culture for centuries—and has proved useful to Arab jokers and satirists right up until the modern day.
Juha first appeared in an Arabic book of the ninth century, though this was likely adapted from an older oral tradition. From there, Juha quickly splintered to the far ends of the Mediterranean world. He followed the Arabs to Sicily, where he became known as Giufà.
In Turkey, his legend merged with a Sufi mystic called Nasruddin, while the Ottomans exported him to the Balkans. Some even claim that Juha inspired Cervantes’s “Don Quixote”.
Even as Juha adapted to different cultures, Arabs never abandoned him. It is easy to understand why when every yarn manages to combine wisdom, humour and gentle absurdity. In one story, a man sees Juha across a raging river. “How do I get across?” the man cries. “You are there already!” Juha shouts back. Elsewhere, Juha goes to a teahouse and tells the owner that the moon is more useful than the sun. Why? “Because light is more important at night than during the day,” he explains. In some tales, Juha is accompanied by his faithful donkey and much amusement springs from it getting lost. One story begins with Juha looking for the animal around town; everywhere he goes, he thanks God. People are confused. “Why are you praising God?” they ask. “Surely this is nothing to be thankful for?” Juha smiles. “If I were riding the donkey right now, I’d be lost too!”
Not all Juha’s tales are so innocent. Like court jesters in medieval Europe, his everyman style has proved an ideal vehicle for social criticism. In one fable, Juha is approached by a proud king. “All the great rulers of the past had honorific titles with the name of God in them,” he proclaims. “There was God-gifted, and God-accepted. Can you think of a name for me?” Juha pauses. “God-forbid,” comes his retort. These attacks were sometimes even aimed at specific rulers; a collection of Juha stories from the 14th century targets the ruthless king Tamerlane.
This tradition has continued into modernity, as Arabs deployed Juha in battles for independence from colonial powers. “Intelligence Powder” (1959) uses Juha to attack French rule in Algeria. Ali Ahmed Bakathir, an Egyptian nationalist, reimagined the fable of “Juha’s nail” in 1951 to mock Britain’s obsession with the Suez Canal (just as Juha keeps ownership of a single nail at his old house so he always has an excuse to visit, Bakathir suggested that the British used Suez to justify their occupation of Egypt generally). Westerners have understood Juha’s political power, too. In the 1950s, an American mobile cinema travelled round Iraq showing anti-communist propaganda starring—you guessed it—Juha.
This everyman has proved useful in the fight against local tyrants, too. Zakaria Tamer, one of the great Arab short story writers, attacked Syria’s dictatorship with his own take on Juha—replacing gossipy cats with police informants. Ahmed Tayeb Laalej wrote “Juha and the Apple Tree” to satirise corruption in Moroccan politics. In his play, Juha cynically tricks his friends to vote for him, only to ignore them once they’ve lifted him into the branches of a fertile apple tree. Just before the Arab Spring, Hisham el-Gokh used Juha to reflect the frustrations of many poor Egyptians. “Your voice is weak! Your opinion is weak!” Mr el-Gokh blazed as Juha, on a popular television show. “We eat our bread with insult!” The Egyptian revolution exploded a few months later.
People have not forgotten Juha’s jokey roots, though. A 1950s Juha comedy-drama with Omar Sharif is still popular, as is a charmingly kitsch Algerian series. At the same time, Juha is being introduced to a new generation. Rather than tramping around medieval villages, an Egyptian cartoon has him and his donkey learning about online safety. A Juha app, complete with pictures and jokes, is now available through the Apple store. Young people themselves are perpetuating the mythology. Asia Alfasi, a Scottish-Libyan artist, has mixed Juha with Japanese manga drawings—but happily keeps his jumbled adventures just the same.
Amid the confusion of the modern Middle East, Juha is one way people find common ground. Last year, storytellers from around the Gulf met in the United Arab Emirates to celebrate Juha. The internet provides another space for communal appreciation. A popular Reddit page features dozens of volunteers reading a classic Juha story in their native Arabic dialect. The vocabulary of each version varies wildly: even Juha’s name becomes “Goha” in Egyptian. Still, his exploits continue to win fans across the Arab world. Juha’s appeal hasn’t diminished for centuries. Perhaps it never will.