If you haven't seen the 2005 Hollywood movie "Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World," that's OK. I haven't either. From what I hear, if only the movie had been a better one, it could have justified the snow flurry of overheated discussion, based on its title alone, that played prelude to its unwelcome release. To cram a long involved argument into a 21st-century soundbyte, No, you don't have to look all that hard. And, yes, for those harboring the least bit of doubt there is, and has been, plenty of humor in the Middle East, as could be known from the stories collected in the 13th century by Bar Hebraeus, as well as from the hilarious stories of the trials and exploits of Nasreddin.
On an ordinary day I would never feel so foolhardy as to try to define comedy or humor (yes, OK, if Aristotle's treatise had only survived the library conflagration in The Name of the Rose we would better know how to deal with this and so many other serious problems). As a younger person luckily not, or not yet, an Aristotelian like the rest of us courageously put it, tragedy shows us life is complete crap and my, isn't that awful, but comedy shows us life is complete crap and my, isn't that funny... But, anyway, what you see in many of these Nasreddin stories is a quite ordinary train of commonsense logic (or a very 'ordinary' unfolding of events) that goes haywire in some way or another. It gets capped by a logical consequence (or unexpected turn) that you just didn't see coming. You see the conventional as indeed mere empty convention. It falls out of the space in your mind it once occupied so securely. This 'hits' you as funny. In these stories Nasreddin plays either the fool — the fool who could prove somehow nevertheless wise — or the cunning trickster. In our very act of laughter he finds complete vindication for his  naivety or  deceit as the case may be (or [1+2] feigned naivety, a combination of the two, sometimes a justifiable understanding).
But regardless of what got it started, when the laughter trails off we may start to wonder, Who was that Nasreddin really? Are there clues in the tales themselves? Can we piece history out of these folksy fictions? Here things start to get messy and interesting for the historian who takes her (or yeah, well, that's right, his!) job seriously. In the old days it was generally assumed that he must have lived in the neighborhood, wherever that might've been. Cypriots thought he lived in Cyprus, Croatians in Croatia, Persians in Persia etc. Nowadays, at least since about 1990, Turkish scholars have shown industry in making sure the rest of us believe the story that he lived in Turkey. Not that there is anything especially unbelievable in this, just that the evidence seems rather flimsy and debatable. What does seem sure is that stories in his name became progressively more and more popular in the vast domains of the Ottoman rulers (historic map here), and that the first literary mentions of his name date from 15th and 16th centuries. Just because a few of the stories associate him with Timur (Tamerlane, 1336-1405), some want to say he lived in the 14th century. There are those who see no problem at all in using information from the stories, which after all are from practically everywhere in space and time, as a key to localizing him. Some even point to a tomb with his name on it, with the (A.H.) Hijra date of his death written backward (supposedly as a joke: H.A., H.A.). Aha! After turning the numbers around and translating into the (CE) Common Era date, we get 1383, or 1384.
Right now it isn't my purpose to say much of anything about the historical Nasreddin. I'm writing because I recently came across a couple of intriguing sources of information that could have to do with the historical identity of Tibet's counterpart to Nasreddin, Uncle Tompa. The two comic folk-heroes might at first blush look different just because so many of the Uncle Tompa stories are unabashedly eros-tinged and at times obscene-to-pornographic, but then it has been said that the Nasreddin stories were cleaned up (expurgated) in the editing and publishing processes (see Karabas 1990). A few Uncle Tompa (A-khu Ston-pa) stories, like "Uncle Tompa Sleeps with a Virgin," may be enjoyed after a simple Schmoogle search, but really, you have no choice but to beg, buy or borrow Rinjing Dorje, Tales of Uncle Tompa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet, Station Hill Arts (Barrytown 1997). Otherwise how could you possibly read that all-time favorite, "Uncle Tompa Sells Penises at the Nunnery"?
A survey of 53 Amdo-born Tibetan college students in Xining (see Stuart et al. 1999) revealed that every single one of them had heard Uncle Tompa stories, although most students denied the stories had anything sexual about them. Were their teachers there in the room? Afanti came in second, with 33 students. Afanti who? you may be asking. Afanti is of course Effendi, a common title in the Ottoman period, and one title among others that have been attached to the name of Nasreddin. Afanti, in this case, simply is Nasreddin. This may seem somewhat surprising, provoking further questions. Granted that the Muslim population of Amdo (now called Qinghai) has much increased in recent decades, still it is the case that this region has been a 'contact zone' between Tibetan and Islamic cultures for 600 years and more (for a good sense of the historical 'frontier' culture of Amdo, read Nietupski's book). Could it be that stories have passed through this route, perhaps substituting the name of one with the other, as we know happened in the history of Nasreddin stories in other parts of the world? (I'm thinking especially of Iranian Juha stories that turned into Nasr al-Din stories, as discussed in Marzolph's 1995 article, but I imagine this is only the tip of the iceberg.) I won't pursue this very historical quest today, just to suggest it as a possible way to go if you feel inclined to test it out. The two sets of stories ought to be closely compared someday.
The credit for first detecting a historical person behind the Uncle stories must go to Rasé Könchog Gyatso Rinpoche. I don't have this author's article on the subject on hand, sorry to say, but here is a brief suggestive paragraph from his huge book on the history of the Drigung Kagyü School:
"Uncle Tompa was born to the family of the Kyura [a most important hereditary clan for the Drigung Kagyü, the clan of its founder], and went to be at the side of the Dharma Lord,* becoming his Heart Son. He led a yogic life, circling the nations [traveling aimlessly], and did difficult ascetic practices and the like, in all that he did benefiting others. Even today one may see the ruins of the place where he did his practices in the lower valley of Para (Spa-ra),** a place particularly praised by the Chennga [Rinpoché]. Proceeding out of events in his own life, these very famous 'Tales of Uncle Tompa' have originated, it would seem."
*The title Dharma Lord (Chos-rje) we may know from context to mean the 4th abbot of Drigung Monastery, Chennga Dragpa Jungné (Spyan-snga Grags-pa-'byung-gnas), one of the main disciples of the founder of the Drigung Kagyü, Jigten Gönpo.
**The Sarat Chandra Das dictionary says Spa-ra is name of a village northwest of Lhasa.
The works of Chennga have recently been published, so I had a look there, and was intrigued to find two works explicitly written for his sake.
Uncle Tompa's teacher Chennga Dragpa Jungné
Before saying something about them, I would like to point out one interesting thing that otherwise might be overlooked. If it is true that the 'original' Uncle Tompa was a disciple of the Chennga, that means he probably lived from around 1200-1275. His adult life would have fallen within the time of Mongol power over the greater part of Eurasia, including Tibet. In particular, it is known that the early Ilkhan rulers, with their main capital at Tabriz (today in extreme northwestern Iran just a short distance from Turkey), had very strong Buddhist tendencies, and invited teachers called Bakshis, among them some of Tibetan origins. Although research continues of course, we do not know the personal names of any of these Tibetan Bakshis. Still, it is quite certain they would have been Drigung Kagyüpas (or possibly Pagdru Kagyüpas), since the western Mongol rulers served as their patrons. In short, some of Uncle Tompa's fellow Drigungpas were living in the heart of the Middle East. I'm not saying we ought to make a lot out of it at this moment, just to keep it in mind.
In one of the two works, a letter, the teacher acknowledges receipt of earlier and later offerings sent to him, including books and pieces of turquoise. He says,
"Now in response your old father, your teacher, sends this letter.
Give up ordinary impermanent compounded things.
Be sure of death, the way of all beings that are born.
Pass your days and nights in even-toned meditation
on the sky-like nature of nondual mind proper..."
Together with these and other words of advice, he sent two woolen robes.
The other work has words of advice for the spiritual life, with an obvious and strong emphasis on renunciation. Just to give a sample in hasty translation, this is the initial part immediately following the opening homage verse:
"The joys and enjoyments that may be found in sangsara and nirvana
we wish to have, but following in their train are the faults,
and all the faults of sangsara go back to a fundamental stupidity.
Of all things that ought to be given up, this stupidity is supreme.
Stupidity's antidote is interdependent origination.
Since each interdependent thing, taken singularly, is impermanent,
you must abandon the stupidity of extreme views like eternalism and nihilism.
When the interdependent things are taken by twos, you have cause and result.
So give up the stupidity that confounds cause and result,
not wanting to see results in virtuous and non-virtuous karma."
The advice continues in like vein, with dual emphases on the renunciation of worldly frivolities and on the Buddhist view of relativity, which says that all things are interdependently originated. Renunciation and relativity are tightly interrelated, mutually reinforcing.
In closing, the Chennga addresses his disciple, "For my only son, Uncle Tompa, a supreme personage born from the family of the glorious Drigungpa Jigten Gönpo, a yogi of fine unerring meditative realization..."
Looking at these two texts, thinking of this as the 'original' Uncle Tompa, I'm left wondering how one Uncle could have developed into the other. And that's a funny situation to get trapped into. Maybe you can figure out how that happened? If so, help me out! What am I missing, people?
Chennga Dragpa Jungné (Spyan-snga Grags-pa-'byung-gnas, 1175-1255), The Collected Works (gsung-bum) of Grags-pa-'byung-gnas: A Chief Disciple of the Skyob-pa 'Jig-rten-gsum-mgon, ed. by H.H. Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang, Drikung Kagyu Publications (Delhi 2002). The two titles of interest here are on pp. 250-254: Precepts on Giving up [the Vicious Circle of] Sangsara Granted to Uncle Tompa (A-khu Ston-pa-la Gnang-ba'i 'Khor-ba Spong-ba'i Gdams-pa), and on pp. 567-569, A Letter Sent to My Dear Son Uncle Tompa (Gces-pa'i Bu Sdug A-khu Ston-pa-la Springs-pa).
Drigung Könchog Gyatso ('Bri-gung Dkon-mchog-rgya-mtsho, b. 1968), 'Bri-gung Chos-'byung, Mi-rigs Dpe-skrun-khang (Beijing 2004), in 783 pages. A history of the Drigung Kagyü School of Tibetan Buddhism. The author is identical to Ra-se Dkon-mchog-rgya-mtsho (below). The passage translated above looks like this in the original: a khu ston pa ni / 'bri gung du skyu ra'i rigs las bltams shing chos rje'i zhabs la gtugs pas thugs sras su gyur / rnal 'byor gyis spyod pas / rgyal khams bskor zhing brtul zhugs spyod pa ci yang bskyangs te gzhan phan cher mdzad / spa ra'i mdor sgrub pa mdzad pa'i shul da lta'ang mchis shing spyan sngas kyang bsngags brjod che / nyid kyi mdzad pa las 'phros nas a khu ston pa'i sgrung zhes grags che ba 'di nyid byung bar snang ngo.
The late Dungkar Rinpoche's dictionary (entirely in Tibetan), pp. 726-727, tells about an actor popular in the 1940's named Lobzang Tsering (who died in around 1970), generally known under the name Uncle Tompa because he somehow resembled him in his story-telling abilities. Oddly, Dungkar Rinpoche neglected to include an entry for Uncle Tompa himself. It's interesting that the actor is mentioned, too, in R.A. Stein, Tibetan Civilization, Stanford University Press (Stanford 1972), p. 155: "Not long ago at Lhasa again, there was a famous jester with a talent for singing, a sort of ballad-monger, who could venture political satires without risking punishment. He was known by the nickname 'Aku Tömpa', thus being likened to one of those waggish saints we have discussed."
Ananda Hopkins, Chaucer and the Fabliau, transcript of lecture for the Medieval to Renaissance Literature course, University of Warwick (Autumn 2005). Download the PDF here. Try this blog, also.
Seyfi Karabas, The Use of Eroticism in Nasreddin Hoca Anecdotes, Western Folklore, vol. 49, no. 3 (July 1990), pp. 299-305.
Lucile Vartanian Kirwan, Armenian Stories of Hodja, California Folklore Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1 (January 1943), pp. 27-29.
Ulrich Marzolph, Molla Nasr al-Din in Persia, Iranian Studies, vol. 28, nos. 3-4 (Summer 1995), pp. 157-174.
Paul Kocot Nietupski, Labrang: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at the Crossroads of Four Civilizations, Snow Lion (Ithaca 1999).
Rasé Könchog Gyatso (Ra-se Dkon-mchog-rgya-mtsho), A-khu Ston-pa'i 'Byung-bar Thog-ma'i Bsam-gzhigs, Gangs-ljongs Rig-gnas, vol. 30, no. 2 (1996), pp. 92-96. I haven't actually seen this article and have little hope of seeing it in the near future. The title means something like 'Preliminary Considerations on the Emergence of Uncle Tompa.'
Kevin Stuart, Kun-mchog-dge-legs, and Dpal-ldan-bkra-shis, Tibetan Tricksters, Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 58, no. 1 (1999), pp. 5-30. Download in PDF format here.
Tibetan trickster figures mentioned here include A-tsi-byi'u-mgo,* Ston-pa Shes-rab, Rdzun-khro-lo, Nyi-chos-bzang-po, 'Brug-pa Kun-legs and Ge-sar among still others.
*'Ouchy Birdy Head.' This name may have originally meant a throwing stone shaped like a bird head, with a beak-like protrusion[s]... It won't sound so funny when one is coming right at you. The figure of Ston-pa Shes-rab is probably based on a purposeful mispronunciation of Ston-pa Gshen-rab, the Teacher of the Bon religion.
Karl D. Uitti, Fabliau and Comic Tale, contained in: Joseph R. Strayer, ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York 1984), vol. 4, pp. 574-7.
The Warburg Institute in London recently held a conference about Tibetan-Islamic historical relations, and a volume of papers will be published before long. Their website has a very good bibliography on the subject.