James Tressler / @ 8:35 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul

LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: A Fable — Aesop and the Presidential Candidates


My student Ender and I have continued following the U.S. Primary elections. This past Friday we listened to the candidates’ rally speeches in Arizona and Washington.

We started off with some Donald Trump, speaking before a large, noisy crowd in Tuscon. As usual, the topics were immigration, terrorism, rebuilding the military and how Trump will Make America Great again.

A red baseball cap covering the iconic Hair, Trump read his rendition of Aesop’s fable: The Old Woman and the Snake. You know, the fable about the old woman who finds a snake out in the cold, takes it into her home, nurses it back to health, only to have the snake bite her.

“Foolish woman, you knew I was a snake when you brought me into your home!” Trump concludes, explaining to the crowd how in his reading, the old woman is America, and the snake represents all the world’s evils, specifically terrorists and illegal immigrants.

“James, did you know in Turkey we have a similar tale?” my student Ender asked. “It’s called The Sea Turtle and the Scorpion.”

“Really?”

“Yes, a long time ago,” Ender began, “There was a scorpion who needed to cross the sea. So he asked a sea turtle if he could give him a ride. ‘You can climb on my shell,’ the turtle replied. ‘But you have to promise you won’t sting me.’ ‘Of course, I promise,” the scorpion said. They started on their journey, but in the middle of the sea, suddenly the scorpion stung the turtle, injecting it with its powerful poison. ‘Why did you do that? You promised not to sting me!’ the dying turtle protested. ‘What can I say?’ the scorpion answered. ‘I’m a scorpion. I can’t help it!’”

In the Turkish fable, you get the sense that both the sea turtle and scorpion pay the price for the sea turtle’s naivete, because after all, they both presumably drown. I like that: it has the Turkish fatalism, that we’re all basically screwed in the end.

In Trump’s Aesop rendition, however, it would appear that the snake gets off scot-free, presumably to go and plan terror attacks and milk the social services system. I don’t know: I prefer the fable of the Sea Turtle and the Scorpion, for some reason. It has more classical proportions or something.

This election year is already weird enough. But maybe what we need are, in fact, more Aesop’s fables. Yes, more fables! And where better to get them from than Aesop? He was born, according to some, not far from here, over on the Black Sea coast in what is now Bulgaria.

Hillary Clinton should definitely bust one out. Which fable would suit her? There’s The Bat.

In times of old, the story goes, there was a war between the birds and the beasts. “Come with us,” the birds said to the bat, but the bat demurred. “I’m a beast,” the bat declared. So the beasts came along, and urged the bat to join them. “No, I’m a bird!” the bat maintained. Eventually the war ended and peace returned to the animal kingdom. The bat went to say hello to the birds, but of course, they rejected him, so he went to hang out with the beasts, and they also sent him on his way.

Oh, wait. Hillary wouldn’t want to use that tale — she might see an eerie resemblance. Or it would have been better for John Kerry.

I know: the Ass and the Lion’s Skin. Hillary could use that one for Trump. There once was an Ass who found the skin of a dead lion in the forest. So the Ass put on the skin, and had a great time tramping through the forest, frightening all the other animals. That is, until he met The Fox. The Ass tried to scare the Fox, but the Fox, unimpressed, said simply, “The next time you dress up as a Lion, you need to disguise your bray.” Yeah, that could maybe work. Hillary could even find some clever way to work in the Hair.

What about Bernie? He needs one. Actually, I’m reminded now of an ancient Turkish fable, told to me by one of my teen-aged students some years ago. Perfect! From what I understand, teenagers make up the bulk of those Feeling the Bern these days. So Bernie’s tale could be The Tiger and the Genie, as related by my student.

“There once was a Tiger who met a Genie,” the student said. “The Genie granted the Tiger three wishes. ‘I don’t need three wishes,’ said the Tiger earnestly. “Just grant me one wish: All the meat I can eat for free, for the rest of my life.’

The genie granted the wish, and all this meat suddenly appeared. The Tiger ate to his heart’s content, then went off to have a long nap. The next day, he woke up and found that some of the meat was already rotting. Angry, he summoned the Genie. ‘What happened, Genie? You promised me free meat for the rest of my life? This meat has all gone bad already!’

The Genie replied: “Sorry, Tiger. But you asked me to grant you free meat. You never told me it had to be good meat.’”

Oh, wait. Sorry, Bern. That story would appear to reflect discredit upon you. Trump or Hillary could use that one to Bern you perhaps. Hold on, we’ll find something … God! It’s been years since I read “Aesop’s Fables.” As a child, it was one of my favorite books. It’s kind of fun, browsing through some of them again on Google.

Ah! Wait! Here’s one you can maybe use, Bernie. “The Buffoon and the Countryman.” It goes like this. Once upon a time at a country fair, a Buffoon was up on the stage imitating all these animal noises. He drew a big crowd, and they all applauded him for his authenticity, his showmanship. “I can do any animal you want me to do!” the Buffoon promised.

Suddenly, a Countryman stepped up. “Do a pig,” he challenged. The Buffoon began oinking and making other pig-like sounds, and once again the audience applauded. “Are you kidding?” the Countryman asked. “That’s nothing like how a pig sounds.” “Do you think you can do better?” the Buffoon asked. “Come back tomorrow at 4 o’clock, and I will,” the Countryman answered.

So the next day at 4 o’clock, everyone gathered at the stage. The Countryman started producing these loud squeals, sounds that were so horrible that the crowd quickly booed him. “You fools!” the Countryman shouted. He suddenly produced from under his shirt a real pig, which he had been pinching the whole time.

The moral of that story: Audiences often applaud a phony, and fail to appreciate the real thing.

But then, I suppose, any of the remaining candidates could use that one. Who’s the Phony? Who’s the Real Deal?

OK, enough fables, for now. Maybe you, reader, have some better ones. Feel free to share them.

But I think the moral of this particular story may be, and I’m speaking especially to Donald Trump: When running for president, and you want people to take you seriously, maybe it is best to avoid using fables altogether. After all, they are great, even instructive, for children. Except children don’t vote.

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James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher. He lives in Istanbul.


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