Once in the royal city of Isfahan, there was an old woodcutter who lived alone with his young daughter. Every day, the woodcutter went out to the desert to gather camel-thorn bushes, then sold them in the marketplace as firewood. In this way, he earned barely enough for the two of them.
One morning, the woodcutter’s daughter said, “Father, we always have enough to eat. But just once, it would be nice to have something special. Do you think you could buy us some date cakes?”
“I think I could do that, my dear,” said the woodcutter. “I’ll just gather some extra wood today.”
So the woodcutter walked farther that day to gather more thorn bushes. But he took longer than he meant to.
By the time he got back with the wood, darkness had fallen. It was too late to go to the marketplace. What’s more, when he reached his house, he found that his daughter had already bolted the front door and gone to bed.
Knock as he would, there was no answer. So he had to sleep outside on the doorstep.
Next morning, the woodcutter awoke while it was still dark. He told himself, “I might as well go out right now and get another big load of wood. Then I can sell twice as much and buy even more date cakes.”
So he left his load and went back to the desert to gather more bushes. But again he took longer than he meant to, and when he got back, it was dark and the door was bolted. So again he had to sleep on the doorstep.
He awoke once more before dawn. “There’s no sense wasting a day,” he said. “I’ll go back out for one more big load. How many date cakes we’ll have then!”
But yet again he took too long, and yet again the door was bolted when he got back.
The woodcutter sank to the doorstep and wept.
“What’s wrong, old man?”
He looked up to see a dervish in a long green robe and a tall green cap.
“Holy sir, for three days I have gone out to gather thorn bushes, and for three days I have come home too late to get into my house. And in all that time, I’ve had nothing to eat.”
“What night is this, old man?”
The woodcutter said, “Why, Friday eve, of course.”
“That’s right. It’s the eve of our holy day. And that’s the time of Mushkil Gusha.”
“Mushkil Gusha?” said the woodcutter.
“That’s right, old man—the ‘Remover of Difficulties.’”
The holy man took some roasted chickpeas and raisins from his pouch and handed them to the woodcutter. “Here, share this with me.”
“Thank you, sir!”
“You may not know it,” the dervish went on, “but Mushkil Gusha is already helping you. If you want your good fortune to continue, here’s what you must do: Every Friday eve, find someone in need. Then share what you have, and tell a tale of Mushkil Gusha. That way, you both will be helped.”
And with that, the holy man vanished.
As the woodcutter stared at the empty spot, the door to his house swung open.
“Father, where have you been? Oh, please come inside! I was so worried!”
A few days passed, while the woodcutter and his daughter enjoyed the many date cakes he bought after selling his wood. Then one morning, when the woodcutter had gone to the desert and his daughter had finished her housework, she decided to go walking in a public park.
She was strolling down a broad path when a carriage stopped beside her.
“What a pretty little girl!” said a royal young lady. “I am the daughter of the king. Would you like to be my handmaiden?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” the girl said, blushing.
So the woodcutter’s daughter became a handmaiden of the princess. With the gifts the princess gave her, she and her father became quite rich. He bought a nice house, and he didn’t have to gather thorn bushes anymore.
But somehow he forgot what the dervish told him.
A month went by. One day, the princess went on a picnic to one of her father’s private gardens, and she brought along the woodcutter’s daughter. There was a small lake there, so they decided to go for a swim.
The princess took off her necklace and hung it on a branch overlooking the water. But when she came out, she forgot all about it.
A few days later at the palace, the princess looked for the necklace but couldn’t find it. She turned angrily to the woodcutter’s daughter.
“You stole my necklace! You must have taken it when we went for our swim!”
“No, Your Highness, I wouldn’t do that!”
“You’re a thief and a liar too! I’ll show you what happens to people of your kind! Get out of my sight!”
The woodcutter’s daughter ran home in tears. But an hour later, soldiers came to the door. They arrested the woodcutter and carried him off to a public square in front of the prison. Then they locked his feet in the stocks and left him there.
The woodcutter had to suffer the taunts and jeers of the passersby. Some people were kinder, though, and even threw him scraps of food.
Now, that evening was Friday eve. As the sun set, the woodcutter cast his thoughts over all that had happened to him in the past weeks. All at once, he cried out.
“Oh, what a foolish, ungrateful wretch I am! Didn’t the dervish say to share what I have each Friday eve and tell of Mushkil Gusha? Yet I haven’t done it once!”
Just then, a packet of chickpeas and raisins landed by the woodcutter. When he looked up, he didn’t see who had thrown it. But he did see a beggar boy coming by.
“Young friend!” called the woodcutter. “Please share this with me while I tell you a story.”
The boy sat down and gratefully took what was offered. As he ate, the woodcutter related everything that had happened, from when his daughter asked for date cakes, to when he was put in the stocks.
“Thank you, sir,” said the boy. “I needed the food, and the story was good too. I hope it has a happy ending.”
The beggar boy went on his way. But he’d only gone a block when a rich merchant stopped him.
“My one and only son! Ever since you were stolen at birth, I’ve looked for that birthmark on your left cheek. Now at last I’ve found you!”
But they leave our story here.
The next day, the princess had another picnic in her father’s private garden, and again she went down to the lake for a swim. She was about to step into the water when she saw the reflection of her necklace. She looked up into the tree—and there was the necklace itself, right where she had left it.
“That woodcutter’s daughter didn’t take it at all!”
By the end of the day, the woodcutter was free from the stocks, and his daughter was back in the palace.
And every Friday eve after that, the woodcutter always remembered to find someone in need, share what he had, and tell his tale of Mushkil Gusha.
About the Story
The custom of invoking Mushkil Gusha is practiced in Iran especially among traditional Muslim women. The tale is told each week on Friday eve, the beginning of the Muslim holy day. (Muslims measure their days from sunset to sunset, so “Friday eve” would come before Friday morning—just as “Christmas Eve” comes before Christmas Day.) Along with telling the story goes the sharing of a special snack food with the poor. Sometimes called aajeel and sometimes nokhod kishmish, it is a mixture of things like roasted chickpeas, raisins, dried dates, dried figs, nuts, and seeds.
The name Mushkil Gusha is Persian for “Remover of Difficulties.” But exactly who and what is he? If you ask Iranians, you get differing answers. Some say he is Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin, son-in-law, and true successor—as he is considered by the Shiites, whose sect of Islam predominates in Iran. But one Iranian woman told me simply, “It is God, isn’t it?”
Others say Mushkil Gusha is the prophet Khidr, the “Green One,” the patron saint of the Muslim holy men called dervishes. (Khidr is the Arabic name. In Iran he is called Khezr, and in Turkey, Hizir.) Khidr is portrayed in many Muslim tales as the bearer of fortune—a role he shares with the prophet Elijah, about whom many of the same stories are told by the Jews. Since the tale of Mushkil Gusha seems clearly in the Khidr/Elijah genre, I have made that identification in my version with an appearance by Khidr himself.
This tale was retold chiefly from “The Story of Mushkil Gusha” in Persian Tales, collected and translated by D. L. R. and E. O. Lorimer, Macmillan, London, 1919. This was supplemented by my personal email correspondence with Kave Eshgi of Bristol, England, whose grandmother told him the tale every Friday eve as he grew up in the Iranian city of Kerman. Still another version is “The Tale of Mushkil Gusha” in World Tales, collected by Idries Shah, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London, 1979, which first introduced me to the story.
How to Say the Names
Isfahan ~ ISS-fah-hon
Mushkil Gusha ~ MUSH-kil goo-SHAH (rhymes with “push kill goo Shah”)