Donkey Bells


A small green lizard darted in and out of the crevices in the crumbling old stone pier that jutted out into the Red Sea. The hot, glaring desert sun made its body glisten. The lizard stopped suddenly, and its yellow eyes watched Abu Ibn (son of) Hassan putting his catch of five fish into the net bags that had been slung over the sides of his donkey. He had caught three kanad, a type of mackerel, and two small hamur, which looked like sea bass.

Abu hoped these fish would help his father get more money at the suq (marketplace) in town ten miles across the Saudi Arabian desert.

For a few moments Abu stood beside his donkey and listened to the tinkling sound of small bells coming from the village, a tiny gathering of stone houses for fifty-two fishermen and their families. Every family owned a donkey, and every donkey except Abu’s had a bell on a thong tied around its neck. Abu’s father had a large family to feed. There never was any extra money for a bell. Abu dreamed of the day when his father would sail home with his dhow (boat) stacked high with fish. Then there would be money for a bell—maybe even a brass bell.

When Abu arrived home, his mother and sisters were full of news.

“We have a new fisherman in the village,” his mother told him.

“He owns a camel,” one of his sisters said.

“Yes, he must be rich!” another sister added. “His name is Rathman, and he is building a house. He doesn’t seem to have any family, but his new house will be bigger than any around here. He brought men from the town to help him.”

Abu ran outside and kept running until he came to where the new house was being built. The workmen were already putting up the walls. The floor would be dirt, and the roof would be made of thatched date palm leaves.

Is-salaam alaykum (Peace be upon you),” Abu greeted one of the workmen.

Wa-alaykum is salaam (And upon you be peace),” the workman answered.

Abu was impressed with the size of the new house. He was about to step inside when a harsh voice shouted, “Boy, get to where you belong! Don’t bother the workmen!”

Abu turned and met the angry eyes of Rathman. He had a great hooked nose, a thin-lipped mouth, and his legs and arms looked like old, dried sticks. Abu ran for home. His tobe (a long, shirt-like garment) hindered him, so he pulled it above his knees. His red kaffiyeh (headdress) fell off, but he didn’t stop to pick it up.

It was weeks before the excitement caused by the coming of the new fisherman subsided. Rathman’s dhow was the largest at the stone pier. His camel delivered his fish to the suq earlier and fresher than anyone else’s fish. It was learned that he was a friend of the sheikh (leader of the tribe) who lived in the big town.

Unlike the bells on the donkeys, which rang together and sounded like music in the village, the bell on Rathman’s camel was large, and it clanked and clunked when the beast moved. The camel held its head high, as though it was too proud to look at the lowly donkeys. Each time the fish were taken to the market, the camel would race past the donkeys, carrying not only a bigger load of fish but also Rathman on its back. The donkeys would have to plod along, trying to avoid the sandy dust that the camel kicked up. The fishermen walking beside their little animals would have to listen to Rathman’s mocking laughter.

At the pier, Rathman crowded his fishing dhow into the best place. He walked around the village as though he were a sheikh himself.

One evening Abu’s father told his family some bad news. “Rathman has ordered that the bells be taken off all the donkeys.”

“Why?” Abu’s mother asked.

“He said that the sound of our donkey bells keeps him from hearing his camel bell,” Abu’s father explained.

“But, Father, the men are not going to do it, are they?” Abu asked.

“They must,” his father said, “or Rathman may go to the sheikh, and the sheikh could punish us.”

The next day the bells were taken off the donkeys. The village was a sad and silent place. For weeks nobody sang or laughed. All that could be heard was the ugly sound of the camel’s big clanking and clunking bell.

Then one day after Rathman took his fish to the suq, he was late getting back to the village. The people saw him walking home across the desert without his camel.

One of the fishermen found enough courage to ask what had happened. Later he told Abu’s father, “Rathman’s camel stepped on a stone and fell. It strained a muscle and refuses to move.” The fisherman started laughing. “Rathman smells awful. The camel got angry and spat on him!”

All the villagers treated Rathman’s trouble as a big joke. Rathman stayed in his house, but he could hear the people laughing. Nobody offered to help him.

Abu felt sorry for him and spoke to his father about it. “Shouldn’t we try to help Rathman get his camel back to the village?”

“After the way he has treated us?” his father asked.

“But we are taught to be good to our enemies,” Abu said.

His father looked at him with a worried frown, then walked away.

Early the next morning Abu loaded his donkey with a bag of water and a bag of hamdh bushes for the camel. A few villagers looked curiously at the goatskin bags as Abu started through the village.

There were no dunes between the village and the town. At this time of the year the flat sand was abloom with zahra hamra, a beautiful pink flower. Abu enjoyed walking among the blooms while looking for Rathman’s camel. When he found the injured animal, Rathman was sitting beside it. The man didn’t speak to Abu, even when the boy started to feed and water the camel.

Suddenly Abu saw a long line of donkeys coming toward them from the village. When the fishermen and the donkeys arrived, Abu saw that the donkeys were hitched together and that they carried ropes and an old dhow sail.

“I told the men what you said—about being good to our enemies,” Abu’s father told him.

After tying the camel’s legs together, the men maneuvered it onto the sail and dragged it back to the village.

Rathman didn’t thank them, and the fishermen grumbled a little. Then, a week later, they found a small basket full of new donkey bells in the middle of the street. On top was a solid, shining brass bell marked, “For Abu.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer