Living in the deserts of Saudi Arabia are tribes of nomads called Bedouins. These people live in tents made of goat’s hair or wool, and they survive by keeping herds of sheep, goats, and camels. In one of these Bedouin tribes there once lived a very rich man. His name was Sheikh Bushnir, and he was the chief of his tribe.
One day Sheikh Bushnir became so ill with a fever that he thought he might die. It was true that he had a son to live on after him, but Ahmed, his son, was not a good man. He never tended the sheep or milked the goats, he was very greedy, and he was always spending his father’s money foolishly.
Even so, Sheikh Bushnir loved his son very much. One day the sheikh called his son to his bedside. “Ahmed,” he said weakly, “I am about to pass into the next life.”
Listening intently to his father’s words, Ahmed began to cry. Even though he was not a good man, he loved his father.
“Do not cry, my son,” said Sheikh Bushnir kindly. “All men—no matter how rich or great they are—must die. Now listen to what I have to say. Before I die, I want to give you a most wonderful gift.”
Ahmed wiped away his tears and moved closer to his father. “A gift?” he asked.
“Yes,” answered his father. “A most wonderful gift, a gift to be cherished above all others.”
“Is it worth more than a herd of camels?” asked Ahmed, his concern for his father replaced by his greed.
“It is worth much more than a herd of camels,” said his father.
“Is it worth more than gold or jewels?” asked Ahmed.
“More than even gold or jewels, my son. But the gift lies at the end of a long journey.”
Slowly Ahmed’s father spread out a map on the bed. The map was very wrinkled from having been folded and unfolded many times. “Here is where it is,” said Ahmed’s father as he pointed to a dark, round spot on the map.
“But that is in the middle of the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter)!” gasped Ahmed.
“Yes,” said his father. “That is where the gift is buried.”
Ahmed looked sad as his father folded up the map. The Rub’ al Khali was a great desert where no one lived. Even for a Bedouin who was used to the hot desert, it would be a dangerous trip.
“Do you want the gift enough to risk your life for it?” asked his father.
Ahmed was silent for a long time. Finally his greed overcame his prudence. “Yes!” he cried. “For such a wonderful gift I will make the journey, no matter how dangerous it is.”
“Good,” said the sheikh. “You must leave at once. My mind will not rest until I know that you have made the journey and returned safely.”
“I shall do as you say,” said Ahmed, and he dashed from his father’s tent to make preparations.
The next morning Ahmed said good-bye to his father. Then he climbed onto his camel and set out alone into the desert. He knew that it would be safer to travel with one of the other young men from his tribe, but he did not want to share the wonderful gift with anyone.
The map outlined mile after mile of desert, but it revealed nothing about the burning sun and the hot desert winds. Whenever Ahmed thought of turning back, though, he remembered the wonderful gift waiting ahead, and his journey did not seem quite so harsh.
For three days Ahmed pushed deeper and deeper into the desert. His water was running low. He had been so anxious to leave that he had not planned well for the journey. Soon only one of his two goatskin bags of water remained. In the desert heat even a camel needs some water. But because Ahmed thought only of himself, he gave none of the water to his mount. That night while Ahmed slept, the camel ran off in search of water.
The next morning Ahmed realized that he should have shared the water with the camel. With the water that was left, Ahmed thought he might be able to make it back to the camp of a traveling caravan he had seen. However, his greed was too strong to allow him to go back without the gift, so he foolishly continued his journey on foot.
By the end of the fourth day Ahmed had used the rest of his water. He had only one wish: to see the wonderful gift before he died.
By the morning of the fifth day Ahmed was so weak that he could only crawl across the burning sand. Huge red blisters covered his hands and feet and knees. His eyes were almost swollen shut from the relentless pelting of the blowing sand. His lips were cracked and bleeding. Finally, when he thought he could go no farther, he came upon a small circle of stones. According to the map, this was where the gift lay buried!
Ahmed became frustrated as he scratched and clawed at the earth. Each time he pulled a handful of sand from the hole he was digging, more sand poured down from the sides. For hours he worked under the blistering sun. Finally Ahmed’s fingers touched a hard surface. He brushed the sand away and discovered a wooden chest. With his remaining strength, he tugged and pulled the chest from the hole.
Ahmed stared at the chest he had traveled so far to find. He was about to receive the most wonderful gift in the world, and he would not be able to enjoy it. As he fumbled with the latch on the chest, he thought, At least I can look at the gift I’ve given my life to find.
Ahmed began to cry when he saw what was in the chest. There were no jewels or golden coins. But there was something much more wonderful—three goatskin bags filled with water!
With gratitude and joy, Ahmed unstoppered one of the bags and brought it to his lips. Never before had water tasted so good. Never before had life seemed so sweet.
When he finished drinking, Ahmed looked more closely at the chest. Under one of the remaining goatskin bags was a note. He quickly opened it and read:
My Beloved Son,
I hope you are not disappointed by what you have found in the chest. I sent my men ahead of you to bury the priceless water. I knew that when I told you about the “wonderful gift,” you would rush foolishly into the desert. I also knew that because of your greed, you would give no thought for your life. That is why I buried water, not gold.
I did not lie to you, my son, when I told you of the wonderful gift. For the water in this chest has probably saved your life. And life, my son, is the most wonderful gift a man can receive.
Go now, Ahmed, with your gift of life and spend it as you like. Prize it above all other things, and you shall never be poor.
Ahmed carefully folded up the note and wiped the tears from his eyes. Feeling stronger, he tied the three goatskin bags together and tossed them over his shoulder.
Slowly Ahmed stood. He looked at the wooden chest one last time and smiled. Never again would he risk his life for gold or jewels. He would cherish his life and use it wisely. Yes, he had come a long way to find a gift that had always been his. But surely he was a richer man returning home than when he had left.