Children’s book author, critic, and translator Ahmed Al-Mahdi writes — among other places — for Egypt’s Fares magazine. Yesterday, we had a conversation with al-Mahdi on the landscape of children’s magazines and YA in Egypt. As part of our ongoing #WorldKidLit Month coverage, a translation of one of his short stories.
This story also runs simultaneously at the World Kid Lit website.
By Ahmed Salah al-Mahdi
Tr. M Lynx Qualey
It was (or it was not) that two brothers lived together on a single plot. One of them was a wealthy man who had a big house and a profitable business, but a nasty disposition. This brother was stingy, unwilling to give money to the poor and needy or to do good works, and the name of this brother was Safwan. The other brother, Anas, was a kind soul; poor, living in a small house that faced his brother’s big one. He made his living as a fisherman, selling hardly enough to meet his daily needs, and he had no worldly possessions save his fishing pole and his tiny house.
Safwan ignored his brother Anas, neither visiting nor showing compassion, and this saddened Anas very much, adding to the sadness he felt about his brother’s stinginess, and his desire to hoard money. Sometimes, when he met his brother while he was out and about, or saw him at the market going about his business, Anas would urge his brother to spend on good works, and on alms for the poor. But Safwan ignored him and refused to listen.
One morning, Anas was carrying his fishing line to the river as usual when, just before the river, he met Safwan, dressed in luxurious clothes and walking with his nose in the air. As usual, Anas urged his brother to spend some of his money on good works. Safwan grew angry and said:
-It’s easy for those who have nothing at all to speak of spending on good works.
This saddened Anas, who said, in his defense: “
-If I did have a treasure, I would spend it all on good works.
Safwan asked sarcastically:
-And how would a simple fisherman come to have a treasure?
As Safwan walked away, he continued to laugh in a mocking tone, and this broke Anas’s heart. His grief was less about his brother’s mockery and more about his own situation, and he prayed to God to improve his condition before he cast his line into the river. After a few moments, Anas noticed a strange movement in the water and saw an odd blue light flickering beneath the river’s surface. A beautiful girl appeared and emerged from the water — the most beautiful girl Anas had ever seen — and he began rubbing his eyes in disbelief. He was looking straight at a magical water nymph, the likes of which he had never seen before.
Anas was struck dumb, unable to speak. The nymph smiled.
-I heard the conversation between you and your brother, and I want to know if you’re honest or not.
-And how’s that? Anas asked, wonderingly.
The nymph said:
-I will give you an enchanted treasure. If you spend it on good works, it will grow no less, and if you spend it on your personal pleasures, it will be a scourge upon you. So we’ll see if you’re honest or not.
At that moment, the nymph’s head disappeared beneath the surface of the water once more, and Anas felt a sharp tug on his fishing line. When he drew it out of the water, he discovered a wooden box, and he grabbed it and dragged it to shore, where he opened it to find a large collection of shiny gold dinars.
Anas looked at the box in astonishment and wonder, and then turned it around so that no one else would see it, since such a treasure would be coveted by many, and he tucked the box in his fish basket and covered it with a piece of cloth. Then he hefted it onto his shoulders and went home.
Inside his humble home, Anas sat in front of the open box, pondering the bright gold and thinking: What will I do? There was a great deal of money, and it could accomplish many things, but Anas also remembered his brother’s challenge, and his promise to the river nymph, and thus he decided to spend the money on good works.
The very next day, Anas began to distribute some of the money among the poor and needy, helping every person in distress. He acted carefully, so that no one would suspect he’d found a great hoard of money. He’d taken only a small portion of what was in the box and put it in his pocket before he went fishing, as usual. After catching a reasonable number of fish, he went to the market and sold what he’d caught in the river before he began to search for those who were in need so he could help them, until the money he’d taken with him ran out and he returned to his home, feeling pleased because he’d been able to help the needy and provide them some relief.
The next morning, when he opened the treasure box to take another portion, the found the box was as full as if he’d taken nothing from it the day before. He marveled at this and remembered what the nymph had told him: “If you spend it on good works, it will grow no less.” He realized that she’d told the truth, and that the treasure had gone back to how it had been, as though he had spent none of it.
So Anas took some of the gold dinars with him, and did just as he’d done the day before, and, when he returned home, he once again found the treasure had returned to its previous state, as if nothing of it had been spent. Things went on like this for several days, but the secret could not be kept forever.
A whisper traveled through the people that Anas the Fisherman was spending his money on the poor and the needy, helping many people with his money, and these whispers reached the ear of Safwan, who wondered at the idea that his poor brother was spending on others. And so he waited outside Anas’s house, until Anas returned carrying his fishing line and basket. Safwan stopped him, and said:
-Hello, my dear brother.
Anas was surprised at this friendly tone, which he would not have expected from his brother. He said:
-Hello, Safwan. And what do you want?
Safwan gave him a shrewd look.
-The people are talking about how you spend on the poor and the needy. Is this true?
Anas didn’t lie or challenge his brother, but said:
-Yes, that’s right?
Safwan put a hand on Anas’s shoulder.
-And where did you come by this money that you’re spending on the poor?
As Anas spoke, he removed Safwan’s hand from his shoulder.
-I received the blessings of God from the river.
Anas meant that he’d pulled the treasure with his hook from the river, while Safwan understood that he meant the fish, and said to him angrily:
-If fishing could’ve provided you this much money, then you would not have been poor all your life. You’re hiding a secret, and I will discover it myself.
Then Safwan walked away with an angry expression. Anas was annoyed as he headed to his small house, worried by his brother’s words. But he said to himself:
-No one can sway the will of God.
At home, Anas had a simple dinner of bread and cheese, as he’d bought his food with the money he’d earned from fishing, not from the treasure, in order to keep his word. Once he was laid out on his mattress, he began to think about his brother’s words, fearing that he would discover the treasure and seize it, and so he decided to hide the treasure behind a stone in the wall with no distinguishing marks; he marked it such that if an eye fell upon it, no one else would suspect there was something behind the wall.
The second thing that set him thinking was how his brother had talked about a poor fisherman like him giving alms to people, and he decided that, to be convincing in his good works, he must be more presentable, so the next day, he took a few dinars from the treasure to buy himself some better clothes, having persuaded himself that this was for his good works. But when he returned home, he found that these dinars had not been replaced, and he felt grieved, although he soon forgot about it, because there was still a lot of treasure.
Anas the Fisherman’s appearance had changed, and his brother went on watching him, suspiciously. He asked, spitefully:
-And all this is from that old fishing hook you throw in the river?
Anas decided to buy himself a boat, so that he could profit from it. That way, whenever he spent on good works, he could say he’d earned it from fishing in his bountiful boat, and no one could doubt him or the treasure. He didn’t realize it, but he’d begun to think of the treasure as his own, not as a trust given him by the nymph to spend on good works, and he began regularly reaching out for the dinars, spending on himself and his life, arguing with himself — using different reasons — that this was for good works.
His life began to improve. He fixed up his house and sold the small boat to buy a larger one. He didn’t feel the treasure growing smaller, and he forgot about good works, the poor, and his promise to the nymph until one day he looked into the wooden box and found it empty. Remembering the nymph’s words, he realized he’d lost the treasure by spending it to benefit himself, but he told himself:
-It’s all right, I still have my ship and my business.
At that moment, he remembered the rest of the nymph’s words: “If you spend it on good works, it will grow no less, and if you spend it on your personal pleasures, it will be a scourge upon you.”
He trembled in fear, as he didn’t know what would happen, but he knew the nymph had been telling the truth: It had happened that, when he’d spent on good works, the treasure had grown no less, so surely the rest of her words must also be true. As he thought about it, he saw a faint glimmer in a corner of the box; this attracted his gaze, and he reached a hand into the box and began to feel around until his hand touched a small piece of metal. This was the only gold dinar remaining, hiding in a corner of the box. Anas asked himself:
-What good is one dinar?
Anas didn’t spend the dinar, but kept it in his pocket all the time, thinking perhaps it would bring him luck, or as if he feared that, if he spent the last of the treasure, the last traces of enchantment would disappear forever, with nothing left to remember it. One day, Anas went out on his ship to make a voyage across the sea. A storm hit, and the ship was rocked violently until the masts were torn down and the sails ripped, and Anas found himself, nearly drowned, clinging to a wooden plank at sea until the storm abated.
Then he saw a blue light, and his beautiful nymph’s head emerged from the sea, saying:
-If not for that dinar, you would’ve drowned today.
She disappeared again, and he realized that the promise had been fulfilled, and that he had lost everything. So he swam until he reached the shore, where he lay, his breaths heaving, his handsome clothes torn. When he got back to his house, he found that it, along with his brother’s house, had been struck by high winds. Both houses had been turned to shattered ruins.
Safwan wept, and Anas felt a terrible grief. Yet the people who he’d helped, with his good works, came that very day to help Anas put his house to rights, and Safwan watched as he stood among the ruins of his house with no one to help him. Anas asked for those who were helping to aid his brother, too, and they rebuilt both homes as best they could.
Anas said to his brother:
-I thought you’d have learned the value of doing good.
Safwan slapped his head in shame, and said:
-Yes, I knew.
-And I also learned a lesson—that money can change a person.
At that moment, he took the golden dinar out of his pocket, and he told his brother the secret of the water nymph and what had happened between them, and the two brothers have been doing good works together since that day. And whenever the dinar is spent on good, it returns to them again to remind them that good abides.