A humorous donkey detective novel for young adults, set in and around Jerusalem:
By Anam Zafar
For its 70th issue, Banipal magazine will honor the beloved Mahmoud Shukair, one of Palestine’s leading writers. His portrait will grace the cover, painted by Iraqi artist Sattar Kawoosh, and the magazine will include a special feature on his contribution to contemporary Arabic literature. Here at ArabLit, we celebrate the acclaimed, award-winning writer with a sample from his 2016 YA novel, Me, My Friend, and the Donkey. In 2018, the novel was selected by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) for its honor list of the top 100 children’s novels from around the world.
Me, My Friend, and the Donkey is a humorous detective adventure for teens. Set in and around Jerusalem, it tells the story of Mahmoud (the narrator) and Muhammad (his friend) as they try to find Muhammad’s stolen donkey. Inspired by detective novels and adventure movies, the pair assemble a group of friends to solve this mystery—some of them adopting code names, as seen in the sample. They do—eventually—find the donkey. Years later, Muhammad has moved to the US, and the pair still reminisce about donkeys whenever they meet or speak on the phone. Muhammad invites Mahmoud to visit him in the US; however, Mahmoud’s visa application is rejected. The novel is inspired by the real-life story of one of Shukair’s childhood friends.
An excerpt, in my translation:
A few weeks later, me and my friend Muhammad had the plan well underway. We were working on the investigation as hard as we could, inspecting a whole bunch of donkeys, mules, and horses, questioning all kinds of men, and looking everywhere we could think of. But we still hadn’t found Muhammad’s donkey.
One day, the vegetable seller told us she couldn’t complete her mission. She looked sorry, and explained that her eyes were tired out from studying all the people and donkeys passing through the market. We respected her decision.
“Don’t worry, we can still count on Layla and the others,” we said, after thanking her for working with us.
Just about two hours before sunset, Ocean Whale came running up to us. We noticed he was completely worn out from running so fast. If only we could have used a carrier pigeon instead! We’d really hoped to use one, to send news to each other. But when we realized nobody used birds to communicate anymore, we didn’t dwell on the idea for long.
Ocean Whale had come to tell us that he, Lightning Bolt, and Forest Lion had captured a man with a dark birthmark on his face, just like the thief’s. It wasn’t above his right eyebrow, but they’d decided the birthmark in itself was enough proof. As we listened, me and my friend Muhammad looked around the Friday market: there was no one around except a few cattle sellers.
We asked Ocean Whale how they’d managed to capture the man.
“We were following him, and he seemed suspicious of us. So we got closer and surrounded him, and Forest Lion said: ‘Would you like to introduce yourself?’ And the man scowled and said: ‘What do you want from me?’”
After seeing pure evil in the man’s eyes, Forest Lion decided to play a trick on him and said: “I, Forest Lion, mean you no harm. I am simply inviting you for a drink at the coffee shop.”
Ocean Whale went on: “Then the man followed us to the coffee shop, and when we got there, Forest Lion whispered in my ear to come and find you straightaway.”
The three of us sprinted along the pavement to the coffee shop. To my friend Muhammad’s surprise, that man was not the thief. Muhammad apologized and let him finish his drink. The man accepted the apology, thanked Forest Lion for the coffee, and left, seeming happy and a bit relieved.
We looked at each other awkwardly. Then we left the coffee house, too. Layla was standing at the market entrance, camera in hand—she wouldn’t let any donkey walk past without getting at least one shot of the animal and its owner. Glancing at her, Forest Lion said, “That was just our first try. Lots more will follow.” There was a proud swagger in his step, as if he was now a seasoned detective.
“Yeah, all you need now is to open your own prison, for all the people you’ll capture!” we said, jokingly.
Forest Lion nodded with determination. It seemed Lightning Bolt and Ocean Whale believed in what he’d said, too. Me and my friend Muhammad exchanged a look—we weren’t as convinced as the others. Then we decided to split up and go home before sunset. And that is what we did.
The next morning, on our way to school, Muhammad told me about the strange dream he’d had the night before.
“In the dream, we were going to Alhambra Cinema with Rahaf and Fadiya. We were excited because it was a Jeff Chandler movie. We’d already seen a few clips and couldn’t wait to watch the whole thing. So, one night, when it started playing, the four of us went to see it.
“Then, the surprise, the part that confused me the most: I saw my donkey coming toward me! He asked if he could come with us to the movie. I asked him, ‘How can you be here? Weren’t you stolen by a thief in broad daylight?’ He said, ‘Yes, I was. But, when night falls, I can go wherever I please. Near and far.’
“That really cheered me up, and I hugged him. But told him I was worried the ticket collector wouldn’t let him in. What he said next confused me even more. He told me he was a Jeff Chandler fan, too, and that he just had to watch him beating the bad guys. So I promised I’d make a deal with the ticket collector.
“The next strange thing is that the ticket collector was happy to see him. He even said it was no problem, the cinema had seats especially for donkeys. I was amazed. Then all of us—even the donkey—walked into the movie theater!”
I was amazed, too. “Your dream is a good omen,” I told my friend Muhammad. “We’ll find the donkey. I can feel it.”
“Let’s hope so,” my friend said. “God knows it’s all I want.”
Our sixth meeting was held one afternoon in Forest Lion’s house. As usual, his mother brought us cups of sweet, sugary tea. After thanking her, we waited for her to leave so we could continue the meeting. But she stayed standing there, quietly watching us.
Eventually, she spoke. “You’re all going after this poor thief and forgetting who the real crooks are.”
Her words surprised us. We fired question after question at her: Who were the ‘real crooks’? How did we go after them? How would we know who they were?
“You’ll understand when you’re older,” she said.
“How do you know the man who took the donkey is poor?” we asked.
“Oh, so you think he’s rich!?” she replied, sarcastically. “Maybe his children were hungry!”
“So, because his children were hungry, that makes it okay?” Muhammad asked.
“No,” she said, “but a hungry man is an angry man. You need to understand that.”
She threw her words at us and left. They fluttered around the room like a flock of pigeons. We stared at each other. The way we felt, we couldn’t continue the meeting.
“Don’t worry about her,” said Forest Lion, shaking us out of our thoughts. “She only said that because she’s mad at me.”
“Why’s she mad at you?”
“I got a bad grade on the math test.”
We told him how sorry we were, and then went back to the meeting. But we couldn’t shift the feeling that this mysterious world was full of paradoxes.
Mahmoud Shukair was born in Jerusalem in 1941. His novel Praise for the Women in the Family was shortlisted in 2016 for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. In 2011, he was awarded the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression. His book for young adults, al-Quds madinati al-ula (Jerusalem, My First City, 2014), was shortlisted for the 2015 Communication for Children’s Literature Award. Shukair has authored forty-five books, six television series, and four plays. His stories have been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Chinese, Mongolian and Czech. After spending time in Beirut, Amman and Prague, he now lives in Jerusalem.
Anam Zafar (anamzafar.com) translates from Arabic and French. Most recently, she was a mentee on the National Centre for Writing’s 2020/21 Emerging Translators Mentorship programme. She is on The Linguist magazine’s Editorial Board, and volunteers for the World Kid Lit online initiative.
Seeking publisher. More information about the book available upon request. Contact Anam Zafar via email@example.com or through her website, anamzafar.com.