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The Brothers

A Hausa Tale from West Africa retold by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane. From Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs: A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents (Boston: Skinner House, 2010).

Once there was and twice there wasn't two old brothers who were inseparable travelers: one was named Life, the other Death. One time, after journeying across a desert, they came to a refreshing green oasis where they were greeted by the spring-keeper.

"Would you like some cool water to drink?" he asked them. Both the men nodded their assent. Dipping his gourd into the pool, the spring-keeper added, "It is the custom to let the elder drink first. Which one of you is the elder?"

Life spoke up first. "I am the elder," he said, stepping forward.

"No," Death contradicted, "I am the elder." And he stepped forward too, next to his brother.

Life smiled, but said, "That is impossible. Things must live before they die."

Death responded, "On the contrary, things begin in death, are born, live for a time and then return to death."

Said Life, "That's not how it works at all. All things come from the Creator, live and then die. Death began after the first creature lived and died."

Said Death, a spark in is eyes: "Death is the before and after of all life. Things arise from it and return to it therefore, death is the elder."

The two debated like this next to the spring, and had yet to drink a drop of water. Finally, they asked the spring-keeper to judge truly who the eldest was.

"Gentlemen, I cannot say," said the spring-keeper. "What you've each told me is true." He looked at the two brothers. "How can one speak of death without life? Death is like a desert until rain falls, then, all the living things sprout miraculously from the rocks and sand." He smiled. "And how can one speak of life without death, to which all things are certain to return?" The spring-keeper paused. "Neither can exist without the other: the Creator wears both those two masks. Neither of you is elder or younger."

He held out a single gourd. "Drink now, together, and go in peace."

And the two travelers took the gourd, drank their fill, and headed off in the comfort of each other's company.

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Last updated on Friday, November 7, 2014.

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