The Smuggler

Women and girls in Ethiopia walk next to a pair of donkeys

There are different versions of this Middle Eastern folktale; this version is just one way to tell it. You can find storytelling tips on WorshipWeb, but this story is also followed by suggestions about integrating this story into worship.

At the border crossing* in a country far away from here, and many years ago, a border guard noticed a traveler approach: she was leading a donkey whose back was stacked with heavy bales of straw.

The guard's job, among other things, charged him with making sure that travelers didn't smuggle* goods into his country. Watching the woman approach, the guard's intuition* told him to be suspicious of her.

He stopped the woman, asking to look inside of the straw bales on the donkey's back. He couldn't find anything valuable in the straw. "But I'm certain you're smuggling something," the official said, as the woman crossed the border. She merely smiled.

Now each week, for years, the woman came to the border with her donkey bearing bales of straw. Although the guard searched and searched the straw bundles on the donkey's back, then the hems of the traveler's robes, then inside of her food and water bundles, he never could find anything valuable hidden in them.

Many years later, after the official had retired, he happened to spot the woman in a marketplace and said, "Please tell me, I beg you. Tell me, what were you smuggling?"

"Whatever do you mean, sir?" the woman replied.

"I'm no longer a guard, and even if I could get you into trouble, I'd never do so. But for years, I knew you were smuggling something, and I only want my curiosity satisfied so that I can die in peace, and not wonder any further."

The woman leaned in. "You're right, then. Every time I crossed the border into your country, I was smuggling...."

"What?" cried the retired guard.


*If you tell this story with small children present, you may want to stop and make sure they understand—or can supply the definitions of—"border," "smuggling," and "intuition."

This story can be used in many different ways. Decide, in advance, how to orient the story. Is it about seeing things with new lenses (much in the way that anti-oppression work asks us to recognize our privilege)? Is it about power, and the care that we take when we think that something's wrong? Or is it about surprise, illustrating that life unfolds in ways that delight and surprise us when we least expect it?