Hanein’s Shoes

A traditional Arab story as recalled by Wes Stephenson

In the mid-1970’s, I was an American teenager living with my family in Saudi Arabia. One evening, while sitting in the rooftop garden of our home conversing with an English-speaking Saudi boy about my age, I shared with him that I was having a hard time learning Arabic; it seemed to me to be as “foreign” as a language could possibly be. The young Saudi laughed and told me that, even if I were to understand the meanings of Arabic words, I would still have great difficulty understanding a conversation between two Arabs. He explained that their language is very much filled with references to stories, fables, parables, and scriptures that are commonly known by the people of his culture but would not be familiar to me. By way of example, he told me the story of Hanein’s Shoes:

There once was a successful trader who traveled throughout Arabia with his great caravan of camels, goats, tents, servants, wives and children. He had made a small fortune as a cunning negotiator by trading goods he had obtained at bargain prices in one city for items valued much higher in another city. He took great delight in the admiration of his family and servants each time he reported a profitable transaction or related the details of a crafty trade like a mighty hunter explaining how he tracked and conquered his prey.

One evening the shrewd trader camped his caravan at an oasis just a few miles from a city known for its large and boisterous marketplace. In the morning, his family and servants waved him good-bye as he confidently headed to town accompanied by ten camels; seven loaded with goods for trade, and three more camels to assist in bringing back his gains.

Throughout the morning, the trader investigated his opportunities, searching the market for those items that could bring him the best profits when he traveled on to the next city. In the course of his search, he came across the shop of Hanein, known throughout Arabia as the maker of the finest shoes a man could own. Wearing a pair of Hanein’s shoes was a symbol of prosperity and the trader, curious to know the price of these shoes, inquired of the cobbler.

When Hanein stated his price, the trader exploded into a display of mock disbelief that Hanein’s shoes could be so expensive. But Hanein knew the value of his product and was proud of the craftsmanship represented by his shoes and was not interested in haggling over price; he simply turned his back to the trader and wished him Godspeed. The trader became so frustrated by Hanein’s unwillingness to negotiate his price that he told the shoemaker that he would not own a pair of his ugly shoes if they were the last pair in all of Arabia. With that, the trader went about his business and made many profitable transactions throughout the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Hanein was deeply insulted and felt that this trader needed to be taught a lesson. Hanein took a new pair of shoes off the shelf, closed his shop, and headed to the road that led to the oasis.

When the trader had finally completed his day of bargaining, all ten camels were loaded with valuable goods and he began leading them back toward the oasis. After traveling a short distance, the trader was surprised to find, lying in the middle of the road, one brand-new Hanein shoe. Excited, he ran to picked it up and began a quick search for the other shoe. When he could not find the mate to the shoe, he realized that just one shoe was of no use, so he tossed it aside and, after one last glance around, continued his journey.

After traveling another mile down the road, the traveler saw, lying in the road just as before, another Hanein shoe! With a shout of joy, he ran to the shoe and found it to be the match to the shoe he had discovered just a mile before. Delighted at the prospect of obtaining a pair of Hanein shoes at no cost whatsoever, he left his camels by the side of the road and hurried back to where he had discarded the first shoe. After retrieving the other shoe, the trader returned to find his camels and goods gone from where he had left them and he knew that Hanein had taken the camels and all his goods in exchange for the shoes.

The sun had set but it’s orange light still held to the sky when the trader’s family and servants spotted a solitary figure walking slowly toward them on the road leading from the city. As the man approached the camp, they recognized the master trader and ran to meet him, at first excited by his return, then puzzled that there were no treasure-laden camels. They asked him if he had conducted his trades at the market. He slowly nodded his head as he stared back up the dusty road toward the city. They asked him what he had traded for. Without looking away from the road, a slight but respectful smile lifted the corners of his mouth. He raised the hem of his robe, revealing the esteemed sandals as he proclaimed, “Today, I traded all for a pair of Hanein’s shoes.”

The young man who told me this story then explained that, to this day in Arabia, when one is asked how he has fared for the day, the answer is sometimes simply, “Hanein’s shoes”. Nothing more needs to be said; the story is universal and all can laugh and sympathize with the hapless trader who found, at the end of the day, he had traded much more than he intended to for something he thought he needed.

I have often thought of this story as I’ve witnessed aquantances trade family relations for career advancement or swap spiritual growth for short-term pleasure. It’s all “Hanein Shoes”.