Richard Gabriel with Judith Elter © 2009  All rights reserved


The Man with the Broken Leg      and      A Fistful of Sand




The Man with the Broken Leg




The time is long overdue to tell this true personal story where I was given a profound lesson in humility.


It was our first visit to Egypt and the desert.

We visited our good Brother friends the Coptic Monks, who live simply in a cave community way out in the Western desert.


We occupied a large Guest Cave, sleeping comfortably using padded mattresses on raised rock platforms, with the sparkle of thousands of tiny crystals embedded in the rock above. There was another lesser Guest Cave further along the escarpment, used mainly for occasional pilgrims who visited to renew themselves and pay respect to the Holy Spirit of the place.


I noticed someone who was clearly from outside the community.

He was a short spindly, wizened Egyptian man, maybe in his late 50’s.

He had the demeanour of someone like a farmer perhaps, who had put on his Sunday suit to visit… the same one that had been taken from the closet perhaps a dozen times in as many years for such purpose. It was as if the worker-Presence reached beyond the tired crease in his city trousers, and the faded 60’s pattern of his nylon shirt.


If his clothes and his persona seemed odd and out of place in this savage, beautiful wilderness, there was something else about him more obvious that caught my attention. He was limping badly; holding his left leg as stiff as a board as he walked about in obvious discomfort.


He looked extraordinarily out of place!


I asked one of our Monk friends to tell me about him.

He explained, the man lived in a community many miles from there.

He apparently made visits a couple of times a year to the desert Monastery.

He always seemed to catch a lift to the nearest roadway, at least 2 to 3 miles across the desert. He always opted to walk the last long stretch off road himself, as the start of a sort of Soul-cleansing exercise for himself.

He always felt he had to give best respect to the Monks by dressing (wholly inappropriately for the desert,) in his finest clothes.


There was a difference this trip.

The man had broken one leg in 2 places !






In Egypt… unless you have the means and wherewithal to afford the best medical treatment for anything serious, and if you are one of the sub-class, you do the best you can under the circumstances. For this man, the best was a simple splint, and a mile of bandage, binding his leg from top to bottom. He had actually managed to get across the desert, on foot, in his state, just to merge with the Holiness on offer there!  I was utterly amazed.


I thought I had seen everything! But the story was far from over.


A few days later we had completed our work and reluctantly it was time to leave. Our Four-wheel drive vehicles were all loaded. Our Police escorts had taken their seats inside. We said our goodbye until the next time, and off we set.


I have to tell you that when you see those film shots of vehicles in desert terrain, moving at high speed, and performing like a bucking raw stallion, they are not faked at all.


The  rocks and sand are uncompromising. They threaten to suck the tyres off the vehicle in one section, rip them out in another, or catapult them and the vehicle into the air in the next few yards.


Momentum is the key. You keep your foot down, grab tight, brace yourself and pray!!

If you are lucky, your head will not bang against the roof or windows on the way.


We had travelled less than half the distance to the road when we looked up ahead in astonishment. There was the man with the broken leg, hobbling impossibly along through the sand and blazing heat, still wearing his Sunday suit, and carrying nothing but a plastic supermarket bag.


We stopped the vehicles to give him a lift and did an immediate reshuffle. The man would sit in the back seat with me. He had to feed his splinted broken leg to rest along the side foot-well, and was satisfied to perch half on the seat and wedged between that and the driver’s backrest.


We drove on and managed only to drive about 30 yards over an enormous sand dune.

We took off into the air and landed with a bump and a loud scream of pain from our new passenger. He was nearly unconscious from the shock. It took many minutes for him to recover any composure at all.






I suggested a solution which was adopted.

 I reached my arm across from the nearside back seat to the driver’s backrest and this formed something of a cradle.

I draped spare clothing on my arm for extra padding.

The man sat fully on the back seat, elevating his splinted broken leg at about a 45 degree angle to then rest it on my arm. 

This acted as a shock absorber and we were able to get to the road with as little pain to him as possible.


At the road there was going to be a delay while we waited for our new Police Escort to arrive. This was convenient because it took a while to help extract the man and settle him at the roadside. Everyone was a bit preoccupied to sort the paperwork etc. so I stayed with the him.


He had hobbled over to the roadside and flopped down to sit and rest. I called our guide to translate for a moment. I was concerned because the man had no transport arranged. He had neither water nor provisions with him, and the police and locals clearly had no cares about it.


The man intended to just sit there and wait for the very occasional passing vehicle, hoping to get a lift. My heart went out to him as I saw the agony he was in.


I spoke to him using gesture. I raided our own store for spare bottles of water to give to him. He showed embarrassing deep gratitude to me, and downed half a bottle immediately.. I caught a glance in his eyes and realised he had seen the huddle of our group as they had been lighting cigarettes. I got the feeling he wanted one too, but had none.


I only had a plenty supply of finger rolling tobacco, so I was able to give him a pouch along with rolling papers and a spare cigarette lighter. I rolled a first one for us both. I thought he was going to faint with excited and humble gratitude when he realised I meant him to have them and keep them.


For a moment I was actually embarrassed at his reaction and the fuss he was making.

Our Guide came over again to see what was happening.

He translated the obvious to me..

The man was humbled and overwhelmed at the kindness he felt was being given.


I instructed our Guide to translate back to the man, that it was I who had to thank him for the opportunity, because he had taught me a lesson in humility.


The man then struggled to rise to his feet from the sand.


I helped steady him and he was weeping.

He had nothing of value on him whatsoever, and he probably lived in poverty that I would never experience.

But there was one thing I learned he did consider valuable.


Around his neck there hung a battered tin badge showing the worn image of the late, Saintly Coptic Pope Kirellos (of miracles)  He balanced on his good leg, lifted the old string from his own neck, and placed this prize over mine.


I wept too as I felt the crushing weight of his faith and the Power of his humble Spirit.

I have the badge beside me now as I type this.

It is never far away, and still mists my eyes as I remember.

I swear the eyes of Pope Kirellos are watching me from the badge.


The Man was truly blessed.


He came with nothing - But had everything.


We came with everything, but without his faith, we had nothing


It is a lesson I will never forget.








A Fistful of Sand




Have you ever picked up a fistful of sand

You know what I mean!
Like when you are on the beach, or in the garden or somewhere

A handful of sand; held just long enough to make a connection to it before you scat it back to the ground.

I had a handful of sand.

The Sun reached over my shoulder and I noticed the sparkle here and there as specs of rock-quartz reflected the light back into my eyes.     The texture was mixed.     It was powder dry.

I angled my hand slightly to study the piece of flat shell that was mixed in with it.
I knew the shell was old,...very old!

We had just uncovered several inches of sand from a crystallised fossil.
It was a big fish. A Colecanth or something similar.
Teffi said maybe it was a complete one, and,       
“If we could dig it out we would see!”
A Couple of scaled pieces had broken away; like lumps of sandstone covered in fine crystal.

Malai said, “Yes, take some; there are many here,”   
as if it was the most natural thing in the world to say!

“We can dig, next time you come.”

We had been taking a break, …and now we returned to it.

I noticed how beautifully the colour of their Monk’s robes contrasted the deep beige of the sand. I saw how Judith’s boot made a scoop in the sand when she sat down ....and as the sand grains slipped back to surround it again I wondered if the sand would slip inside.

In front of us and behind us the valley merged to the horizon.
The illusion of monotony ironed out the dunes and hills into Flatness and Distance.

I went back to my handful of sand.

The absolute perfect stillness probably only lasted a few seconds .....before someone spoke again.

But I noticed it.

A few seconds that were timeless.

It was as if the desert and the ancient fish had joined with us to give a collective sigh.

I felt the force of God move closer ....and I grabbed the Moment.

The ancient fossil didn’t fix the precious moment for me  ....It was the a handful of sand.



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