Hidden Treasures: The Egyptian Woman who Saw my Thirst

Joel Carillet's picture


There have been times – and they have never been pleasant – when on the road I thought that I could wail like an African, standing by as something primal tore loose from the core of my being and rocketed out of my body, demanding to be heard.


Perhaps this is because, on the road, one’s raw material is laid open more plainly, is more exposed to the elements and more noticeable even to oneself. Perhaps this is because travel is just a brutal experience (depending on what you see, or what you experience, or what you learn). John Updike once wrote that a “Third World woman can make an inhuman, piercing, grieving noise right from the floor of her soul as she mourns the loss of her dead but we [Westerners] are too frightened to explore the high and lows of life so we live in the mid-range of reasonable expectations.” I understand what Updike is saying here, and travel has at times made me feel like anything but a Westerner. I have learned many things through travel, including what it is to wail.


Though rare, I have at times gone nights without sleeping, lying in a room with thin, stained walls, trying not to wail, well beyond the mid-range of reasonable expectations and emotions.


And why do I say all this now? Because when you have discovered the capacity to wail – when you have learned what it is to be absolutely raw and shorn – you discover other things too, not least what it is to be blessed by a stranger.



Aswan, Egypt


Once in the Egyptian town of Aswan, in one of those periods when I felt more Third World than like Updike’s Westerner, I was dehydrated from a long day in the sun, my thirst extreme as I walked down the street at night. I saw a juice stand and walked to the counter and said to the man, “I’m so thirsty. Do you have orange juice?” He had none. But immediately upon hearing my declaration of thirst – and I imagine she could see it on my face too – a conservatively dressed young Muslim woman turned to me. Having taken the first sip of the sugarcane juice she had just bought, she lowered the glass and placed it in my hands. “Drink,” she said, her eyes filled with compassion, looking directly into mine.


I placed it to my lips.  I took two swallows and extended the glass back but her hands did not rise from the counter. “All,” she said, her eyes insistent. “Drink all."


This nameless woman’s gesture, her giving me a 50-cent glass of juice, carried great weight in that moment, a weight that would not have been so great if I had only known what it was to live in the mid-range of expectations. What she did could not return me to the middle range, but it could remind me that in the absolute lows of life, there were other places in life too, places where I once had been.


And perhaps, through the nourishment and grace of others, where I might go again.


Desert outside Aswan


A Muslim woman in Aswan



Joel Carillet, chief editor of Wandering Educators, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, follow his regular photoblog, or purchase prints, visit www.joelcarillet.com.




Comments (1)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    14 years 3 months ago

    joel - this is so very powerful. INCREDIBLE writing, you've taken us to a space that not many are comfortable with - and shown the small gestures that are the joys of humanity. thank you.


    Jessie Voigts, PhD

    Publisher, wanderingeducators.com

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