For hours I had been traveling up the Nile Valley, from Luxor to Cairo, on a train jammed with Egypt's working poor. Having been one of the last to board, I had no choice but to take one of the worst seats. So along with maybe a dozen other men, I sat scrunched on the floor in the rear of the car, my chin resting on my knees.
The train followed the route of the world's longest river, the Nile. Egypt was once a great civilization because of the Nile's gifts of water and silt, and today the river remains the reason the country can sustain a population of 80 million people, the largest in the Middle East.
At 1 a.m. I reached Cairo and took a taxi to Tahrir Square, the city's central hub. I was hungry and, having been to Cairo before, knew that while most of the city was closed down at this hour, a couple of fast-food restaurants would be open there.
The taxi dropped me off across the street from Hardee's. A moment later, just as I was about to open the restaurant door, two street children pounced on me with plaintive cries for food.
Had the square been dense with cars, people, and noise, I probably wouldn't have noticed them so clearly. But now it seemed as though there were no people in all of Egypt except these two boys and me, standing together in the chilly January air.
Being a veteran traveler as well as having once lived in Egypt for a year, I was no stranger to children begging or people asking me for help. But seldom had I been so moved by the sincerity of the plea.
In my broken Arabic I asked when they had last eaten – about 16 hours ago, they said – and then I turned to look through the window beside us. For the boys, to look through this window was to gaze upon a world inaccessible to them; for me, it was to see familiar ground.
I turned back to the boys and asked them to wait while I went inside to buy them food. Since I was traveling on a tight budget and was even skipping meals on occasion, part of me identified with the children's hunger. But mostly, the children reminded me how rich I really was.
At the counter I ordered two hamburgers for the boys. Then, as the burgers were being cooked, I overcame my remaining stinginess and bought them one of Hardee's delicious, big chocolate chip cookies, figuring they could split it.
When their food was ready, I walked back outside and invited them in to eat with me. "No!" they cried, terror-stricken. "We do not belong in such a nice place!"
Unable to persuade them otherwise, I brought the food out, and as they took the burgers, they showered me with 30 seconds of nonstop blessings, praying that Allah would bless me always.
After they finished, I reached into the bag and pulled out the cookie, extending it for them to take. Both boys fell silent now, and tears welled up in their eyes as they insisted this was too much.
They refused the cookie six times.
I knelt down beside them, looked into their eyes, and marveled at what was before me: two destitute boys who asked only for what they needed, unwilling to take a crumb more.
Still on my knees, I spoke with the same sincerity with which they had refused the cookie. "Please," I said, "take this cookie. It is yours now, not mine."
And on this seventh attempt, after a long and silent pause, they held out their hands and took the cookie.
I had seen many wonders in Egypt – the Pyramids, the Aswan High Dam, the temples of Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the treasures of King Tut. But it was this scene outside Hardee's that left me truly awestruck, for here I found people who, amid their grubby poverty and outcast existence, taught me – a "rich man" from the West – a lesson I've long remembered.
The events of that night are now in the past, but there are moments when I'm transported back to that empty square and to the earnest faces of two boys who, upon receiving a simple burger, took to praising God and to praising me.
I'm reminded of them, for example, when I hear again the story of a Pharaoh whose heart was so hardened that he ignored the desperate cries of his kingdom's Hebrew slaves. The slaves longed for wholeness, for the easing of their burdensome yoke, but the Pharaoh did not listen to their cries.
The story of Pharaoh reminds me of the two boys not only because both events were set in Egypt but also because, in the Pharaoh, I see something of myself. The imperfect heart, which so often fails to incline itself to the cries of those around us, isn't just a problem for ancient kings; it seems to be a chronic ailment of the human condition.
Similarly, the ones who cry for help are not just ancient slaves read about in the pages of a book; they are people we come upon even in the routine of our lives.
And this is why, five years later, I still ask God's blessings for those two Egyptian boys. I pray as sincerely as they had for me, remembering that while they had nothing material to give, they had given me something greater: an awareness of my spiritual poverty and a desire for a softer heart.